The return of waxo Jacko
When Michael Jackson lived in Ireland for five months, it was in Paddy Dunning’s lodge in Westmeath. Now, his host unveils a model of the King of Pop and remembers his stay
‘I NEVER ASKED him to moondance, and I never asked him for a picture. Michael said that when he was leaving. He said, ‘Paddy, you’re the only person who I’ve met in my whole entire life who’s never asked me for a picture.”
Entrepreneur Paddy Dunning is talking about Michael Jackson, who, with his children, spent five months in 2006 living at Dunning’s recording studio complex at Grouse Lodge in Co Westmeath. The photograph that accompanies this article, and in which the two do finally appear together, is of a live Dunning and a brand-new waxwork of Jackson, which went on show yesterday at the National Wax Museum Plus; another of Dunning’s businesses.
Grouse Lodge is located some winding potholed miles from the village of Rosemount in Co Westmeath, among lovely countryside peppered with cairns and historic sites. It’s purposely unsigned, but that hasn’t stopped many famous names in the music industry finding it. Among those who have used the studios here, which opened in 2002, are Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, REM, Shirley Bassey, Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, The Thrills and Westlife.
The studio’s most famous resident to date, however, was undoubtedly Michael Jackson. After the 2005 trial in California, when Jackson was acquitted of charges of child sexual abuse allegations, he spent very little time in the US. Five months of 2006 were spent in rural Westmeath. Rumours leaked out at the time of Jackson being sighted in Moate, Kilbeggan or Horseleap; locations that all seemed surreally unlikely places for the Prince of Pop to be wandering around.
Paddy Dunning sits over coffee in one of the converted stableblocks at the secluded Grouse Lodge, reminiscing about Jackson’s time there, together with his children Prince Michael Junior, Paris and Blanket, and their nanny and tutor. There are two recording studios and comfortable, but modest, accommodation in a variety of converted stone buildings in the complex. The all-in price for renting the studios, accommodation and food used to be €1,500 a day; now it is a “recession-friendly” €850 a day.
Across the road from Grouse Lodge is Coolatore House, a beautiful late Victorian mansion, which can also be rented by artists or the public. Jackson lived in the Grouse Lodge complex for a month, and at Coolatore for four. Seamus Heaney has also stayed there for a period. The weekend before I arrive, 14 gardaí had rented the house for a hen party.
“Michael had heard about the place through an agent; he had lots of agents,” Dunning relates. Once the family arrived, the gates were closed and the Jackson children settled down to a routine of lessons in a small room off one of the studios, playing with Dunning’s two children in the afternoons. Jackson made his own porridge in the mornings, favoured grilled chicken, fish and rice for dinner, went for walks, and read The Irish Timesdaily.
“He was very interested in how this country worked, and the boom that was on here at the time. He was an avid reader of The Irish Times; he read it every day from start to finish.”
At the time of his death last summer, Jackson was reported to be taking an extensive range of drugs on a regular basis. However, Dunning says he saw no evidence of this. “Not that I saw and he was here, or around, all the time. We’d go for walks, and he was fit. Michael could move really quickly; I’ve never seen anyone move so quickly. He was like a ballet dancer.”
The staff working at Grouse Lodge did not even tell their partners who the studio’s current resident was, although Dunning himself cracked. “I eventually told my mam,” he confesses. “And then my mam was saying prayers for Michael. And then Michael rang his mother and told her that my mother was saying prayers for him, and then she was saying prayers for my mother, so I went back to my mother and told her ‘Michael Jackson’s mother is saying prayers for you, Mam’. My mother is a small little lady up in Walkinstown and it’s just mad to think that Michael Jackson’s mother was saying prayers for her.”
Jackson, one of the world’s most recognisable faces, sometimes left the estate to explore other parts of Ireland, usually accompanied by Dunning. How was it that nobody in Ireland appeared to notice him?
“Sometimes they did,” Dunning replies simply. “Sometimes I’d drive him to Dublin and we’d pull up a red light and Michael would look out the window, because he’d be sitting up front with me, and a person would not believe their eyes. They would go into semi-shock at the sight, not knowing what to believe – is this Michael Jackson that’s pulled up alongside me on Dame Street or wherever?”
The pair of them sang in the car as they drove around the country. “Although I’m a crap musician, I can say I’ve played with Michael Jackson,” Dunning laughs. “I played drums with him. And I sang with Michael. We’d be singing in the car. We sang that song, The Girl Is Mine, that Michael recorded with Paul McCartney. He did Paul McCartney’s part, and I did Michael Jackson.”
One of the places that Dunning took Jackson was to the nearby Hill of Úisneach, a historic site associated with the High Kings of Ireland. “He loved history and mythology,” says Dunning, who is developing a Mayday festival around Úisneach – the Festival of the Fires – which will, he hopes, eventually radiate out across Ireland.
A fire will be lit on Úisneach on the evening of May 1st, where there will be music, craft, a market, and talks about the history and mythology of the area. Sharon Shannon, Mundy, Kíla and others are scheduled to play. Landowners with hills in surrounding areas are being invited to light their own hilltop fires at dusk, and gather their communities to celebrate Mayday.
Dunning’s dream is to develop it into a 32-county festival that will attract the diaspora back to their local regions, and bring in seasonal revenue. “We want to send a global invitation to all the diaspora to come back to their home county in May to celebrate the ancient festival of Bealtaine.” He doesn’t like talking about the possibility of rain on the evening.
Although staff, neighbours, the shopkeepers at Rosemount – and Dunning’s small children – kept quiet about the fact Michael Jackson was in residence, in the end, a US reporter eventually revealed his whereabouts. One Billy Bush, nephew of George Bush senior, first cousin of George Bush junior and presenter of Access Hollywood, a syndicated cable entertainment-news show, arrived to interview Jackson in Westmeath. He went into nearby Moate straight after filming and told the men, women, children and dogs in the street where Jackson was. “Stupid man,” Dunning says mournfully, but really, could any other result have been reasonably expected?
Jackson departed the midlands soon afterwards, to attend the funeral of soul icon, James Brown. He left the Dunnings his television; toys that had been bought for Prince Michael Junior, Paris and Blanket; various hats; a signed piece of wood (all visitors sign a slice of tree trunk); and a page of scrawled signature in the Visitors’ Book. “He was a very generous man,” says Dunning.
Jackson had agreed, in theory, to open Dunning’s Wax Museum last summer. “We’d told him about the museum. He was always interested in wax museums. He said, ‘If I’m around, I’ll launch it for you’. He was due to be in England at the time to do the shows at O2, and we were going to be going over to the shows and all of that. It was a massive shock when we heard he was dead.”
For more, see: festivalofthefires.com