Garech Browne, thank you. And sorry. And goodbye
Rosita Sweetman: He could have been a right nob. Instead he left us Claddagh and Luggala
Stan Gebler Davies, Gloria MacGowran, Francis Bacon and Garech Browne at The French House, Soho, London in the 1970s. Photograph: Christie’s Images
Anne Madden, Louis le Brocquy, his son, Pierre and Garech Browne at the opening of the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art.
Our first proper visit to Luggala followed a lunchtime seisuin in the Roundwood Inn, Garech’s local. My two were still pretty young, about 10 and 7. After an unexpected overnight the night before with friends I’d been lent fresh clothes; I remember the softest green suede jacket, a white T-shirt. Temporarily released from the brutal gulag of Lone Parenting I felt like a film star.
Initially both my two took everything in their stride – the over-excited adults, the vertiginous drive down the mountain, huge rocks and scarified trees clinging to the sides, the lake a brooding platinum disc at the bottom fringed with blonde bright beach at one end, massive trees heralding the avenue, Tara’s lonely monument and finally the beautiful white house – but when the butler opened the front door in full butler regalia, for some reason my little man nearly lost his life; he screamed hysterically and wouldn’t stop until the butler, deeply embarrassed – he’d been welcoming friends of the family including Brendan Behan, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Charlotte Rampling, Denis Hopper, John Hurt, John Huston, John Boorman and our very own Chieftains to the house for generations – had left the room.
Garech was much amused. “Clearly Paddy is a very bad man.”
Mollified, Paddy returned from the kitchens with gins on a silver salver. I remember glasses the size of vases filled mostly with gin, one ice cube, one mint leaf and the vaguest hint of tonic. I tipped three-quarters of mine into a nearby potted plant (sorry darling!); my glass instantly refilled.
The children, sat now in front of a huge hissing spitting log fire, were happily going through Garech’s wonderful pile of picture books.
The party is getting into its swing.
Would we like to see some of the house? Garech, dressed in trademark Aran sweater, bainin jacket, tweed trousers, crois and beard, took my daughter and I around. She, then on her second round of Jane Austen’s entire oeuvre, was enchanted. This from Queen Victoria. This from the House of Lords. This 1750s harpsichord on which Sean O Riada composed, and was recorded on, for O Riada’s Farewell. “Mum has that record, don’t you, Mum?” piped up my little daughter. Garech beamed. “You’ve got a very clever little one there.” We were interrupted by fresh howls from the kitchen where my little man, taken on a tour by Roderic to see the copper pans, had encountered the poor butler again.
Several hours little, installed in the back of the car, feigning sleep, a sleeping child either side, Garech’s wingman chatted with my friend’s husband; Garech wants her for his mistress. Dammit, said my friend’s husband, so do I.
They meant me! I was ready to scream with happiness! I’m still wantable. O thank the Gods. Except that would have given the game away. Not to mention if my friend thought I was so much as looking crooked at her husband, never mind conniving to be his and Garech’s mistress, I was dead. It was midnight and Cinderella had to go home. Still, I smiled for two days.
Of course I’d known, and known of, Garech since the 1960s when he’d set up Claddagh Records with fellow icon, Ivor Browne. At the time the Guardian described him as “a reformed playboy”; hard to say if Garech ever exactly “reformed” but as a member of the aristocracy he made this incredibly unique intervention in to Ireland’s cultural life, yanking traditional music back from a near, and certain, death.
As teenagers he and his famed younger brother Tara (“I read the news today O boy”) travelled all over the west of Ireland collecting singers, musicians, pipers, keeners, poets and tunes. Many people thought he was mad. “Forget all that aul’ shite etcetera, etcetera. Ireland is ‘modern’ now.” Luckily Garech didn’t listen. In his book, Luggala Days, Robert O’Byrne says Garech’s rescuing of traditional music is akin to the collectors of the American Deep South who’d found, and preserved, the voices of Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker and laid the foundation for the modern jazz movement.
Claddagh’s back catalogue is glorious. Sean O Riada, the Chieftains, Samuel Beckett read by Jack MacGowran (their voices so alike Garech said he had to look up to see who was speaking when they were in studio), Robert Graves, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Derek Mahon, Hugh MacDiarmid, Veronica McSwiney, Bernadette Greevy, Freddie May. Each album a carefully produced work of art, with sleeve notes written by proper writers, art work commissioned from artists like Louis le Brocquy and Eddie Delaney. The original recordings along with many unpublished ones now in a vault in Dublin. What a treasure trove that must be.
Alongisde Claddagh Records, Luggala, the beautiful 18th-century shooting lodge built by the La Touche family (“a present” said Garech’s mother Oonagh, “from my dear father”) was his other abiding passion. “Custodian of the Valley”, he was the never to be replaced custodian of Luggala – of its family history, its photo albums, visitor books, shooting logs, its architecture, its interiors, all lavishly and lovingly remodelled and redecorated by Garech in 1996, with Gothic windows and chimneys returned to original splendour, a new staircase, a new library, silks and velvets for curtains and soft furnishings especially commissioned and brought in from Paris, London, Northern Ireland. The end result was a triumph – Luggala is not only one of Ireland’s prettiest historic houses, but is its best maintained one as well. No crumbling pile here.
Lots of rich nobs, like lots of not so rich nobs, make nothing or little of their lives. Garech had the wherewithal to be a right royal do-nothing-but-get-soused nob, instead he’s left us Claddagh’s extraordinary musical and spoken word legacy, and in preserving Luggala and its history so diligently, he’s honoured the lives lived there, the people who came, the music, art, and poetry that blossomed there. Not to forget the gin and the astonishing parties.
The last time I saw him was in the autumn, at Anne Madden’s opening in the Hugh Lane gallery. He was his usual charming self but he’d given an interview a few months previously saying Life is basically Hell. He was tired. He wasn’t well. Standing on the gallery stairs he said he didn’t know what was supposed to be happening next. There was a dinner. What time were they all expected to be there? he had no idea. In a moment of tiredness and blinding stupidity I said it must be quite nice not to know what’s going on. He gave me one of his looks: “It isn’t,” he said. “I hate it.”
I’m so sad I never got back down to Luggala, to say Sorry, of course it bloody isn’t.
To say Thank you. To say goodbye.