Thursday 19 July 2018

The patron saint of 'otherwhere'

He enjoyed unimaginable wealth, boasted A-list friends, but Garech de Brún felt a deep connection to Ireland and its culture. John Meagher on the loss of a legendary patron of the arts

Dandy: Garech Browne at his beloved Luggala home in Co Wicklow
Dandy: Garech Browne at his beloved Luggala home in Co Wicklow
Mick Jagger and Chrissie Shrimpton who were visitors to the stately pile

It was the most spectacular party imaginable. It was April 1966 and everyone who was anyone had been invited to the Luggala Estate, the stately pile hidden away in the Wicklow Mountains, to celebrate the 21st birthday of Guinness heir, London society boy, race-car driver and sometime Vogue model, Tara Browne.

The host was his 26-year-old brother, Garech, and guests included Mick Jagger and Chrissie Shrimpton, Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg. The entertainment was provided by the Lovin' Spoonful, who had been flown in from America at a cost of $10,000.

As Paul Howard writes in his acclaimed biography of Browne, "for one weekend, the world capital of cool was transported to a remote corner of the Irish countryside" to celebrate the birthday of a young man who was "the living, breathing quintessence of Swinging London, a dandy with the air of a young prince".

A couple of months later, tragedy struck when Tara Browne was killed when he crashed his speeding car in Chelsea, London. It was a fate that would inspire John Lennon to write the opening lines of the emblematic Beatles song, 'A Day in the Life'.

Mick Jagger and Chrissie Shrimpton who were visitors to the stately pile
Mick Jagger and Chrissie Shrimpton who were visitors to the stately pile

Garech was devastated and even today Tara's bedroom at Luggala is kept exactly the same as it was in 1966, a shrine-like tribute to a young man who lived too fast, died too young and "blew his mind out in a car".

By contrast, Garech - who died last weekend - lived to 78, and appeared to savour every day of a life less ordinary. Tributes poured in - including an especially heartfelt one from President Michael D Higgins - and it has been remarked that we are unlikely to see his like again.

Cliché it may be, but Garech Browne - or Garech de Brún, as he preferred to be known - really was one of a kind, a flamboyant Anglo-Irish eccentric who lived a gilded life of fabulous wealth but who felt an indelible connection to the land of his birth and did more than most to champion Irish culture and music.

'Aristocrats, not snobs'

Howard - who got to know de Brún well in the years it took to research and write the book - notes that Garech and the other Guinesses "were aristocrats, but not snobs". Not for him a desire to hide himself away from the world, cosseted by unimaginable wealth. He was much too social and downright curious for that.

By the time of that celebrated party in April 1966, Garech was already a key part of Ireland's cultural renaissance. In 1959, while still in his teens, he had founded Claddagh Records, with the laudable aim of preserving traditional Irish music and encouraging its growth.

It was de Brún who had effectively brought The Chieftains together - he encouraged his friend Paddy Moloney to record an album to showcase to the world just how special Irish music could be - and the result was the self-titled Chieftains album in 1964. It was originally supposed to be a one-off, but the group - and their music - become so widely celebrated that they are still going today, one of the most important Irish cultural exports of the past half-century.

The success of The Chieftains would fuel a resurgence of trad, with Planxty achieving similar levels of international acclaim in the 1970s. Another of his acquaintances, Liam Óg O Flynn - the great uileann pipe player and a founding member of Planxty - died this week also.

And Claddagh Records would help achieve works of national importance such as recordings of actor Jack MacGowran reading the writings of Samuel Beckett.

While de Brún was born into fantastic wealth, he threw open the doors of Luggala - originally a hunting lodge built in 1787 - to a large cast of Irish musicians, artists, writers and poets. He was both a friend and patron of such figures as the temperamental painter, Francis Bacon, and his interest in the arts - and creative people - seemed insatiable. A sense of his passion to make his home something of a hub for artists is captured in Robert O'Byrne's book, Luggala Days.

Seamus Heaney was one of many who considered de Brún to be a friend and the Nobel Prize-winner once memorably described visits to Luggala as crossing "a line into a slight otherwhere". It may have been less than an hour's drive from Dublin, but if felt like another world, entirely free of convention. The breathtaking landscape would find its way into several films, including Braveheart and King Arthur.

De Brún inherited a love of both culture and entertaining from his mother Oonagh. A direct descendent of Arthur Guinness, this 'Golden Guinness Girl' was presented with Luggala as a wedding present from her father Ernest after marrying for the second time in 1937 to Lord Dominick Browne. Soon writers and artists as diverse as Seán O'Casey and Lucian Freud would be coming to stay at Luggala and walking along the fringes of the famously inky Lough Tay which lies within the boundaries of the 5,000-acre estate.

Garech's invitations would continue for the rest of his life. He reached out to creative people all over the world, including Michael Jackson at a period when the star was reviled following allegations of inappropriate behaviour with a child. Jackson stayed at Luggala for several weeks and the estate manager recalls him asking him to remove the painting of "the freaky looking guy staring down at him" in the bedroom.

For others, Luggala and de Brún left an entirely happy memory. English poet Robert Graves wrote to him after a stay that he would "never forget a square yard of your domain. Nor the herds of deer, nor the fish jumping from the lake, nor the shining mica on the sand. The long splendid table where we dined and the proud position you gave me at your side which implied my gift of the first helping of food".

Despite his gregarious disposition, de Brún rarely courted the media, but he did give a revealing interview to Miriam O'Callaghan on her RTÉ radio show last year.

"I've had a wonderful life because I've been very lucky," he told the broadcaster. "I've met all kinds of fascinating people, endlessly so, and I've enjoyed every second and I still do." But he said he would rather not have been born.

"If I'd been asked if I'd rather begin this voyage, I would be delighted not to have done so. I think it's frightful to bring anyone into this world. There are lots of reasons to go on and get things done, but it doesn't stop life being basically hell. I happen to be alive, so of course I celebrate it, but if I was given the choice, I wouldn't be alive."

Over a period of 20 years, de Brún had painstakingly restored Luggala to its original grandeur - at a cost he estimated to be €4m - and last year he put the house and the entire estate on the market. Valued at €28m, he hoped it would be purchased by the State and he could come to an arrangement where the existing estate staff would be kept on and he would be permitted to spend three months of the year there until his death. The property is still on the market.

Garech de Brún was married to Princess Harshad Purna Devi, an Indian aristocrat, whom he wed in 1981. In latter years, he had spent most of his life in London and Singapore, where his wife lives. The couple had no children.

Tara Browne is buried on the shore of Lough Tay and it's thought that Garech will be laid to rest there also - a pair of brothers united after 52 years.


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