Thursday 23 January 2020

'He was the saddest, loneliest man I ever met' - the dark side of Garech Browne

Garech Browne was wealthy, privileged, a patron of the arts, with many famous friends who frequented days-long drinking sessions at his magnificent Co Wicklow home. However, all was not what is seemed. Liam Collins talks to his banished nephew who reveals how the Guinness heir was a lonely, tortured soul who was often cruel, and a spendthrift who squandered his fortune

50 years later, Garech Browne at 67. Photo: David Conachy
50 years later, Garech Browne at 67. Photo: David Conachy
Garech Browne walking in the grounds of his estate, Luggala, in 2016
Garech at his estate with his good friend, the film-maker John Boorman
Garech with the artist Francis Bacon
Garech with friends and relatives at a memorial tree-planting for Kim's father, Gay Kindersley. According to Kim, Garech behaved very badly to those around him that day
Garech, beautifully dressed as usual, at the Roundwood Inn in Co Wicklow. This pub was where Kim Kindersley last set eyes on his uncle before his death
The Guinness heir with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, a band Browne helped form
Garech at Luggala with Desmond, a close relative. This is the last photo taken of the aristocrat at the Wicklow estate
Actors John Hurt, far left, and Matthew Modine, left, with an acquaintance at Browne's house
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Outwardly, he was a wealthy, aristocratic Guinness heir, bon vivant and a pillar of Irish cultural life, with a circle of famous friends as he moved with leisured ease between his iconic Irish estate, the Ritz in London, or in India, at one of the palaces of Princess Harshad Purna Devi, his wife.

Inwardly, Garech Browne was a tortured alcoholic, a spendthrift who laid waste to his magnificent inheritance, complained bitterly and endlessly to servants and waiters, and often behaved in a monstrous fashion towards those around him when he was drunk, as he frequently was.

He was also a "terrific snob" who fawned over those with aristocratic titles, and appeared to resent the fact that even though he was the second son of an Irish baron with ancient lineage, marriage dictated that he got all the money, but his elder half-brother Dominick got the distinguished title of the fifth Baron Oranmore and Browne, a title he no longer uses.

"He was the saddest, loneliest man I ever met," says his nephew Kim Kindersley, who still loved his uncle and always hoped to resume their friendship after he was summarily banished from stately Luggala - during an uproarious luncheon for 70 people to celebrate Garech's 75th birthday party - and ordered never to return.

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Garech at his estate with his good friend, the film-maker John Boorman
Garech at his estate with his good friend, the film-maker John Boorman

"That day, there was a lot of drinking and things were becoming very fraught," says Kim. "I knew there was something coming, it had been brewing for days - everyone around him was walking on eggshells. It was one of those awful incidents, and he started screaming at one of the musician guests. I intervened and told him he was being monstrous and incredibly rude about his guests behind their backs.

"I couldn't bear the rudeness, all the years of unkindness and viciousness. He could be monstrous when he was drunk. He turned to me and said, 'I don't want to see you in this house ever again; because of this, I am leaving you nothing; you will get nothing.' That night I left, and it was the last time I was in the house where I was conceived."

He and his uncle Garech saw each other just one more time - across the crowded bar of The Roundwood Inn. Kim wrote a note of conciliation on the back of a napkin, which was passed to his uncle. But it was ignored, and the next time he returned to Luggala was in 2018 for the scattering of Garech Browne's ashes over the dark-brown waters of Lough Tay, with its rim of white sand reflecting the magic of Luggala and its wild surroundings deep in the Wicklow Mountains.

By then the estate, which Garech Browne's mother had given to him, was on the market. Because of his profligate lifestyle, he had run out of money in the late 1990s and handed it over to a Guinness family trust known as the Barbican International Corporation, which put it up for sale in 2017 for €28m. It was eventually sold to a wealthy Italian count and his American wife in 2019 for an estimated €25 million. Bono was one of those who looked at buying Luggala with the intention of leaving Garech Browne 'in situ' until he died. "At one time we were panicking and trying to put together some people to see if we could keep it, but I failed in that endeavour," the U2 frontman told Peter Murtagh of The Irish Times recently.

