Why the State should buy the €28 million Guinness ancestral home in Wicklow

‘A miraculously preserved kingdom where the only certainty is that it never stays the same’

 

Exactly four years ago, I packed boxes into the back of my Jeep Wrangler, drove into the Wicklow Mountains and across the Sally Gap, then checked into a small stone-cut cottage in the heart of the 5,000 acres of outer remoteness that is the Luggala estate.

It was a nuclear cold winter morning. My family reckoned I would survive for no more than a month. My friends said a week. Instead I lasted for more than a year, each day dreaming that I had awoken in another world or another lifetime or somewhere in between.

Luggala is its own miraculously preserved kingdom that by turns of the hour or light can be touchingly calm, or tortuously bleak, with sounds or silence to follow suit. The only certainty is that it never once stays the same.

In winter, it could be the sound of a river whispering, or the wind heaving under iron clouds. The view from the half-door could be filled with empty space, whitened by snow; while below, the shivering dark edges of Lough Tay mimic the Arctic’s icy shores.

In summer, when the sun leaned in, warming the golden-fleeced gorse and the sweet blooming ferns, it could be a jungle, the traces of 18th-century farmland and ancient paths buried under the miracle of growth that is the Cloghogue Valley in scorching July.

Crumbling lunar granite

Or at any time, the eyes could be startled as they drew across Fancy Mountain’s lofty crumbling lunar granite, or drawn to the scatterings of native Irish oak and giant umbrella pine, or the herds of Sika deer roaming beside beer-coloured streams, and over to Scarr’s bulking tip.

These are not just my reflections. To first enter Luggala, wrote Seamus Heaney, “you do cross a line into a slight otherwhere” – and by that he also meant a part of the world not just separate to most others, but one magically timeless and unspoilt.

Heaney’s thoughts about Luggala return to the mind, following news that it is for sale for €28 million. To some, that might sound a bit steep for an old hunting lodge and some smaller dwellings on largely infertile ground. To me, it sounds like an absolute steal.

Daniel Day-Lewis once looked down from his bicycle as he passed along The Murderin’ Pass that runs parallel to Luggala, quietly remarking that it singularly captured, in some fundamental way, why he loved living in Ireland.

Luggala has changed hands before. The Guinness family, indeed, first moved in back in 1937, but the sale now presents the possibility that Luggala could be snapped up by a wealthy, private investor, with all of the uncertainty that comes with that.

It may not be lost forever but, if so, it will never be the same again. For anyone who has ever set foot on its hallowed turf, that sounds like a cry against nature. Despite being so relatively well-hidden, and despite being privately owned, Luggala has never been closed off.

Eight owners

The vast majority of its lands are freely open to the public, with the exception of land around Lough Tay and around Luggala Lodge itself. Usually described as a Guinness estate, its history runs deeper. In all, it has had eight owners.

In 1788 Peter La Touche of the wealthy Irish banking family, of French-Huguenot extraction, bought the land and a primitive hunting lodge “for three lives at an annual rent of £39”. He rebuilt it in Strawberry Hill Gothic style.

In time, it passed to three generations of the La Touche family before going on to two generations of the Wingfield family, which held the Viscount of Powerscourt title. Ernest Guinness (one of the few family members truly dedicated to the brewing business) began renting part of it in 1912.

When his daughter Oonagh married for the second time in 1937, to Lord Dominick Browne, he bought the entire estate and immediately presented it to her as a wedding present, so beginning its most celebrated period.

Described by poet John Montague as having “a very dangerous sense of fun”, Oonagh Guinness hosted parties for Irish musicians, actors and artists, earning the place a unique reputation entirely fitting with the landscape itself.

In 1970 it was passed on to her son, the Hon Garech Browne, also a direct descendent of Arthur Guinness, who likewise retained it as a place of entertainment, albeit select.

Last autumn, Paul Howard brought part of Luggala’s life to a new audience in I Read the News Today, Oh Boy, the story of Garech’s younger brother, Tara, who grew up in Luggala. At 21 he died instantly in a crash in his light-blue Lotus Elan.

A month later, John Lennon read a newspaper report of his death at the EMI recording studios on Abbey Road. Touching the piano keys, he came up with opening line: “I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade.”

Charitable trust

That song, A Day in the Life, became the climactic track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The rest is trapped in Beatles history, while Tara now lies buried next to the small domed stone temple on the shore of Lough Tay.

Garech Browne’s loyalty to Irish arts and music is equally trapped in the history of Luggala, beginning a journey that led him to found Claddagh Records. Today, however, he is a few months shy of his 78th birthday.

Since 1981, the 77-year-old has been married to Princess Harshad Purna Devi, the youngest daughter of the Maharaja of Morvi, a former princely state in India. The couple, who do not have children, now spend little time in Luggala, opting, instead, for London and Singapore.

Since 1977, Browne has been Luggala’s legal part-custodian, but ownership of Luggala now rests in the charitable trust trading as Barbican International Corporation, a Guernsey-based Guinness family trust.

Going to live in Luggala was, for me, not about self-discovery, but rather simply about discovering a little more self-reliance. Four years on, its spirit still has not left me. A fully working estate, it is more than a pretty lodge, or a spectacular film set – though it has been both.

Employing between eight and 10 people, all work to Browne’s steadfast and often stubborn traditional philosophy – my stone-cut cottage, for example, had no heating, no shower, single-pane sash windows and a half-door that rattled in tune with the mountain wind.

The sale is now in the hands of estate agents Nick Crawford of Crawford’s and David Ashmore of Sotheby’s International Realty. “I have no doubt it will sell, and sell relatively quickly, in a matter of months if not weeks, if the right buyer finds it,” says Crawford.

All of which begs the question: should the Government be making an offer? There are other demands for the State’s money, including the homelessness crisis, but this is a unique property, with a unique history. It might well be considered priceless.

In March 2006, Browne sold nearly 1,600 acres to the State, which enabled it join up two previously separated blocks of the Wicklow Mountains National Park. Surely now is the time to ensure Ireland’s finest intact estate is kept open for us all. History and nature demands it.