Tuesday 18 December 2018

Sun sets on gilded life of crown prince of Luggala

Guinness heir Garech Browne lived a champagne lifestyle but he was also a true patron of Irish culture, writes Liam Collins

Garech Browne at Luggala
Garech Browne at Luggala
Paul McGuinness with Sarah Owens and Brenda Jordan in Luggala for the sale of estate ‘clutter’. Photo: David Conachy
Tara Browne, Garech’s brother who was immortalised in song by The Beatles
A portrait of Garech’s mother Oonagh by Philip de Laszlo
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Some of those who became lifelong friends (the poet John Montague and film-maker John Boorman among them) would at first dislike the young Garech Browne, believing him to be a trust fund toff playing at being Irish with his Aran sweaters, tweed suits, his interest in antique horse-drawn carriages and the lavish entertainments at his remote castellated Wicklow home.

However, they would soon discover that despite his Guinness fortune and homes in Paris, London and elsewhere, his interest in Irish culture was not only genuine, but something he would take to a world stage through the formation of Claddagh Records and the recordings of the music of The Chieftains and the poetry of Seamus Heaney and John Montague.

Through the vast network of friends and relatives in the Guinness dynasty and the British establishment, and his mother Oonagh's eclectic artistic salon, he had an entre to a world of privilege, money, power and sex from a very young age.

No matter where he went, whether it was his Wicklow fastness, Luggala, his Dublin home, Woodtown House, near Rathfarnham, the family's exclusive villa on the French Rivera, or a suite in The Ritz hotel in London, Garech Browne, like his mother, seemed to trail in his wake pipers, poets, musicians, artists and a fun-loving set who drank, played music, declaimed, had affairs with each other and entertained on a royal scale.

The Honourable Garech Domnagh Browne or De Brun and even Onorach a Brun, had travelled from Paris to London and was lunching with one of his oldest friends, the 17th Viscount (Nicholas) Gormanston, on Saturday, March 10 when he collapsed and died at the age of 78.

His death brings to an end the gilded age at Luggala and the "golden Guinness girls" Aileen (Plunket), Maureen (Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava) and his mother Oonagh (Lady Oranmore and Browne) - the daughters of Ernest Guinness who in their turn became the chatelaines of Luttrellstown Castle in Dublin; Clandeboye, Co Down, and Luggala in Wicklow - as well as various beautiful homes scattered around the world.

Oonagh, the youngest, had married the Hon Philip Kindersley at the age of 19, but after their children Gay and Tessa were born, the couple divorced in 1936. The same year Oonagh married Dominick, the 4th Lord Oranmore and Browne and with the outbreak of World War II, she brought her children to her husband's 'family seat' Castle MacGarrett, near Claremorris, Co Mayo.

She had the children quickly conferred with Irish citizenship to the anger of their grandfather, Lord Robert Kindersley, founder of the National Savings Committee which raised funds for the British war effort. It resulted in a bitter custody battle in the British and Irish courts attended by endless publicity in the months that followed.

Oonagh and Dominick, or 'Dom', as he was known to friends, had three boys - Garech, a stillborn child known as Baby Browne, and Tara who was born in March, 1945. Their early years were spent largely in Castle MacGarrett and later in Luggala.

At the age of 14, their half-sister Tess, who suffered from asthma, was given a diphtheria injection to which she had an extreme reaction and died in August 1946 of cardiac arrest. She was buried beneath a white obelisk at Luggala. It was not the only tragedy that would touch the Browne family in the years that followed.

Ernest Guinness had settled £1m on each of the three girls before his death in 1949 and they were also beneficiaries of various multi-million-pound Guinness family trust funds. Without a care in the world, Oonagh had run up an overdraft of £650,000 during her 14-year marriage to her second husband Dom.

"My parents were divorced in 1950, at which time Luggala became my mother's chosen spot, having been given to her as a wedding present by her father when she married my father," wrote Garech Browne in the introduction to Robert O'Byrne's book Luggala Days. "People were drawn to Luggala by my mother's wit and beauty and by the atmosphere and beauty of the place."

