In October 1958 the Hon. Garech Browne, then aged 19, discussed with his friend Ivor Browne (later a well-known psychiatrist), the problems Irish traditional music faced securing a wider audience than was then the case. At the time both men were students of Dubliner Leo Rowsome who played the uilleann pipes, the bellows-blown bagpipe which evolved from ancient Irish warpipes. Chairman of the Pipers’ Club (from which emerged the traditional music organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann) and the finest performer of his generation, Rowsome could find no record company prepared to issue a long-playing album of his music. It was believed a market did not exist for such material.
Garech had already been thinking about establishing his own music label to record and distribute the music of traditional performers. But in an Ireland anxious to embrace modernisation, musicians like Rowsome were regarded as an anachronism, a roadblock on the way to progress. Following his conversation with Ivor Browne other people were drawn into the project including poet John Montague and genealogist Liam Mac Alasdair. It was discovered that the cost of producing a single LP was in the region of £500, then the average annual salary of a school teacher in Ireland. However the group of friends pluckily pooled their resources and pressed ahead. In the autumn of 1959 they issued an LP containing forty minutes of Leo Rowsome’s playing called Rí na bPíobairí – The King of Pipers.
The company responsible for this and later recordings was given the name Claddagh Records. Today known for the rings symbolising love and friendships but originally a fishing village, Claddagh is a district close to the centre of Galway city where the river Corrib meets Galway Bay. Garech chose the name for his company because ‘it had the symbol and the name, and because we are the Brownes of Galway.’
‘Claddagh Records was launched at Garech’s mews flat in Quinn’s Lane,’ John Montague later recalled, ‘with a firkin of Guinness porter (of course) in the corner, and a party which roared on until dawn, the first of many such sprawling, splendid parties.’ However, since he was still not twenty-one and therefore deemed a minor, it was not legally possible for Garech to become director of a company. Only in 1960 was Claddagh incorporated and Garech could assume the position of company chairman. Thereafter the business, while always remaining small, began to flourish and as the 1960s progressed more and more albums were produced. It is indicative of Garech’s interests that the company’s second recording should have been not of another musician but of a poet. Patrick Kavanagh, like Rowsome the finest exemplar of his craft, was persuaded into a studio where he read almost everything he had written.
The distinctive richness of the Claddagh catalogue is due to its mixture of music and spoken word. Pre-eminent in the former category are early recordings of The Chieftains but a wealth of other names deserves to be noted, among them Tommy Potts, Liam O’Flynn, Matt Molloy, Christy Moore and Ronan Browne. Composer Seán Ó Riada was one of the most influential figures in the revival of interest in Irish traditional music and shortly before his early death in October 1971 Garech, who had become a good friend, persuaded Ó Riada to come to Luggala and record a programme of Irish dance music and song airs on an upright harpsichord made in Dublin in 1764 and still in the house today. The resultant album, Ó Riada’s Farewell, was released posthumously to acclaim. Claddagh also recorded classical music, not least Frederick May’s 1936 String Quartet in C Minor, thirty eight years after its composition, as well as Veronica McSwiney’s interpretation of the nocturnes of John Field (the early 19th century Irish composer credited with creating this piano form) and mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy’s recordings of Brahms and Bach. But the company’s particular strength is its catalogue of traditional Irish music. ‘Our crusade for the preservation of Irish music,’ observes John Montague, ‘could be compared with the influential early recordings of American jazz and blues. The rich, bittersweet voices of Robert Johnson, Big Bill Bronzy, John Lee Hooker and others would have died with them if they had not been recorded, but because they were preserved, they became the foundation on which modern jazz has grown and flourished, as modern Irish music has also, because of those early recordings.’
John Montague’s involvement with Claddagh Records helped to ensure the company’s Spoken Word series features an unprecedented number of outstanding writers, by no means all of them Irish, reading their own work. The list ranges from Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Austin Clarke and Ted Hughes to Robert Graves, Hugh MacDiarmid, Liam O’Flaherty and, of course, John Montague. In 1966 Samuel Beckett oversaw the recording of extracts from his theatre work being read by the actor Jack MacGowran. In the studio, Garech remembers, ‘Jackie sounded so like Sam, I had to look up to see which one of them was speaking.’ The issued album’s musical accompaniment was provided by two of Beckett’s relations and the author striking a gong. One of the other distinctive features of Claddagh Records releases from the start has been the exceptionally high calibre of the sleeve artwork and notes. ‘We always believed that you should get an author who could write to produce the sleeve notes,’ says Garech, ‘and we used artists like Patrick Swift and Louis Le Brocquy and Edward Delaney…We were very fussy about typefaces and overall design. What we tried to do was get the arts to speak together.’
