Wednesday 16 October 2019

light and shadeof luggala life

A new book recalls the heady days of 'Dior and dogs' dinners' at Ireland's upper-class oasis, Luggala, and the lives of those at the centre of its notoriety. As Emily Hourican says, it was a mythical place

'Luggala is a sort of enchanted place. It's a dream of peace." That was Angelica Huston's verdict on the gleaming white lodge, more like a folly than a house, with its castellated walls and funny romantic turrets, that sits on the side of a lake in Co Wicklow, tucked in under the chin of steep, verdant mountainside. It's a place Garech Browne, Luggala's owner, describes as, "of primeval colours: the greys, greens and browns of the landscape, the darkness of the lake, the whiteness of the beach, the yellow of the primrose and the gorse, the contrast of the bluebells and the purple of the heather. Sunlight and shadow."

And yes, the story of Luggala is a story of shadow and sunlight, of bricks and mortar, architectural details, of geographical location and natural wonders. But most of all, it is the story of the lives that intersected there. Of love affairs begun and ended, children raised and some tragically buried, of poets, writers, painters, thinkers and musicians who found peace, entertainment and inspiration there, as well as generosity and a certain madcap hospitality.

A new book by Robert O'Byrne, Luggala Days, filled with gorgeous photographs, traces the history of this most delightful house and the role it has played as a gathering spot for intellectuals and aristocrats. Luggala was built around 1790 by the La Touche family, but its heyday really began when Ernest Guinness bought it from Lord Powerscourt in 1937 as a wedding present for his youngest daughter, Oonagh, Garech's mother, on her second marriage, to Lord Oranmore and Browne.

The intoxication of Luggala, its ethereal setting and considerable material charm, were perfectly off-set by Oonagh, youngest, maybe prettiest, and certainly sweetest of the three Glorious Guinness Girls. Oonagh graced the dainty Gothic Revival house perfectly, bringing the very best out of it, while the house gave substance to her generosity, providing the perfect setting for the kind of informal entertaining she liked. Actor Michael MacLiammoir likened the process of staying there to " ... an elaborate, haphazard picnic," while poet Brian Howard, who was the model for Waugh's waspish, sniping Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, called Luggala in a letter to his mother, "the most beautiful place I've ever seen ... Meals when you like. Everything when and where you like ... and the nicest playfellows in the world."

Of the three Guinness girls who fired up the London social scene in the 1920s, Oonagh was the quietest. Less poised than Aileen, less exuberant than Maureen, she was known to be very private, without the addiction to practical jokes shared by the elder two. Maureen in particular was obsessed with royalty and status, but "would often arrive at social events wearing a false penis on her nose and a hidden 'fart machine' between her legs," according to Ivana Lowell, her granddaughter. Despite the high jinks, Maureen was cold and unloving; "Caroline loathed her mother," said the writer Jonathan Raban of Maureen's daughter, Caroline Blackwood. "But then, everyone loathed her mother."

Oonagh was also the kindest and most maternal of the three. Unlike her sisters, whose children were brought up in the traditional Anglo-Irish fashion -- out of sight, by nannies and housemaids -- Oonagh kept her children, and often her nieces and nephews, close to her, and was affectionate and playful.

Oonagh's first marriage was to Philip Kindersley, with whom she had two children, Gay and Tessa. Almost uniquely, Philip was completely immune to the charm of Luggala (at the time rented by Ernest from Lord Powerscourt and mostly used by Aileen), describing it as a 'god-forsaken place', and it wasn't until she divorced him and married Dominic, Lord Oranmore and Browne, in 1936 that Luggala became such a large part of Oonagh's life. The estate was a wedding gift from her father and for a long time, Luggala was to be the place she was happiest. Parties there went on for days, Champagne flowed and, according to Brendan Behan, a frequent guest, the only rule was not to be tedious: "You may say whatever you like, so long [as] you don't take too long about it and it's said wittily."

Like some kind of Tir na nOg, or enchanted place, the stories of Luggala are all about guests going for dinner only to emerge several days later, sometimes unaware quite how much time had passed. The endless glamour of the truly eclectic selection of people who turned up there, and the way in which so many of them criss-crossed each other's lives via love affairs past and current, make it seem a very louche, adult scene, but children were always a large part of the story too.

