Spirit of the house

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

BOOKS: Luggala, the Guinness’s fairytale house on the shores of Lough Tay, has drawn the great and the good under its spell for generations, creating memories that only add to its allure, writes ROBERT O’BYRNE

INSIDE A LARGE mahogany bureau they lie stacked: vast leather-bound volumes of photographs, the cover of each carrying their former owner’s initials in tooled gold. Open one at random and enter another realm. Here, from November 1933, is a page of pictures showing actor Douglas Fairbanks larking about on the shores of the lake. His wife Mary Pickford isn’t with him, he is in the company of Lord Ashley, heir to the Earl of Shaftesbury, and his wife Sylvia. A former lingerie model, she is in the throes of an affair with Fairbanks and will later marry him. Later still, she becomes the wife of Clark Gable.

Another volume, another page of photographs. Dated June 1937, this one shows bohemian actress and poet Iris Tree, daughter of Edwardian actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, standing in front of the house. With Iris is her then-husband, Austrian Baron Friedrich von Ledebur-Wicheln, as well as her former spouse, American photographer and society portraitist Curtis Moffat. Also seen in the picture is amateur painter Richard “Dirty Dick” Wyndham, otherwise known as ‘Whips’ because, literary critic Cyril Connolly subsequently told his daughter Joan Wyndham, he had been “one of Europe’s great flagellists”. His long-deceased uncle George Wyndham (rumoured to have died in a Paris brothel) was former Chief Secretary for Ireland and the man responsible for introducing legislation in 1903 that led to the dissolution of the old Irish estates.

A third album, pulled at random from those in the pile. Now it is Christmas 1958 and here is Cyril Connolly himself, with his former wife Barbara Skelton, one-time mistress of King Farouk of Egypt and the most infamous femme fatale of her generation. When Connolly and Skelton divorced in 1956, publisher George Weidenfeld was cited as co-respondent; when Weidenfeld and Skelton in turn divorced in 1961, it was Connolly’s turn to be cited.

Here too is Brendan Behan, looking as though he has enjoyed dinner rather too well (a certain amount of it visible on the front of his clothing) and now asleep in an armchair, although later he will dash about the house looking for drink, fall down a flight of stairs and acquire a nasty gash on his head before being tenderly placed in a Rolls-Royce with his wife and driven back to Dublin.

One last album, a further decade and a new generation. There are pages of photographs covering a 21st birthday party held in March 1966 and featuring lots of familiar faces including those of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, the latter’s then-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, John Paul Getty and his future wife Talitha Pol, along with other members of the fashionable London scene: designer Bill Willis, antiques dealer Christopher Gibbs, photographer Christopher Booker and decorator David Mlinaric. Here they are lounging about in the drawing room or energetically dancing in a marquee to the sounds of American band The Lovin’ Spoonful, whose hits that year include Daydream and Summer in the City. And so it goes on, quantities of photograph albums chronicling lunches and dinners and weekend house parties.

Alongside them are the visitors’ books in which everyone passing through the house has been invited to record the occasion. Just a name and address, nothing more (recalling the Duc de Guiche’s counsel to Proust in 1904, “Your name, Monsieur, but no thoughts”). Following one after the other are an array of well-known faces and names. Writer Robert Kee, for some years a repeated presence since he was his hostess’s lover, and painter Lucian Freud, married for a time to her niece. Film director John Huston who, as a result of his first visit to the house, fell in love with Ireland and bought his own property here, writers Patrick Leigh Fermor and Claud Cockburn, art collector Peggy Guggenheim, and archetypal impoverished Irish peer, John Kilbracken.

More recently you will find the names of film director John Boorman, musicians such as Paddy Moloney and Ronnie Wood, actors John Hurt, Pierce Brosnan and Dennis Hopper, poets John Montague, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane.

