Garech Browne (1939-2018): a lifetime celebrating artists at Luggala

Guinness heir hosted Seán Ó Riada, Seamus Heaney and Michael Jackson at Wicklow estate

Garech Browne:  always showed a loyalty to Irish arts and music, partly reflected in his co-founding of Claddagh Records. Photograph: Joe St Leger

Garech Browne: always showed a loyalty to Irish arts and music, partly reflected in his co-founding of Claddagh Records. Photograph: Joe St Leger

 

It was soon after midnight, and the last time I sat in front of the large Gothic fireplace in the drawing room at Luggala, Garech Browne was leafing through some of his old visitor’s books, occasionally reading out a name, before recounting in vivid detail the circumstances of their arrival.

Seán Ó Riada. Seamus Heaney. Paddy Moloney. Lucian Freud. John Montague. Michael Jackson.

Occasionally he would send me down to the pantry for another bottle of Marqués De Riscal Gran Reserva, or outside to refill the basket of logs, all the while acting out the part of the perfect and generous host, which of course he was.

It was Heaney who wrote that to first enter the Luggala Estate, “you do cross a line into a slight otherwhere” – and by that he meant a part of the world not just separate to most others, but so magically timeless and unspoilt to be considered a world apart.

It was something about that which first drew me there, in 2013, to live for a year in a small cut-stone cottage perched on one side of the valley that overlooks the usually shivering dark edges of Lough Tay, in the heart of the 5,000 acres of outer remoteness that is the Luggala estate.

Loftiest reputations

For Browne, Luggala was more than just an estate or a house: for three centuries poets and painters of the loftiest reputations had been drawn into the clutches of this Wicklow retreat, long before the Guinness family snapped it all up in 1937.

Garech Browne with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains and his wife Rita O’Reilly in 1971. Photograph: Kevin McMahon
Garech Browne with Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains and his wife Rita O’Reilly in 1971. Photograph: Kevin McMahon

Browne maintained this at Luggala throughout his life, carrying on a tradition of celebrating writers and poets and musicians – always showing a loyalty to Irish arts and music, partly reflected in his co-founding of Claddagh Records.

That tradition began with his mother Oonagh Guinness, a direct descendent of Arthur Guinness, who, after marrying for the second time in 1937, to Lord Dominick Browne, was presented with Luggala as a wedding present from her father Ernest Guinness (one of the few family members truly dedicated to the brewing business).

The actor John Hurt with Garech Browne and his wife, Princess Purna, in 1993
The actor John Hurt with Garech Browne and his wife, Princess Purna, in 1993

Montague once described her as having “a very dangerous sense of fun”, and in some ways Browne did too. I often thought if those walls of the Luggala drawing-room could speak they would never shut up, earning the place a unique reputation entirely fitting with the landscape itself.

Part-custodian

Since 1977 Browne, her eldest son, had been the legal part-custodian of the estate. She had two other sons: Tara, who also grew up in Luggala, later swapping it for London, only to be killed, instantly, when he crashed his light-blue Lotus Elan at age 21; and her middle son, who died not long after birth.

In 1981, Browne married Princess Harshad Purna Devi, the youngest daughter of the Maharaja of Morvi, a former princely state in India. They’ve no children, and in recent years he spent less time in Luggala, and more time between London and Singapore, where his wife lives.

Still, much of his life was about preserving Luggala as originally as possible. His death at age 78, with the entire estate also put on the market last year for a price of €28 million, means it will never be the same again.