Oonagh's two sons with Dominic, Garech and Tara, were soon joined by Oonagh's nieces, Neelia and Doon, children of her sister Aileen, who moved to the United States for the years of the war. Then, during school holidays, Gay and Tessa, Oonagh's children from her first marriage, also joined the merry throng.

Life in Ireland was largely protected from the realities of war in England and Europe, and yet, there was no immunity from personal tragedy. First a baby boy, called simply 'Baby Browne', was born to Oonagh, and died within two days in 1943. Then she lost custody of her son Gay in a bitter public battle, and finally Tessa, her beautiful 14-year-old daughter, was given a routine inoculation for diphtheria, suffered an almost-instant adverse reaction, and died less than three hours later from cardiac arrest. She was buried by the lake at Luggala, beside her half-brother.

Following Tessa's tragic death, Oonagh never fully recovered, and neither did the marriage to Dominic. Within four years they were separated, then divorced. But rather than withdraw from the world, Oonagh sought refuge from her pain by surrounding herself with interesting, exotic people, who she invited in their droves. She described the house, with typical sly wit, as, "the most decorative honeypot in Ireland," for the irresistible magic it seemed to work.

Against a backdrop of 1950s poverty and economic stagnation, where even those with lavish houses could rarely afford to entertain, Oonagh persisted with reckless, fin de siecle gaiety. Caroline Blackwood, in a story called How You Love Our Lady, openly based on this favourite aunt and her famous parties, describes a mansion where the carpets are stained with the spilled drinks of perpetual guests, and a room is kept strewn with mattresses for drunken friends who need to spend the night. One visitor, Lord Gowrie, went for a short visit, and ended up staying three weeks. "I just went missing. I decided to hide out ... I'm not really a drinker, but I think I was tight most of the time. It was very bonding and funny and odd..."

It was an intoxicating melting pot where John Montague, Brendan Behan, the painter Sean O'Sullivan, Lady Frances Eliot, Olive, Countess Fitzwilliam and her sister Hester, Lucian Freud, John Hurt and IRA chief of staff Sean MacBride might all turn up together -- a mix of "Dior and dogs' dinners" as one observer described it, or, according to Lord Gowrie, an "odd kind of hippy upper-class oasis," where alcohol featured heavily, drugs lightly, and sex almost constantly. Sometimes guests were snowed in, for days on end, to everyone's delight. In part, the delightfully relaxed atmosphere was because Oonagh, unlike her sisters, didn't try and use the parties to showcase herself. A listener, not a talker, she encouraged others into the limelight. John Hurt, a regular visitor for many years, recalls that Oonagh "never said a thing. Except if there was a very long pause, she might say something really rather banal... but she was nobody's fool, in thrall to nobody." Others recall her as quick-witted and funny, though deadpan.

Eight years after her divorce from Dominic, Oonagh married a Cuban dress designer, Miguel Ferreras, many years younger than her and quite probably gay, to whom she gave a great deal of money to establish a couture business before discovering he was an impostor who had fought for Franco, and stolen the name of the dead brother of a friend.

Oonagh adopted twins, a boy and a girl she found in Mexico when visiting John Huston, who was making The Night of the Iguana there with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr. Ferreras, like Philip Kindersley, had little time for Ireland and Luggala, and during the years of her third marriage, Oonagh spent much less time there. By then a new generation was filling the house, and carrying on the rich, eclectic tradition of hospitality. Garech, the elder, had a love of traditional Irish music from an early age, and went on to found Claddagh Records and manage The Chieftans. Through him, some of the country's most talented singers and musicians began to flock to the house, filling the rooms with music and poetry.

Tara, meanwhile, was a classic younger son, handsome, laughing, precocious; a true child of the 1960s. In Paris, he hung out with Cocteau, Dali and Beckett, then moved to London where he befriended The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. One friend, Hugo Williams, recalled him at 15 as "two years younger than me but years ahead in sophistication and fun, dealing jokes, insults and ridiculous boasts from an inexhaustible deck like a child delightedly playing snap ... smoking menthol cigarettes (always Salem) and drinking Bloody Marys, he was Little Lord Fauntleroy, Beau Brummell, Peter Pan, Terence Stamp in Billy Budd, David Hemmings in Blow-Up."