Kim Kindersley says that the rock singer, a long-time admirer of his uncle, was "close to pulling it off" when Garech died.

"As it turned out, ironically, people who looked at it didn't intend to buy it as a primary residence, so it suited some prospective buyers that Garech would be there," Nick Crowford, the auctioneer charged with the sale told me. He confirmed that the property was 'sale agreed' when Garech died suddenly while having lunch in Le Caprice, in London, with his friend and cousin, Lord Gormanston, on March 10th, 2018.

Garech with friends and relatives at a memorial tree-planting for Kim's father, Gay Kindersley. According to Kim, Garech behaved very badly to those around him that day
Garech with friends and relatives at a memorial tree-planting for Kim's father, Gay Kindersley. According to Kim, Garech behaved very badly to those around him that day

Sadness and pain Some might regard Kim's view of Garech Browne - or Garech de Brun, as he also styled himself - as coloured by their spectacular falling-out. After all, it wasn't the first time that the relationship between Irish uncle and English nephew had fractured.

Nor was it soured by Kim's successful battle to overcome his own demons. On visits to Luggala, he had sometimes tried to persuade his Uncle Garech that there was another path, but his advice, though listened to, was never heeded, even though alcohol seemed almost always to bring Garech great sadness and pain.

"There were good times at Luggala. Times with lots of people always there, often very interesting, because they were interesting people, music, poetry, stories and a lot of drama, which came with lots of drinking," says Kim.

"There was also gentleness. He was incredibly shy and considerate when he was sober; there was a very different quality to the conversation. He had a talent for extraordinary facts, he was cultured, very well read and philosophical, and we had many wonderful times, but more often, the sole occupation was fuelled through the prism of drinking, and I know, from my own battles, how very difficult that can be. I watched him destroy his life with booze."

On a trip from Dublin Airport just days before the iconic estate was passed over to its new owners, Kim talked lovingly and endearingly about Garech and his achievements. He recalled childhood summers with cousins and going out on the lake with his other uncle, his father's half-brother, the tragic Tara Browne.

Kim wants to emphasise that his Uncle Garech was far from the one-dimensional portrait that emerged after his death, and that there was also an unpleasant side to his character that came from alcohol abuse and an inbred sense of entitlement that accompanied his birthright as a fabulous Guinness heir.

Garech with friends and relatives at a memorial tree-planting for Kim's father, Gay Kindersley. According to Kim, Garech behaved very badly to those around him that day
Garech with friends and relatives at a memorial tree-planting for Kim's father, Gay Kindersley. According to Kim, Garech behaved very badly to those around him that day

Kim cannot erase the memories of Garech's endless drinking, and the malevolence that alcohol sometimes brought out in a man who was revered as the guiding light behind the revival of serious traditional Irish music. A patron of poets, painters and pipers, Browne filled his remote Wicklow mansion with a constant stream of socialites and rock stars, writers, actors and upstarts, all gliding through his gilded life.

He was painted by Lucien Freud; he was a great collector of art and books; his house was a refuge for artists, and his generosity, with alcohol in particular, was as legendary as the great parties that went on until the dawn. But the hidden Garech was a figure lost in a fog of alcohol trying to figure out what it was all about.

Nor is it only Kim who saw that hidden side of the man who was lauded on his death by many people who hardly knew him, but who nonetheless gathered at Luggala for the last hurrah before the house was finally sold by the Guinness Trust.

Another friend who knew him well told me in an unguarded conversation that although he seemed surrounded by a life of extreme privilege, with opulent homes, Garech Browne was a desperately lonely man.

Opening an exhibition by another friend, the artist Anthony Palliser, which featured a portrait of Garech on the front cover, John Boorman, the film director and one of the most frequent and charming visitors to Luggala, and a true friend of its owner, said, with deadpan sincerity: "I was a workaholic, Garech was an alcoholic."

