‘In this sequester’d, wild, romantic dell
Where nature loves in solitude to dwell,
Who would expect ‘midst such a lonely park
The charms of fancy and the plans of art,
Whilst the neat mansion, formed with simple taste,
Amidst a wilderness for comfort plac’d,|
Adorns the scene and hospitably shews
The seat of pleasure and serene repose.’
So in 1807 wrote, Joseph Atkinson, an army officer-turned-playwright, of Luggala, County Wicklow. For more than 200 years, this secluded valley tucked deeo into the Wicklow Mountains has been the subject of many such encomia, generations of visitors captivated by what they have found there.
Yet until the onset of the Romantic era at the end of the 18th century Luggala, along with much of the surrounding region, lay unoccupied, untended and largely unknown. Only following its discovery around 1787 by Peter La Touche, a rich banker in search of seclusion, did Luggala come to public notice. Having remained free from the intervention of man for millennia the site, La Touche wisely realised, demanded nothing other than a dwelling with a character to match the setting. Designed by a now-unknown architect, this is Luggala Lodge, facing Lough Tay at the other end of the valley and terminating a vista that stretches from lake shore to steep ground immediately behind. As James Brewer remarked in 1825 the building ‘is well adapted to the recluse parts of Ireland, where nature reigns in wild and mysterious majesty.’
Three years before Brewer the Rev. George Newenham Wright, a cleric with literary aspirations, published A Guide to the County of Wicklow. Several pages of the book are devoted to Luggala, the author awe-struck that the first view of the site ‘is of a bold, awful and sublime character’ and the sheer mass of mountainside closing the prospect ‘exhibiting a continued mass of naked granite to the very summit, forming the most complete representation of all that is wild, dreary and desolate in nature, and defying all attempts at innovation that the aspiring genius of man has ever dared to undertake.’ Not long afterwards, Prince Herman von Pückler-Muskau, an impoverished German aristocrat travelling through Britain and Ireland in search of a wife wealthy enough to fund his inclination towards extravagance, visited County Wicklow and afterwards reported:, ‘I reached the summit of the mountain above the magnificent valley and lake of Luggelaw, the sun gilded all the country beneath me, though the tops of the hills were yet shrouded in mist. This valley belongs to a wealthy proprietor, who has converted it into a delightful park…It is indeed a lovely spot of earth, lonely and secluded; the wood full of game, the lake full of fish and nature full of poetry.’ When American film director John Huston wrote his memoir An Open Book in 1980 he recalled the first time he had visited Luggala twenty-nine years earlier. Arriving late at night and in the dark, he had seen little. ‘The next morning at dawn I went to the window and looked out upon a scene I have never forgotten. Through pines and yews in the garden I saw, across a running stream, a field of marigolds and beyond the field – surprisingly – a white sandy beach bordering a black lake…Above the lake was a mountain of black rock rising precipitously, and on its crest – like a shawl over a piano – a profusion of purple heather. I was to go back to Luggala many times, but I’ll never forget that first impression. I was Ireland’s own from that moment.’
Luggala Lodge, wrote the Knight of Glin in 1965, is an example of ‘that special brand of eighteenth-century gothick that rejoices in little battlements, crochets, trefoil and quatrefoil windows and ogee mantelpieces: in fact, the gothick of pastrycooks and Rockingham china.’ The building observed Michael Luke some twenty years ago, shines ‘like the discarded crown of a prima ballerina.’ Bulgarian-born author Stephane Groueff who stayed in the house during the 1950s remembered it ‘looking like an illustration from a nursery book of “The Queen of Hearts”.’ And actress Anjelica Huston recalls Luggala from her childhood: ‘It was like going into a fairy tale. Descending into the dell with the ferns and the overhanging trees, the flocks of deer and the pheasants, and then coming on the magical lake with its sand made up of chips of mica.’
Diarist Frances Partridge came to stay in the early 1950s and afterwards recorded, ‘What a magical atmosphere that house had, charmingly furnished and decorated to match its style, dim lights, soft music playing and Irish voices ministering seductively to our needs.’ Sixty years later, author and critic Francis Wyndham remembers Luggala as being ‘the most romantic place I’ve ever known,’ and recalls ‘that sparkling little jewel of a house with the black lake before it.’
And here is the present custodian of Luggala, the Hon. Garech Browne, wonderfully photographed by Neil Gavin in the house’s drawing room. Like each of his predecessors, Garech has ensured the special character of this spot be preserved. Luggala today remains as it was in the time of Joseph Atkinson, ‘the seat of pleasure and serene repose.’
My new book, Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, has now been published.