Even Aileen Plunket sometimes preferred entertaining at Luggala rather than her more staid stately home Luttrellstown, bringing her friend, the actor Douglas Fairbanks to stay. "With Fairbanks came both former model Sylvia Ashley-Cooper, with whom he was then having an affair (and whom he would later marry), and her husband Anthony, Lord Ashley. This kind of relaxed attitude to the vows of matrimony was a feature of life at Luggala," wrote O'Byrne.

The list of guests who made their way down the long and winding road to the stunning white painted lakeside home on the shores of Lough Tay was like a who's who of the international social set, sprinkled with journalists who would write it up as the new "romantic Ireland".

"Oonagh's playgrounds were London, Dublin, New York, Paris, Venice and the Cote d'Azur, but she always returned to Luggala for Christmas," wrote Frederick Mullally in his book The Silver Salver: The story of the Guinness family. "She thrived on the iconoclastic banter of such Dubliners as the painter Sean O'Sullivan who on one occasion in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel expressed, after staring intently at the lithe figure of the Guinness heiress, a wish to paint her. To Oonagh's response, 'Why?' he retorted, 'Because you have an arse on you like an orang-utan'."

Her younger son Tara had secretly married Noreen (Nicky) MacSherry, the 22-year-old daughter of a Northern Irish farmer, when he was 19. They had two children Dorian and Julian, who would become the subject of another celebrated custody battle after Tara deposited them with their granny Oonagh in Luggala in August, 1966. Later, driving his Lotus Elan at some speed, he crashed into a lamppost and was killed at the age of 21, giving rise to a line in The Beatles' song A Day In The Life "he blew his mind out in a car".

After his funeral, he was buried beneath a temple on the lakeshore at Luggala that is visible to those driving between the Sally Gap and the village of Roundwood.

"Custody of the children - with legal access to Nicky - was given to Oonagh who by now had more or less abandoned Britain and Ireland for her homes in France," wrote Mullally. "She had bought a beautiful villa, La Jolie, on Cap d'Antibes, and was seldom without a houseful of her own and her relatives' children - entertained in the Irish manner, with gaiety and lavish generosity. Her entire domestic staff was Irish. Musicians were flown out from Dublin and Dosha Young, who owned a nearby villa, recalls parties thrown by Oonagh when a mob of guests (including half the Irish Cabinet) were led by the pipers and their hostess in prancing, singing, 'crocodiles' throughout every room in the villa."

The person Garech said he learned most from was the painter Lucien Freud, who later married his cousin Lady Caroline Blackwood, and was painting his portrait at Luggala when the house caught fire in 1956. The house was quickly rebuilt and Lucian subsequently introduced the young Garech to the painter Francis Bacon and brought Brendan Behan, Anthony Cronin and Patrick Swift into the Luggala 'set' and its exotic parties.

"There are trees associated with people and places I love. Gloria MacGowran planted a sycamore in memory of Samuel Beckett, Gerald Hanley planted a crab apple, my mother planted a medlar, Marianne Faithfull a weeping wych elm, the Rolling Stones, with the exception of Keith Richards, planted ginkgos around Tara's grave, as did Seamus Heaney," said Garech.

Guests came and went with abandon, some coming briefly and staying for weeks, other flitting through its comfortable rooms and walking in the hills. A galaxy of writers, sculptors, film makers, poets, politicians, philosophers, the British and Irish aristocracy and rock stars mixed with assorted members of the extended Guinness clan until eventually Oonagh ceded control of the house to Garech.

Although she married for a third time (a New York-based dress designer, Miguel Ferreras, some say at the instigation of the film director John Huston), the love of her later life was the journalist and writer Robert Kee. Oonagh later moved to the Channel Islands but finally returned to the Wicklow estate, where she died on August 2, 1995.

Garech Browne was born in another Guinness family home, Glenmaroon, near Chapelizod, Dublin, on June 25, 1939. He was christened in St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin with seven sets of godparents and educated at Castle Park in Dalkey, Co Dublin. Unlike his father Dom, Garech was not schooled at Eton but was sent instead to the Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland from which he absconded - before being sent on the advice of Lucien Freud to Bryanston, a public school in Dorset.

At the age of 15 he moved to Paris, where his mother kept an apartment, and more or less looked after himself - with the help of a retinue of servants. He returned to Dublin in 1956, where he claimed to have lived on £10 a week in a rented mews in Quinn's Lane, behind St Stephen's Green, getting to know the bohemian pubs, its writers and artists like the sculptor Eddie Delaney, who later did pieces for the grounds of Luggala.

