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Journeys: Artists' Residence

Mike Nolan

The Mercedes has bottomed out. More speed might have propelled the vehicle over the hill on this rolling Irish cart road, but the undercarriage now sits squarely on top of a grassy protuberance, while the wheels spin frantically in the air. The driver, Garech Browne, squire of the land, member of the Guinness family, writer, champion and guardian of Irish lore and poetry, founder of Claddagh Records, and friend and host to Bono and Nelson Mandela, is completely nonplussed as he exits the vehicle to survey the situation. A dandy of note, the 66-year-old Browne is dressed in a perfectly fitted beige three-piece wool suit. His ponytail and long white beard remain untussled in the stiff wind of this gray October morning in County Wicklow.

While Browne assesses the damage, I take in the view of the landscape from my perch upon the car’s boot. Some 20,000 years ago, the glaciers slid through here and carved out a broad valley that runs from north to south. The steep granite cliffs of a mountain called the Fancy rise to the west of our location in the valley. It takes its name from the Irish word foinse, which means source, a reference to the beginning of the river Cloghoge, whose waters run through the valley. The river feeds into Lough Tay, which, according to legend, is bottomless, its depths reaching to the kingdom of the leprechauns. Gentler slopes covered with heather, bracken, and windblown gorse frame the lake.

The British cut down most of Wicklow’s trees after the Rebellion of 1798 so that future Irish rebels would have fewer places to hide, but to the north and east, I can see a surviving forest of oak. It lies below the high hills of the Sally Gap, the road through which leads about 30 miles north to Dublin. The playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote about walking over these hills “to Luggala, of a Sunday,” to visit Browne’s mother, Oonagh, one of the golden Guinness girls, three sisters who would inherit the brewing company fortune.

Luggala, the family estate that now can be rented in its entirety (for approximately $36,000 a week), was our destination when we hit the bump in the road. Browne, who is married to an Indian princess and has no children, spends much of his time at Luggala, and he plans to die there. He does, however, vacate the premises when someone rents the entire estate, relocating temporarily to his home in Dublin or the one in London.

The proper spelling is Lug a’ Lagha, which in Irish means “the hollow in the hill.” The property is a 5,000-acre domain that once could have been—and still resembles—a hidden corner of a medieval kingdom. Such an impression was not lost on the British film director John Boorman, Browne’s friend, who filmed his 1981 treatment of the Camelot legend, Excalibur, on the property.

 

Browne moves away from the car and points down the hill toward the Victorian Gothic folly, or monument, that marks the spot where his brother Tara is buried. A fixture on Britain’s mod social scene of the 1960s, Tara died in a London car accident in 1966, an event that the brother’s friend John Lennon chronicled in the Beatles song “A Day in the Life.” Tara didn’t notice that the lights had changed.

 

Browne’s connection with musicians and the music business began at the end of the previous decade, in 1959, when he founded Claddagh Records in Dublin. “I have spent my life trying to put things back where they were supposed to be,” says Browne, referring to his initial intention with Claddagh, which was to resurrect traditional Irish folk music. “Traditional musicians were despised [in Ireland] at that time, but I saw a revolution in music coming in London and I wanted to bring it to Ireland and wake her up musically.”

Among the first acts to record with Claddagh was the Irish folk band the Chieftains. “It was the beginning of what we have today,” says Browne, who, shortly after signing the Chieftains, began making records of noted Irish poets and writers such as Beckett and Patrick Kavanagh reading their own works. “You can always get an actor to do a reading,” Browne explains, “but the poet is only around for so long.”

Browne, who has produced five Grammy-winning recordings, continues to be an influential figure among the country’s artists, many of whom have signed the guest book at Luggala. One page from the 1950s bears the signatures of playwrights Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan and English painter Lucian Freud, all of whom were guests on the same weekend. (Bono, who is a neighbor, and Mandela also have stayed at Luggala.) The guest book even includes an unpublished poem handwritten by the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature, Seamus Heaney. It is a light, amusing recounting of the events of the just-concluded weekend.