Claddagh’s back catalogue is unrivalled: ‘In troubled times it got us through, and with much style,’ said Ivor Browne’s son Ronan, a noted uilleann piper. ‘Claddagh set the bar very high for everyone who followed.’ Anjelica Huston, who has known the company’s founder all her life agrees. ‘I think Garech in a way was uniquely responsible for world acceptance of Irish music, Irish culture.’
In 1996 Garech undertook a complete refurbishment of Luggala, the fabulous late-18th century house in County Wicklow which his mother had been given by her father almost sixty years earlier and of which he subsequently became the most loyal custodian. As is often the case with enterprises of this sort, much of the work undertaken over the next few years was necessary but invisible. Among the more noticeable structural alterations, however, was the restoration of chimneys and battlements to their original height and scale since parts of both had been altered in the 19th century, as had the windows. The return of the latter to their original Gothic form is the most immediately dramatic modification of the building and the one which demanded the greatest assault on the structure, since sections of the external walls had to be removed. Once that work was completed, the coved ceilings of rooms affected were re-done. The result was even more radical than had been anticipated: the south-facing rooms are now inundated with light as the spectacular landscape beyond almost seems to enter the house.
In addition to the installment of arched windows, a new staircase – in fact an 18th century one salvaged from another house – was installed, as were appropriate chimneypieces in the drawing room and dining room. Internally the house was thoroughly redecorated, albeit in a style that recalled its previous incarnation. For this assignment, Garech called on the services of two friends who knew Luggala well and were sympathetic to its distinctive character: David Mlinaric and Angela Douglas. Their brief was to make the house look much as it had before, ‘the same, only different.’ ‘It was clear that Garech wanted it to feel like the old Luggala,’ David Mlinaric commented. He was by no means a passive client. ‘I was taught to use my eyes by Lucian Freud,’ Garech explains. ‘Lucian took me round the Louvre when I was about fourteen. He didn’t tell me how to use my eyes, but allowed me to use them – and then told me I was right!’ The house’s restoration was very much a collaborative process. ‘What Garech has,’ said film director John Boorman, ‘is exquisite taste in almost everything.’ It is a verdict with which David Mlinaric would concur. Of Luggala’s redecoration he says, ‘Garech really led it because he’s very certain about what he wants and likes. His taste is pretty similar to mine.’
Douglas and Mlinaric looked to source identical successors for much of what had been in the house, such as the Pugin-designed drawing room paper. This was hand printed by London firm Cole & Son using the original blocks made in the 19th century by J C Crace & Son. Other papers for the house were printed by Irish specialist David Skinner. The library curtain fabric was made by Atkinsons in Northern Ireland. They had not produced this beautiful watered poplin for years but agreed to do it for Garech and to match the colour of his grandfather’s robes as a Knight of St Patrick. The red silk velvet for the drawing room curtains came from France, and the silk for the inner curtains was made in England by Humphries Weavers. Every single item in the house is special in some way – nothing was off the peg. Even the carpets were specially dyed. As an instance of the trouble taken over the furnishings, the drawing room settee, originally made for Russborough, is now covered burgundy-coloured velvet. This fabric was gauffraged, or stamped, by a firm in Lyons using surviving 18th century wooden cylinders which broke during the process, meaning this technique can never be repeated.
An entry in the Luggala visitors’ book notes that in August 2000 a ‘christening of the chamber’ took place in the presence of Garech and several old friends like Paddy Moloney and John Hurt. The process of moving back into the house began the following month, but refurbishment work went on for some time longer. ‘Somebody said to me that Luggala could be beautiful also if done very simply,’ David Mlinaric remembered. ‘The answer to which is yes, but not for Garech.’
Is there a better – or more gorgeously – dressed man in Ireland than Garech Browne? It seems unlikely since no one else takes as much care over his appearance or over co-ordinating the colour, texture and fabric of his clothes. For all that, Garech is neither vain nor exhibitionistic. He does not particularly care to have attention drawn to what he is wearing and can seem almost abashed when this occurs. He is far from being a poseur, dislikes the company of those who are merely so and is probably most at ease when least noticed. He can, however, talk eloquently on the history and development of costume and loves to describe each element of his extensive wardrobe.
