I t used to take the Honourable Garech Browne – who I met in 2002, and died in March 2018 – about 20 minutes to drive to the nearest village from his home. Most of that time, however, was spent exiting his own property. Luggala, a 5,000-acre demesne in southern Ireland, isn’t so much an estate as a kingdom, a veritable Middle Earth of heather-covered mountains, silvery waterfalls and lakes, emerald forests and meadows. Behind the wheel of his 1953 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, Browne glided effortlessly along his miles-long private road, the only fleeting obstructions being the herds of Japanese sika deer that darted gracefully across the land.
On the public road beyond the large iron gates, the outside world impinged somewhat, in the forms of fast-approaching lorries and cars. Browne’s boat-size Rolls was about as wide as the Irish country roads. Miraculously, the oncoming traffic made way, merging with a rustle into the green hedges that line the road while Browne blithely speeded straight ahead. As one passenger groped for a seat belt, trying not to be noticed, Browne announced volubly, “There isn’t one.” The lack of restraining devices, he added, was “perfectly legal”, since the vehicle was built before they were invented.
If the car seemed out of another era, so did its owner, who sported a flowing white Yeats-like beard and a purple tweed suit. Browne, born in 1939, was regarded in Ireland as “the last” in a number of categories. With his colourful wardrobe, he was certainly the last dandy; with Luggala, the last great laird. Though a few other large estates are still intact, it is doubtful that any of them are still run as they were originally, with continuous entertainment, guests and Champagne, which is how things carried on at Luggala.
But Browne’s real claim to fame was as the champion – saviour even – of his native music. Through Claddagh Records, a label he founded, and the Chieftains, a group he sponsored, Browne almost single-handedly rescued traditional Irish music from extinction – an initiative that had galvanising effects on the country’s contemporary music, literature and art, too.
Funding all this largesse was the famous brew produced by his mother’s family, the Guinnesses. Browne never touched the stuff, though. When we arrived at the picturesque village pub for a bite of lunch, he had Champagne – his staple drink – poured all around. He seemed slightly rankled when asked what it was like to grow up a Guinness.
“I never grew up a Guinness,” he said curtly. “I grew up a Browne, thank you.”
His father, the Fourth Lord Oranmore and Browne, was descended from one of Ireland’s oldest aristocratic families. Upon his death in 2002 at 100, he was the longest-serving member of the House of Lords, having held his seat from 1927 to 1999. His marriage in 1936 to Oonagh Guinness, Garech’s mother, was a classic match, uniting his ancient (but no longer wealthy) line to her newer but richer clan. The marriage fared about as well as most of its type; they divorced in 1950, when Garech was 11.
Oonagh and her siblings, Aileen and Maureen (later the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava), were the most glamorous and wealthy sisters of their day. When they were born, around the turn of the last century, their grandfather Edward Cecil Guinness was the richest man in Ireland (worth an estimated $3.5bn in today’s currency), and one of the wealthiest in Europe.
Oonagh, regarded as the most beautiful and intellectual of the girls, received Luggala, then a 12,000-acre property, as a gift from her parents on the occasion of her wedding to Browne (though this was her second marriage). The house – a shooting lodge, really – was built around 1780 by Ireland’s leading banking family, the La Touches, who a few decades later rebuilt it in the Gothic Revival style that was then fashionable. By the early 20th century, the place had passed to another family, who made less desirable alterations. Oonagh quickly put things in order – and made the place party central. She “imbued Luggala with enchantment”, and made it “the most decorative honey pot in Ireland”, as one of her obituaries observed when she died in 1995 at age 85. “Nobody could stay away: Dublin intelligentsia, literati, painters, actors, scholars, hangers-on, toffs, punters, poets, social hang-gliders...”
Luggala was just for holidays and summers, though. Garech and his younger brother, Tara, grew up following their mother to her many domiciles – in Paris, New York and Venice, and on the Côte d’Azur. But tragedy struck in 1966 when handsome Tara, 21, had an accident in his Lotus Elan sports car in London. John Lennon, a friend, memorialised his death in the song “A Day in the Life” (“I read the news today, oh boy...”).