All of them, and many others besides, have been drawn to the same small white house tucked into a cleft at the end of a valley. This is Luggala, Co Wicklow, a place which has exercised an allure over visitors for more than two centuries. Its very remoteness is part of the house’s appeal and explains what attracted original owner, Peter La Touche, scion of Ireland’s greatest banking dynasty. Searching for a rural retreat he came across Luggala and understood its potential. Having lain unnoticed and unrecorded for millennia, the site required nothing, La Touche realised, other than the addition of a dwelling with a spirit sufficiently romantic to match the setting.

Luggala Lodge, wrote Michael Luke some 20 years ago, shines “like the discarded crown of a prima ballerina”. Bulgarian-born author Stephane Groueff, after visiting the house in the 1950s, remembered it “looking like an illustration from a nursery book of The Queen of Hearts”. Actress Anjelica Huston recalls Luggala from her childhood: “It was like going into a fairy tale. Descending into the dell with the ferns and the overhanging trees, the flocks of deer and the pheasants, and then coming on the magical lake with its sand made up of chips of mica.” The most frequent word used by visitors to describe Luggala is “magical”.

But if magic is to be made, it requires the presence of a magician and Luggala is fortunate in always having had one of these to hand. Not least among them was Oonagh Guinness who became chatelaine of the valley following its purchase in 1937 by her father, the Hon Ernest Guinness. He had been renting the place for the previous 25 years and presented it to his daughter to mark her marriage to Dominick, Lord Oranmore and Browne.

The marriage didn’t last, but Oonagh’s presence at Luggala proved more enduring; following her divorce in 1950 this became her main residence and the axis of her social life. Soon the place became known not just for its own beauty but for that of its hostess. Oonagh, who once described Luggala as “the most decorative honey pot in Ireland”, was like a Celtic Circe, drawing admirers from around the world. John Kilbracken observed: “Whenever I pass between those gateposts and plunge down into the valley beyond, I feel as though I have left Ireland and entered a strange, unreal, independent principality: Oonaghland. Oonagh holds sway over all the valley, and the mountains and forests which fall down into it from the sky.”

Enticed into “Oonaghland”, visitors invariably found it hard to leave. Diarist Frances Partridge came to stay in the early 1950s and afterwards recorded: “What a magical atmosphere that house had, charmingly furnished and decorated to match its style: dim lights, soft music playing and Irish voices ministering seductively to our needs.”

Sixty years later, author and critic Francis Wyndham (younger brother of Richard “Dirty Dick” Wyndham) remembers Luggala as being “the most romantic place I’ve ever known”, and recalls “that sparkling little jewel of a house with the black lake before it”.

There was always an abundance of good food, good drink and good talk, the first two provided by Oonagh, the last by her guests whose presence she caught for posterity in her innumerable photograph albums.

Eventually she passed the baton of responsibility for Luggala to her son the Hon Garech Browne. Renowned for founding Claddagh Records, Garech has also continued to burnish Luggala’s reputation as a place of outstanding hospitality and a crucible of creativity. Like his mother, he knows how to cast a spell.

Garech, says U2’s Bono, “is different, a true bohemian. He dresses like a remnant of a more romantic time in our country . . . ” Marianne Faithfull, another habitué of the house, remarks of Garech, “I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone quite so distinct. It comes out in every way: in his homes, his friends, his love of musicians.” Above all it comes out in his presence at Luggala, a place now seemingly impossible to imagine without him.

Thanks to his constant and ongoing ministrations, Luggala today looks as enchanting as it did when first built by Peter La Touche. But after more than two centuries the house is now a repository of memories, accumulated while acting as a magnet to its innumerable admirers and preserved in those photograph albums and visitors’ books. To pass through the gates of Luggala is to enter another world. “The minute you start going down,” says Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, “you do cross a line into a slight otherwhere. And when the house appears, there’s a sense of destination.”

That destination leaves a mark on everyone who has spent any time there. John Hurt, familiar with the house for almost 50 years, speaks for a great many people, present and past, when he commented “I’m not important to Luggala, but Luggala’s important to me”.


Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House by Robert O’Byrne is published by Cico Books (£35)

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