Although Garech was a great patron of the arts and a mercurial collector, the days-long 'sessions' at Luggala, didn't always end with the scintillating conversation and wonderful music with which they began.

The Guinness heir with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, a band Browne helped form
The Guinness heir with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, a band Browne helped form

His was a condition that required frequent drying-out trips to clinics in Dublin and elsewhere. Afterwards, he would desperately try to stay away from the drink, but the lure of Champagne in the morning, culminating in all-day binges - often accompanied by riveting conversation, music, and exalted and entertaining company - was just too strong, and he would request the butler to pop a bottle of bubbly, and it would begin all over again.

"Alcohol brought out a side of a person which was not a nice one. I would see it. There was a tormented quality which crept in; a personal desperation and loneliness. And that would lead to him lashing out at the people closest to him," says Kim. "He could be very cutting and unkind."

One such occasion was the memorial service at Luggala for Gay Kindersley, Kim's father, whose sister Tessa is buried near the Temple in front of the lake, along with Tara Browne and his unnamed brother, 'Baby Browne', who died days after his birth.

"Somebody was asked to prepare a hole to plant a tree, but it was in the wrong place. We were all assembled and Garech arrived from the house in top hat and spats," Kim recalls. "He said, 'Why is the f**king hole there? Take this f**king thing away, you f**king moron.' Everyone was embarrassed by his behaviour, including the monsignor, the piper and everyone assembled. His chauffeur left in tears, promising never to return. I, too, swore I would never speak to him again."

Man who seemed to have it all

Although Garech also often attempted to restructure his life for economic reasons, he just did not know how to do it. For someone who spent his childhood running away from posh schools, he knew no boundaries. Known for his style, his suits were made by his London tailor; he sourced tweeds from Galway and silks from Asian farmers whom he took the trouble to get to know personally. His collection of shoes, from Lobb's, were not just made from leather, but from the skins of sika deer, ostrich, and even elephant ears.

He was a dandy, owning between 300 and 400 suits at the time of his death, embellished with buttons he also sourced or used from his own huge collection. After his death, a bill arrived at Luggala for £80,000 for suits he had ordered from his London tailor. A few more didn't seem an extravagance to a man who seemed to have it all.

Some of those close to him feel that, despite the exterior of privilege, his persona was dictated by his mother, the beautiful heiress and socialite Oonagh Guinness, described by the film actor and dilettante Michael Wilding, husband of Liz Taylor, as "a most attractive woman, in a beaten-up sort of way". But there is nothing 'beaten-up' about the portraits of her as a younger woman and mother that adorned the walls of Luggala. She looked stunningly beautiful and incredibly rich, and she was both of those.

But she was also a woman who had to fill her life with a frenetic round of parties and international travel. She loved babies, and she had four - Gay Kindersley, and Garech, Tara and Baby Browne - and she adopted two more, Mexican orphans Desmond and Manuela.

There is apparently a photograph of an eight-year-old Garech sitting on the stairs at Luggala during one of his mother's parties, with a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Oonagh seemed to lavish all her love, in life and in death, on his brother Tara.

Her sons, too, were different. Garech became a tweedy, Irish-music-loving, carriage-driving, young-man-about-Dublin, mixing with writers, painters and pipers, and a fixture in the bars of what was then a small town rather than a cosmopolitan city. He was precocious as a boy and teenager, but found genuine pleasure in attending the Pipers Club and mixing with Dublin bohemians.

Tara, equally bohemian and boundary-less, preferred hanging out with the Rolling Stones in London and Paris. He secretly married Noreen MacSherry, the daughter of a farmer, at 19, and they ran away to Luggala for their honeymoon. They had two children, Dorian and Julian.

In 1966, Tara left swinging London when his marriage broke up and took his sons to Luggala, and then into hiding in Ireland. Before his divorce could be completed, he was killed in a car crash in London, an event immortalised by The Beatles in their song A Day in the Life from Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the line: He blew his mind out in a car. Custody of the two boys was given to their grandmother, Oonagh, with access given to Noreen, who as the Honourable Mrs Tara Browne, died in Marbella, Spain on June 11, 2012.

"Tara was the golden boy, he got all his mother's love," says Kim. "Garech's sadness started as a young child. If you don't receive a mother's love, it starts to create problems. He adored and looked up to Tara. In a way, Tara's grave, which was in front of the house by the lake, was the cornerstone of his sadness."

Lady Oonagh gave up alcohol after Tara died. Kim's mother also suffered from alcoholism. "All of these people had so much power and wealth, but they used money to try to fill the void inside them, the terrible emptiness that can come with privilege," Kim says.

Golden Girls

'The Golden Guinness Girls' was a title that neatly encapsulates the lifestyle of the fabulously wealthy sisters, Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh, daughters of Ernest Guinness, the younger brother of Lord Iveagh and last of the family to run the Dublin brewery that made their name and fortune.

The Hon Ernest Guinness lived in Glenmaroon, a house near Chapelizod on the edge of the Phoenix Park, and his sophisticated, wealthy and gregarious daughters regarded themselves as Irish, although they were part of the international jet-set and equally at home in London or Paris. They were also, according to Frederick Mulally in The Silver Salver, his book on the Guinness family "a good deal prettier" than their English first cousins, Honor, Patricia and Brigid, daughters of Ernest's older brother Rupert, the second Earl of Iveagh.

Ernest must have been a 'fun' father. When he wasn't working in the brewery, a job he took very seriously, he flew his daughters between Dublin and Ashford Castle in his plane, or took them on a year-long, 40,000-mile round-the-world cruise on his 600-ton yacht, Fantome II.

They lived a gilded life, flitting between Guinness homes like Ashford Castle in Mayo, Muckross House in Killarney, Luggala in Wicklow and, in Dublin, Farmleigh, Glenmaroon, Knockmaroon and St Anne's, not to mention the extended family estates in England.

When Aileen married the Hon Brinsley Sheridan Plunket, her father bought her Luttrellstown Castle as a wedding present; Maureen had enough homes when she married Basil Sheridan Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marquess of Dufferin and Ava of Co Down; and at 19, Oonagh married the Hon Philip Kindersley, the younger son of Lord Kindersley, and they had two children in quick succession, Gay and Tessa, before the couple divorced in 1936.

Oonagh, who had become known in the gossip columns as "London's oldest teenager", married again the same year. Her second husband was Dominick Browne, the 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne, or 'Daddy Dom' of Castle Mac Garrett, near Claremorris, Co Mayo. He already had a son and heir, Dominick, by his first wife, Mildred Egerton. Oonagh had three sons with 'Daddy Dom' - Garech, born on June 25, 1939; 'Baby Browne, who was born and died in 1943; and Tara, who was born on March 4, 1945.

"His guests for dinner at Castle Mac Garrett - not really a castle, and the least impressive of the Guinness girls' residences - all too seldom matched his wife's concept of 'fun people,'" said Mullally tartly in The Silver Salver.

But when Tessa, then 14, died from a reaction to a diphtheria injection at Castle Mac Garrett in 1939, Oonagh was devastated. She brought the body of her only daughter to Luggala - which had been given to her by her father as a wedding present - to be buried. The marriage ended in divorce in 1950, and the 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne, who sat in the House of Lords in London for a record 72 years, and lived to be 100, subsequently married the glamorous film actress, Sally Gray.

By then, Oonagh and her two sisters were beneficiaries of multi-million-pound trust funds set up for members of the extended Guinness family; and their father, Ernest, is said to have settled almost £1m on each of them out of his own funds. Tara would later tell friends that despite her fortune, at one point Oonagh had a bank overdraft of £650,000, which had been used to fund her lavish parties at Luggala and La Tourelle de la Garoupe, her Cap D'Antibes villa, where her Irish servants were transported en masse when she was in residence.