Garech, who had attended boarding schools in Switzerland, finished his formal education at 15. He rented a mews house in Dublin, where he began casting about for something to do. Browne was passionate about his native culture, especially its traditional music. But it was fast disappearing – a loss he traced to Ireland’s switch from Gaelic to English around 1850. By the late 1950s, there was just a handful of traditional pipers left, for example. Around that time, Browne made the rounds of the international record companies, trying to get them to issue a recording of the uilleann pipes – a bellows-blown bagpipe that evolved from the Irish war pipes in the 18th century. After being laughed off, Browne arranged to finance an LP himself – a 40-minute recording of a virtuoso piper. Before he came of legal age in 1959, he started Claddagh Records. The label subsequently sparked a renaissance not just for traditional music but also for poetry, through its recordings of such celebrated writers as Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Robert Graves, Samuel Beckett and John Montague.
Browne also conceived of and sponsored Claddagh’s most successful group, the Chieftains. After their first recording in 1962, the band went on to collaborate with Van Morrison, Mick Jagger, Sting and Joni Mitchell, among others, and arguably paved the way for contemporary Irish musicians (U2 and Sinéad O’Connor among others), as well as for world music. In recognition of his significant contributions, Garech was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, University of Dublin.
But it was an uphill battle in the beginning. “Nobody wanted to hear about this old stuff,” Browne said. The hostility he encountered often came from the so-called intelligentsia. In 1965 Erskine Childers, then a government minister and subsequently president of Ireland, harangued him: “Why are you making gramophone records of squealing pipes and women wailing by the fireside when it’s an image of a modern Ireland we wish to present to the world?”
But Browne hung on. “I thought we could turn this whole thing round,” he said. It worked in the end, he believed, because he gave this traditional material “a modern presentation”. Claddagh commissioned important painters, photographers and authors to design and write the album covers and notes. “We created a new vision of a modern Ireland that was based on tradition – things we had all along but which we had forgotten about,” said Browne. Always a great bon vivant, Browne took a long time to settle down personally. In the early 1980s he married an exotic, dark-haired beauty, Princess Purna, whose father, the Maharaja of Morvi, once ruled over the small princely state north of Bombay. About this time, Oonagh, who was living almost full-time in Antibes (where she had lived, briefly, with a Cuban-born fashion designer, Miguel Ferreras), had given Luggala to Browne.
In 2000, Browne launched a major restoration, which was overseen by David Mlinaric, the eminent London-based designer. Having met Browne socially in the 1950s, Mlinaric was a guest at Luggala in Oonagh’s heyday, which he vividly remembered as being “marvellous and very glamorous”.
So Mlinaric was the ideal designer to bring the house up to date while still honouring its past – a particularly tricky undertaking because a restoration in the late 1950s, following a devastating fire, had reduced or destroyed many of the building’s Gothic features. Mlinaric conceived a plan to restore the house architecturally to its appearance circa 1810, yet keep some elements of the 1950s interior decoration, which had their own charm and comfort factor. “The idea was to hold the continuity of life there,” Mlinaric says.
Or, as Browne put it, “David decided it should look quite different but exactly the same.” From Russborough, a nearby house that is perhaps the finest example of Irish Palladianism, Garech bought a highly important sofa. The designers Mlinaric and Amanda Douglas had it re-upholstered in cut velvet that was made in Lyon in France in the manner of its original coverings. Textiles, particularly the house’s original wallcoverings, were a special concern. AWN Pugin, the towering figure of the Gothic Revival movement, had designed the paper for the drawing room, Gothic Lily, which was also used in the Houses of Parliament. Mlinaric commissioned John Perry Papers of London to reproduce the paper from the original blocks, which they still possessed.
Atop the intricate pattern, Mlinaric hung Browne’s superb collection of 19th- and 20th-century pictures – notably paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, including a portrait of Garech by the latter. Freud, who was once married to Browne’s cousin, Lady Caroline, was a frequent guest in the old days, as well as an avuncular mentor of sorts to Browne. (“He used to sneak me into the Gargoyle Club under his overcoat,” Browne remembered.)
Back from lunch at the pub, Browne immediately began to oversee preparations for a party that evening. The musicians arrived – players on the fiddle, tin whistle and uilleann pipes. Princess Purna materialised in an elegant silk sari. The guests then poured in; an assortment of the country’s leading lights. Many hours later, a cumulus cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the salon and countless bottles stood empty as the guests began to depart or stagger merrily upstairs to spend the night. Browne stood in the centre of it all with a beatific expression, no doubt secure in the knowledge that his storied redoubt remained, for a time, the most decorative honey pot in Ireland.
James Reginato is writer-at-large at Vanity Fair. This piece is an edited version of a chapter in his book Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli).