Spirit of the house
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.”