She would "float through events and not seem to care", even when Brendan Behan got drunk and fell face first into his Christmas dinner, or insulted other guests. John Huston; Charlotte Rampling; Cyril Connolly; Liam O'Flaherty; Robert Graves; the painter, Lucian Freud, and his lover, Lady Caroline Blackwood; and most of the fun-loving British and Irish aristocracy passed through the house. The writer and historian Robert Kee was Oonagh's lover and a frequent guest.

Garech's 'set' was more Irish and more artistic - Leo Rowsome; Paddy Moloney and other members of the Chieftains; the MacPeake family; Seamus Heaney; Eddie Delaney; Ronnie Wood and John Hurt when they were living in Ireland. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones first visited in 1966, and came back several times with his then wife, Bianca, and their daughter, Jade.

Tara brought his friends, Brian Jones; Anita Pallenberg; Roger McGough; John Paul Getty II, and a host of others to Luggala for his 21st birthday party in March 1966. The visitor's books of Luggala are about as star-studded as you can get.

Before Oonagh moved on to live in Bermuda, London, and later Dublin, Luggala was offered to her first-born son, the wayward Gay Kindersley, who was raised in Ireland until his grandfather, Lord Kindersley, brought successful court proceedings during the Second World War to have him returned to England, so that he could attend school at Eton.

Gay, who was the father of Kim Kindersley and half brother to Garech Browne, led a colourful life as a champion jockey, horse trainer and a man-about-town.

According to his son Kim, his grandmother Oonagh offered him Luggala, but he turned it down because he hadn't lived in Ireland in many years and he had spent much of his inheritance, and knew the difficulty and financial strain associated with the upkeep of the remote, beautiful Luggala.

Gay Kindersley was also an alcoholic, according to his son Kim, although a different kind to his half-brother Garech - he only drank after midday and he exercised and swam. He would also admit in his autobiography that he had "an incurable tendency to infidelity".

"The male role models in my family are shocking," says Kim. "They were all addicted to wine, women and song."

So Oonagh passed Luggala on to her second-born son, Garech.

"Just as the word people begins with a 'p' so do many of the different sorts of people who came here - painters, poets, pipers, peers, playwrights, performers, philosophers, presidents, princes, princesses, priests not excluding parsons and photographers," said Garech in the introduction to the book Luggala: The Story Of A Guinness House by Robert O'Byrne.

The Hon Garech Browne was born on June 25, 1939 in the home of his maternal grandparents, Glenmaroon, in Chapelizod, outside Dublin. He was christened in St Patrick's Cathedral with seven sets of godparents, and his early life was spent between his father's home at Castle Mac Garrett, and his mother's home, Luggala.

At the age of 10, he went to Castle Park School in Dalkey. At 13, at the second attempt, he passed the 'Common Entrance' for Eton, but was sent instead to the Institute Le Rosey in Switzerland. During his second term, he sent himself a telegram - 'Come home immediately, your loving mother' - and he left for London.

He was then sent to Bryanston in Dorset, on the recommendation of his cousin, Lady Caroline Blackwood, whose lover and later husband, Lucian Freud, has been schooled there. Garech left one night in a taxi, and after a couple of weeks, was briefly taken back, before his formal education ended altogether. Aged 15, he moved to Paris, where his mother had an apartment, and later to a mews house in Quinn's Lane off Pembroke Street in Dublin city centre, where he acquired a license to drive a horse-drawn cab, the only qualification he ever needed in life.

The 'new' aristocracy, especially the wild Irish ones, made up for what they lacked in blue blood by splashing their wealth in a orgy of excess in Ireland, England and their playground in the South of France. This was the life that Garech Browne was born into.

"He had an extraordinary gilded upbringing; there were no boundaries, no discipline; it was a recipe for not handling life very well," says Kim. "If you know no boundaries in life, what can you do about that? That is the curse of privilege: anything you value can be bought. The tragedy is you don't know the value of love.

