The fate of Luggala, the famed Guinness estate hidden away in the Wicklow mountains and for sale on the open market for €28 million, hangs in the balance. The 18th-century property situated on 5,000 acres on the shores of Lough Dan and Lough Tay has long held an almost mythical status.
Under its current custodian, Garech Browne and his mother Oonagh Guinness before him, Luggala has earned a reputation as a cultural hub where Irish music, art and literature have been inspired, encouraged and allowed to flourish for decades.
This week Tony Boylan, project manager at Luggala and close friend to Browne for 20 years, opened the doors of the house to The Irish Times. Although it's about 40 minutes' drive from Dublin, once through the gate you feel a million miles away. The long drive winds past smaller estate houses and rolling mountains into the valley to the house itself.
At 700sq m, the castellated main house appears a modest enough affair. But its origins were modest too. Originally it was a hunting lodge, built in 1787 in a Gothic Revival style by the La Touche banking family. It came into the hands of Oonagh Guinness when it was given to her as a wedding present by her father, Ernest Guinness of the brewing family, in 1937. Following her divorce from Philip Kindersley in 1950 Oonagh made Luggala the centre of her high-society social life and attracted visitors from all over the world.
A who's-who of luminaries have rocked up to this magical woodland setting ever since, all of it well documented in former Irish Times journalist Robert O'Byrne's definitive book on the estate, Luggala Days. A playground for the elite, the home has played host to Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, U2, John Hurt, and Seamus Heaney – in fact almost every Irish literary and musical figure of note in the past 50 years.
What is often less publicised is the lifelong effort Browne has put into restoring and refurbishing the seven-bed property to its original glory. The house was damaged by fire in 1956 and hastily refurbished, but in 1997 Browne set in earnest about arresting the decline and restoring every inch of the Gothic Revival property.
No expense was spared in bringing it back to its original glory and installing such modern comforts as underfloor heating, state-of-the-art insulation throughout and a sophisticated security system. The total cost was around €4 million. Among the substantial alterations were the recreation of the original arched windows which had been squared-off in the late 19th century; the reinstatement of chimneys and battlements to their correct height and scale; and the recreation of a long-lost wing on the north side of the courtyard.
What sets Luggala apart from other manor homes is its innate cosiness from the moment you enter. The house is also replete with original artwork and exquisite antique furniture. The décor is distinctly Irish but with influences from India, where Browne spends a good portion of his time with his wife of 36 years, Princess Harshad Purna Devi of Morvi, daughter of the last Maharaja of Morvi.
The wall art includes work by Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Jack Yeats, Louis le Brocquy, Hughie O'Donoghue and Mainie Jellet.
Famed English interior designer David Mlinaric (whose client list includes Sting and Eric Clapton among others) and Irishwoman Amanda Douglas completed the interiors, along with Boylan, a qualified chartered surveyor.
To properly restore the house they frequently visited Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole's Gothic Revival house in London on which Luggala was originally modelled. Master craftsman Dick Reid, who has worked extensively with the British royal family, was enlisted to complete the joinery, and redesign and replace damaged fireplaces.
The house is a tribute in ways to all the people Browne has met along the way, including, through his time at Claddagh Records those musicians he insisted should have portraits and not photographs on their album covers. Sean Ó Riada used Browne’s antique harpsichord to play compositions for his final recording.
In the dining room there are four stark portraits of Browne's friends: poets Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and film-maker John Boorman, all by Paris-based artist Anthony Palliser, another good friend of Browne.
Over the years Palliser has completed a succession of portraits of visitors to Luggala, and an imposing self-portrait hangs in the night nursery upstairs. This was the bedroom where the late Michael Jackson stayed when he holed up here for weeks with his family in 2006, to hide from the paparazzi.
Boylan remembers Jackson as an “absolute gentleman, really a child at heart”, who after a number of days asked him to remove the painting from the bedroom of “the freaky looking guy staring down at him”.
Also preserved almost shrine-like is Tara Browne's room. Tara was Garech's brother who died in a car crash in 1966 at the age of 21 just as he was gaining celebrity as a London socialite. His death was the subject of the Beatles' song, A Day in the Life. It's a sentimental room where his childhood drawings are framed and hung, along with black and white shots of Tara and Garech on the family boat, the Fantome, in 1949.
Pictured here also is Tessa Kindersley, the boys' stepsister, who died following a diphtheria injection when she was just 14. Tessa and Tara are buried along with their mother Oonagh in the grounds of the estate.
As part of the restoration, a new library for Browne’s vast and noteworthy book collection and an indoor swimming pool are nearly complete.
Joint agents for the sale, Nick Crawford and David Ashmore of Ireland Sotheby’s International Realty, are confident the estate will sell promptly based on early interest.
Browne has indicated a preference for a buyer who would allow him retain an annual three-month occupancy at Luggala and for the existing estate staff to be retained. He would also be happy to see the State intervene to purchase the estate.
Tall orders perhaps, but at Luggala it seems, anything can happen.