Desmond Guinness: Socialite on a mission to save Ireland’s Georgian heritage

Obituary: He revived the Irish Georgian Society, and influenced State policy on historic houses

Desmond Guinness at Leixlip Castle in 2013. Photograph: Eric Lukebridge Big House Festival August Bank Holiday

Desmond Guinness at Leixlip Castle in 2013. Photograph: Eric Lukebridge Big House Festival August Bank Holiday

 

Born: 8th September, 1931
Died: 20th August, 2020

It is an extraordinary tribute to the Hon Desmond Guinness, who has died aged 88, that it is merely an exaggeration to say that, with his first wife Marie-Gabrielle (“Mariga”) von Urach, a member of the royal house of Würtemberg, he virtually created architectural conservation in this country, contributing hugely not only aesthetically and culturally, but economically through its impact on the country’s second-biggest indigenous industry, tourism.

A renowned socialite, party animal and generous host, Guinness entertained the international jet set at his home, Leixlip Castle. Those who visited included British royalty Princess Margaret, her husband Lord Snowdon, and Lord Mountbatten, A-listers such as Jacqueline Kennedy, film director John Huston, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, and his stepfather the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, his mother Diana Mitford’s husband.

A discernible line of gradually developing awareness of, and concern for, Ireland’s treasure trove of built heritage can be traced from Desmond Guinness’s revival in 1958 of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS) that had thrived between 1908 and 1913 – largely the work of John Pentland Mahaffy – through to the establishment of the Historic Irish Tourist Houses Association (HITHA) in 1969, the creation of the Irish Georgian Trust, the setting-up of the Heritage Council by an Act of the Oireachtas in 1995, and finally the setting-up of Houses, Castles and Gardens of Ireland (HGCI) in 1997.

In one way or another, the development of these bodies and the law itself were either the result of direct action on his part, or the result in part of his influence, over 50 years.

It was a brief letter to The Irish Times from Desmond Guinness that got the IGS ball rolling again, Frank McDonald recalled in this paper. “Writing in July 1957, he lamented that the old Georgian Society ‘seems to have lapsed’ and asked whether anyone would object to him ‘restarting’ it, among other things to ‘fight for the preservation of what is left of Georgian architecture in Ireland’.”

Guinness fought many battles throughout the following decade to save what was left of Georgian Ireland

The new society, McDonald would write later in The Destruction of Dublin, didn’t do itself any favours in republican Ireland by having so many members of the gentry on its first committee, including Lord Talbot de Malahide, Sir Alfred Beit and Lady Dunsany. “They were the remnants of the ascendancy seeking to preserve what was widely seen as the heritage of the ascendancy.”

Destruction

Nevertheless, from a very unpromising start in the 1950s, which saw the beginning of the destruction of much of Ireland’s Georgian heritage of architecture, Guinness and an initially small group of volunteers gradually built an organisation which now has branches in all of the major centres of population in Ireland, in Britain and, crucially, in many cities throughout north America.

Horrified by the pulling-down in 1957 of a Richard Castle-designed mansion and its neighbour on Kildare Place, Dublin, Guinness fought many battles throughout the following decade to save what was left of Georgian Ireland.

Most of these battles were lost initially; the destruction of 13-28 Lower Fitzwilliam Street to make way for new ESB offices in 1964-’65; the “facadism” which replaced houses at the junction of St Stephen’s Green and Hume St in 1969; the destruction of much of Mountjoy Square, arguably Dublin’s finest Georgian Square throughout much of the late 1960s, despite Guinness’ purchase of one of the houses there; and the 1983 early morning demolition of Frascati House in Blackrock, Co. Dublin.

But there were what proved to be very significant victories, too: the saving of Cashel Palace in the Co Tipperary town in 1962 after Guinness in the mid-1950s had persuaded Lord Brocket, from whom he had rented Carton House, Maynooth, to buy it and open it, restored, as a first-class hotel; the intervention which saved St Catherine’s Church in Dublin’s James’s Street in the late 1960s.

Dublin Corporation (now Dublin City Council) begin to recognise its responsibilities to the protection of Georgian Dublin with a grant of £15,000 in 1975 to secure the building’s structure, the rescuing of the Tailors’ Hall in Dublin from dereliction, and the supervision of its restoration, also in the 1970s, and, perhaps most significantly, the purchase – by Guinness himself – of the vast but near-derelict Palladian mansion Castletown House, outside Celbridge, Co Kildare, in 1967.

The latter case illustrated what became a characteristic of Guinness activism at its most effective. To raise funds for its restoration, and for other IGS projects, Guinness undertook a series of lecture tours to the United States which had two very significant results.

Conservation

Interested Americans, many of Irish ancestry, began to contribute large sums to the IGS for conservation projects which rose gradually, and then rapidly, in the years after Guinness’s first lecture tour there; between 1979 and 2007, the IGS received an average of $170,000 per annum from US sources. From 1965, when the first IGS “chapter” was set up in Boston, by 1969 there were chapters in at least 11 US states and also one in Toronto, Canada.

The IGS, in a tribute to him, said Guinness had “boldly championed the cause of Ireland’s architectural heritage at a time when it faced great challenges through neglect and threat of demolition from new development”.

After his parents’ divorce, his mother became notorious as the wife of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley

Guinness, who had come to Ireland in the mid-1950s as a relatively unknown great-grandson of the first Earl of Iveagh (he was a third cousin of the present Earl), had by the time of his death received very widespread recognition for his efforts: an honorary LL.D from Dublin University (1980), honorary membership of the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (2001), the Gold Medal of the Eire Society of Boston in the same year, and the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europe Nostra Award in 2006 – apart from being made, also, Grand Marshal of the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Seattle, USA in 2010.

Desmond Guinness was born in London in 1931 into the Guinness fortune, the younger of the two sons of the second Lord Moyne and his first wife, Diana Mitford, one of the four celebrated Mitford sisters. Later, after his parents’ divorce, his mother became notorious as the wife of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley and Guinness, as a teenager, had the unsettling experience of visiting her in Holloway women’s prison in London in 1945 where she had been interned as a Nazi sympathiser.

He grew up mostly with his father in England and at Knockmaroon House, Castleknock, Co Dublin, and was educated at Eton College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. It was during this latter period that he met Mariga, marrying her in 1954. In 1958 Desmond bought the 12th-century Leixlip Castle, by then reduced to little more than a shell, and he and Mariga set about restoring and refurbishing it.

In 1967 he published his first book, Portrait of Dublin; Georgian Dublin followed in 1979 as did many many others, including Dublin: A Grand Tour, and Great Irish Houses and Castles

After his divorce in the early 1980s, he married again, to Penelope Cuthbertson with whom he had already had a long, open relationship. In recent years he had suffered from Alzheimer’s.

Penelope survives him with his two children from his first marriage, Patrick and Marina, and his brother, Jonathan, the present Lord Moyne.