His interest in Irish music stemmed from hearing Delia Murphy, the daughter of a Mayo neighbour, singing traditional airs and listening to the programmes of Ciaran Mac Mathuna on Radio Eireann. Though he tried to learn Irish, he never mastered the language.

In the early 1960s, he was a friend of the pipers Leo Rowsome, Ronan Browne, Eamon de Buitlear and the group Ceoltoiri Chualann and eventually established Claddagh Records, which was incorporated in October, 1964 with his younger brother Tara and the well-known psychiatrist Ivor Browne as directors. Ivor Browne and John Montague were later listed as equal owners of the shares in the recording and music publishing company. Out of it grew The Chieftains, and Garech continued the traditions of his mother Oonagh in entertaining and collecting musicians and poets.

Gloria MacGowran, the wife of Abbey actor Jack MacGowran, who was often in his company, described the ribald life of the Guinness heir and his retinue: "People call his friends sycophants, his circus, his court. Outsiders see a palish man... frittering away his time on licensed premises, his own court jesters. The puritanical see him as the living sources of the seven deadly sins, a self-indulgent reprobate. The pompous see him as a traitor to his class.

"Few see the man who has revitalised Celtic art and music, realise the passion, and notice the razor mind - even when it's their own face that is being nicked."

In his book on the Guinness clan Frederick Mullally, who interviewed Garech Browne in Dublin, wrote: "His Irishness comes out in his addiction to the gregariousness of tavern life; his gallantry in the fact that he is at his best, even in those predominantly male preserves, with a stunning female by his side.

"And whether it be in the smart cocktail lounge of Dublin's Shelbourne Hotel, at the long bar in Neary's, in Chatham Street, or at the York Minster in Soho, the most animate group of tipplers will be found gathered around the short stocky figure with its Yeats-style beard, its fair hair, ribbon-tied into a pigtail, its amused blue eyes complementing the soft dreamy smile of an Eastern guru."

Music and the love of beautiful Oriental women seem to have defined the custodian of Luggala. According to legend his first romance was with a housemaid there, for which transgression he was banished for a time. At the age of 25 he fell for a Chinese girl studying medicine in Dublin, followed by a beautiful Jamaican lady, followed by 'Tiger' Cowley, the widow of the 5th Earl of Cowley, a relationship which lasted for about five years before he fell for a Japanese film producer.

Then he met Princess Harshad Purna, the 26-year-old daughter of the Maharaja of Morvi, a small Indian principality. English educated, independently wealthy and beautiful she "served a two-year apprenticeship as a saloon-bar companion" before they were married in a Hindu ceremony in Bombay in 1981. Garech was on his way back from visiting her in Singapore when he died.

While I can't claim to have been among the celebrities and artists who partied at Luggala, I did spend a marvellous sunny evening there on the eve of an auction of some of its vast contents, or "clutter" as Browne described it, in May, 2006. A helicopter came from Punchestown races, bringing Paul McGuinness, John Hurt and Garech's friend Sarah Owens, and we drank wine by the lakeshore as evening shadows fell over the brooding cliffs with the dramatic waterfall cascading into Glenmacnass.

Garech graciously gave me a tour of the house and invited me to stay and join a session with the McPeakes. Alas, fearing I wouldn't get out of the valley for days, I reluctantly declined, something I've long regretted.

Much of the contents were sold (raising €2.9m) but the Francis Johnston Speaker Clock from the old Irish Parliament (now the Bank of Ireland) in College Green was bought by a Mayo businessman after it failed to reach the reserve and given on loan to Leinster House.

The last time I met Garech, he was - as usual - drinking a glass of champagne, at the Irish Book Awards.

Garech Browne's final official address was not Luggala, but the Villa Marguerite in Guernsey. The Luggala Estate Company which owned the house and lakeshore at Lough Tay and 5,000 acres of wild woodland and mountain, was dissolved in 1972 and the estate absorbed into the Guinness Trust. The estate and charming house, once rented by the pop star Michael Jackson, is currently for sale with a price tag of between €25 and €28m.

Sunday Independent

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