 

Browne and i descend the hill on foot (a tractor eventually will tow the car off its pedestal) to the valley floor and the nearly mile-long field that serves as his front yard. A herd of sika deer—at least 50 strong—tenses as we come into view. The animals’ lineage can be traced to a single pair of deer that, in the mid-19th century, were brought from Japan but escaped their keeper. Generations of their descendants have been a source of despair for gardeners all over Wicklow ever since.

In the distance, squarely in the hollow in the hill, sits the Gothic-style house that Peter La Touche, a Dublin banker, built in 1787. The house represents another example of Browne’s desire to put things back where they were. The Guinness family acquired the home and the surrounding land at the beginning of the 20th century, and Oonagh’s father, Browne’s grandfather, gave it to her in 1937. The structure’s appearance befits a fairy tale, and thus it suited the Guinness girls, at least in the opinion of their friend John Huston, the film director. Of Oonagh (Lady Oranmore and Browne) and her sisters, he wrote, they could “change swineish folk into real swine before your very eyes and turn them back without their ever knowing it. Or put the wrong words into the mouths of pretentious persons, so that everyone, including the victims, is appalled at the nonsense they talk.” It seems appropriate, then, that what are known as witches’ pots cover the chimneys of the house, protecting the flues from the busy Wicklow winds. Trefoil and quatrefoil windows, reflecting the clover in the field, run just below the roofline.

“Alterations were made at some time during the 19th century,” Browne says as we approach the house, which he began renovating eight years ago. “We consulted paintings and photographs to make sure that everything was brought back to the way it once was.” On the first floor, notes Browne, the Gothic arches of the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows had been cropped, but they have been restored to their original form. The main entrance is centered under two pairs of pinnacles, one atop the pilasters that frame the door and the other on the roof above. The house also features an enclosed courtyard and a two-story library. Browne is installing an indoor swimming pool adjacent to the library.

Browne leads me into the large first-floor sitting room, where the windows afford views of the enormous lawn and the deer herd, and the hills looming over both. He invites me to have a seat on the red velvet couch in front of the fireplace, which has a marble mantel that displays gilt symbols of the sun god Ra and depictions of flowers growing out of Egyptian pots. Original artworks on the walls include portraits of friends who were frequent visitors: Beckett, the classicist Robert Graves, and the Chieftains’ Paddy Maloney.

Browne explains that the room’s wallpaper is new, but the pattern—multicolored flowers against a light blue field—is the same as that which covered the walls at the turn of the last century. He contacted the company that made the original paper and had it duplicate the pattern, which it had not printed for more than 100 years. “The Luggala colors are green and blue,” says Browne in reference to the hues that dominate the wallpaper and appear in tandem throughout the home, “two colors the English thought should never be combined.”

The second-floor renovation primarily involved the addition of modern bathrooms, but the charm of the original layout remains. The six bedrooms (the master is downstairs) are of the walk-through variety, privacy not being quite as important at the time the house was built as it is today.

Author and architectural historian Count Randall MacDonnell, a guest at Luggala, a friend of Browne’s, and a consultant on the renovation, joins us and conducts a quick tour of the second floor’s art collection. Gesturing toward a series of 17th-century prints of Dublin, the count says, “Very few hotels would provide the scope and quality of the artwork seen here.”

Hanging in one of the bedrooms is an oil portrait of Browne’s mother, Oonagh, a beautiful woman with reddish blonde hair and green eyes. She also was a spirited woman. It is said that she once told the British King George V that he was “far too pompous and boring.” There is little risk of encountering those traits here, I decide, as we pass through the wrought iron gate that leads to the meadow in front of the house. The sun finally emerges in earnest, and the white house shines brilliantly against the green of Ireland. “This is a magical house,” Browne says matter-of-factly and without a hint of pomposity. For all of his business successes and the esteem he has earned in Ireland’s literary and artistic circles, Browne seems to have his feet planted on the ground. Indeed, on Luggala’s turf, his heels might be dug in more firmly than was his Mercedes.

Luggala, available through Adams & Butler
+353.1660.7975
www.irishluxury.com

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