"He got all the wealth. He knew a great deal about Irish music and promoted it, but it had to be done his way or no way. He was an expert in heraldry, carriages; he even knew the names of the farmers in East Asia who grew the silkworms that were used to make his suits in Savile Row, but in the end, none of it filled the void.

"I think it is very different for people who have so much money. There is Garech Browne, and people look at his life, his food, wine, travel, glamour. And when one is living that kind of life, it is great, but if you feel trapped - and when he was drunk that's how he felt, and he would ponder the question: what is it all about.

"He knew that he was living a shallow existence, yet beauty was all around him and so tantalisingly close in Luggala. He just couldn't love himself; he felt unlovable.

"Garech never knew what it was like not to have lots of money. But his lifestyle was unsustainable, even with all that wealth. I think if it had been managed correctly, it could have survived, but he was addicted, and alcoholism leads to very unpredictable behaviour.

"This is privilege, you have this sense of entitlement and it is so unattractive; you don't realise you are doing it because you feel you are entitled, that is what you have been brought up to think.

"One of the main things wealthy families do is complain that they don't have enough money. Garech did it all the time, for the last 60 years. There was never enough money, but why, then, are you going to the Cipriani for the weekend, or keeping a suite in a fancy hotel in Mayfair and ordering another batch of suits from your tailors in London and Paris?"

Kim spent his summers at Luggala, and after an education at Eton, and work as a producer and actor, something of the mysticism of Luggala drew him to become a wildlife documentary film producer, making Whaledreamers (2006) and Bali Life is an Offering (2011). He is now a healer, and farms hemp in Ireland with Hu Botanicals.

Passing through

But the pull of Luggala drew him back, and he would sometimes spend weeks and months living there, cooking Thai meals for his host, Garech. He became friends with the actor John Hurt and the film director John Boorman, and met many of the people who seemed to pass through the place in a procession.

At other times, they would just sit, listening to records of sean nos or piping, or listening to pieces by Garech's favourite composer Albinoni, when tears would stream down Browne's face as he remembered these were his brother Tara's favourite pieces of music.

Kim also feels that Garech wanted to change his lifestyle, but that the struggle was too much for him. At one point Kim brought his friend, Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Dakota Sioux to Luggala, and although Garech was "naughty" offering him a Bloody Mary at 10am, knowing he didn't drink alcohol, the two men got on. The 'Chief' walked the land and told his hosts: "Do you realise the importance of this land? This is a place of ceremony and healing; it is a portal for our ancestors."

"The Chief told Garech that his role was to take care of the spirits of the land, who were very much still alive there. It was one of the only times I saw him really listening to someone else telling him what Luggala was; I think that was the day Garech understood Luggala and its mysteries," says Kim.

Sometimes in the long, dark hours when the party was over and the musicians and guests had gone, and the house was largely empty, there would only be the two of them there, apart from the butler and some servants. That was when Kim saw into the abyss of Garech Browne's soul.

"He had a handful of people who he could talk to and he would be on the phone for hours to girlfriends, his wife and the few people who remained steadfast and loyal to him. One former girlfriend travelled halfway around the world for the funeral and memorial service. It is a testament to that gentle, sweet part of him.

"He was a person crying out for help and love," says Kim. "You are not allowed to speak out about this, about the highs and lows; he only wanted people to see the patronage of the arts and gaiety of the parties at Luggala, but sometimes in the house, he would be very low, when he was drinking and alone, and you could see the sadness in the man. Sometimes, often nightly, when we were on our own, I would put him to bed crying. I would tell him, 'You have so much to live for. You have Luggala; you have people who love you unconditionally'. My abiding memory of those nights is of someone who just wanted to be held. He would lie there and ask me all these questions: 'Why am I so alone? Why have I not got a beautiful, loving partner? Why do I feel so sad? This life is so ghastly… I can't wait to die, but I'm so scared'."

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