Tara's 21st at Luggala was the kind of legendary party that gets talked about for a generation. It was a kind of meshing of the old and new orders in one extravagant, exuberant romp. Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg, John Paul Getty Jr and Talitha Pol, Victoria Ormsby-Gore and David Mlinaric, were there, along with Luggala old-timers such as sculptor Eddie Delaney, actress Siobhan McKenna, the Beits and Molly Cusack-Smith. It was the kind of rare balance of establishment, aristocracy and brash newcomers of the Sixties -- precisely the dynamic mix Luggala had been assembling for years.

By then, Tara was already married, a secret runaway match, to Nicki MacSherry, a farmer's daughter from Co Down. She was six months pregnant at the wedding, and three years older than Tara, who was just 18. Nicki was pretty and gamine, a kind of Twiggy lookalike and "hippy babe par excellence." The couple had two sons in very quick succession, living in a mews house in Eaton Row, Belgravia, where they carried on the family tradition of entertaining. "We had a good sound system, so our flat became a place where they could come around and smoke dope. It became another club," Nicki said, shortly before her recent death.

Charming though Nicki was, Oonagh was never happy with the marriage, and indeed Nicki always accused her of fermenting trouble in the relationship. Whether that is true, trouble there certainly was. The couple separated, and Oonagh took an active role in the very public custody battle over the couple's two boys. In October 1966, the boys came for a holiday to Luggala, at the end of which they 'disappeared'.

Just a few months later, Tara drove his turquoise Lotus Elan, through a set of red lights at Earls Court, and into the back of a parked van. He died two hours later. His brother Garech recalls the horror: "He was coming for lunch. His children were here at Luggala with my mother. I was in Dublin and I was going to drive down to meet him. Instead, I had to phone my father at seven o'clock in the morning to tell him his son was dead."

Tara's funeral was at Christ Church in Dun Laoghaire, and he too was buried at Luggala, beside Tessa and his baby brother. The Beatles song A Day In The Life is thought to reference his death, and Irish composer Sean O Riada, a friend of Garech, wrote a musical piece to the words of Hans Arp called In Memoriam Tara Browne. John Paul Getty Jr and Talitha's first son, born in 1968, was called Tara in his honour, as was Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg's second boy, who was born and sadly died in 1976.

The court case over Tara's sons eventually left them as wards of court under Oonagh's care. And so, at the age of 56, she found herself a mother of four again, responsible for her own adopted twins, and now Tara's two boys. This kind of responsibility began to put a cap on festivities at Luggala.

Money, too, started to run short. Oonagh was famously extravagant and even the legendary Guinness fortune wasn't enough for her. Luggala was transferred into an estate company of which she was director until 1970 when she passed the responsibility to Garech. From then, she was an occasional visitor rather than hostess, but when she died in August 1995, her ashes were scattered across the dark waters of the lake. She has no other tombstone. Luggala is her memorial.

These days, the magic haunting notes still sound from Luggala, drawing people such as Dennis Hopper, Bono, Ronnie Wood, Charlotte Rampling, John Boorman, Paddy Moloney John Montague, Dolores Keane and Marianne Faithfull. But now, instead of the jazzy beat of the 1920s, the sound resembles the faint, calling notes of an uilleann pipe.

So much of what Luggala has meant over the years, to a flock of people who may be scattered, even dead, but who all found, for a time, what they needed in that house, is captured in a note written by Ivana Lowell, Caroline Blackwood's daughter, after her mother's death. The combination of absurd humour, poignancy and purpose seem very typical. Dated May 6 1997, it reads: "During the days I stayed, we cried and broke down (literally as we ran out of petrol) but most importantly we found the final resting place for Caroline. She would approve! Love Ivana xx"

'Luggala Days', by Robert O'Byrne, £35 (e43), is published by Cico Books on October 18

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