Garech Browne is a true dandy, not in the rather frivolous sense by which this term is customarily dismissed, but in the more serious fashion that dandyism has always been understood among the French. He would certainly appreciate Balzac’s remark in his Traité de la vie élégante of 1830 that ‘dress consists not so much in the garment as in the way it is worn.’ He would also no doubt agree with Baudelaire’s argument more than 30 years later that dandies ‘all partake of the same character of opposition and revolt…Dandyism is the last splendour of heroism.’ Of all texts published on this subject, the finest is Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Dandyisme of 1845. While admitting that dandyism ‘is almost as difficult a thing to describe as it is to define,’ the author noted one primary characteristic ‘is always to produce the unexpected, that which could not logically be anticipated by those accustomed to the yoke of rules.’ Dandyism, therefore, ‘while still respecting the conventionalities, plays with them.’
This perfectly describes Garech’s own approach to clothing, which is simultaneously individual and yet conformist. Individual in his fondness for mixing unusual tones and materials, he still complies strictly with what could be construed as old-fashioned rules of correct dressing. He insists, for example, on wearing braces – ‘they make your trousers stay up and I find them comfortable, as a matter of fact’ – and also always closes his shirt sleeves with cufflinks. If the colouring of his clothes is original, the cut is not: tradition rules when it comes to tailoring, and he is a stickler for good form in matters of style. But he has no desire to look the same as every other well-dressed man. ‘I don’t want to be a sheep,’ he remarked about his personal mode of dress 20 years ago. ‘Very boring to be a sheep.’ Having found a style he felt suited him, he has remained loyal to it ever since; he has worn the same beard, albeit grown steadily greyer, for more than two decades and his hair is forever worn tied back by a piece of ribbon.
Garech says he has always loved good clothing. He remembers being aged 11 when his first suit – a two-tone corduroy number – was made by a tailor called Scott with premises in Dublin’s Lincoln Place. In adulthood he chose to follow the example of his father and grandfather, and has his coats and suits made by London tailors Lesley Roberts. His shirts are made by Turnbull & Asser, his shoes by Lobb’s. Ties and braces come from a wide variety of sources including Hermes, Charvet and Lanvin. Whenever his clothing is specifically made for him, he provides the raw materials. These come from various sources including silk poplin from Egypt, Thai shot silk and heavy raw silk from India. Then there are the traditional Harris tweeds he has bought from Scotswoman Marian Campbell, as well as Irish tweed from Clifden’s Ronnie Millar and the Foxford Mills, and báinín from Ó Máille’s in Galway. His shoes are made not just from leather but also the skin of sika deer and ostrich and even elephant ears. Buttons, most often of mother-of-pearl, come from The Button Queen in London.
His wardrobe is extensive but consistent; suits tend to be ordered in batches of four or five, and all of them carry the date of manufacture inside a breast pocket. In addition, they are without exception immaculately finished and in many cases interchangeable: a waistcoat from one ensemble, for example, is worn with the jacket and trousers from another. The most striking aspect of Garech’s appearance is his fondness for colour. ‘I love different shades and not having everything strictly the same,’ he remarks by way of explanation for a blue check jacket being thrown over a brilliant yellow waistcoat (‘I like waistcoats and always have’). Taking pleasure in colour is a trait of the dandy. Garech’s approach to dress is epitomized by a complex intermingling of texture and tone. He will wear the finest silk beneath the coarsest tweed, he will allow one pattern to jostle with another for predominance, and is not afraid of striking sartorial notes which on another man might be perceived as discordant. In addition, there is an attention to detail which must usually escape everyone but Browne himself. A late 19th century French dandy, the Prince de Sagan, used to have his black silk top hat lined in green leather, a small luxury likely to be appreciated only by himself. Similarly Garech will use the most brilliantly-hued silks inside his suits where they will be seen by his eyes alone. This is the mark of the true dandy. He explains, ‘You know, in Edo Japan one was not allowed to dress fabulously. Men were completely limited in the colour of their kimonos, so they had brighter shades hidden underneath.
When Balzac wrote, ‘one may become rich, but one is born elegant,’ he might have had Garech in mind. He has enjoyed the income to dress well but this does not explain his interest in clothes. After all, there are plenty of wealthier people who look neither so polished nor as stylish as he. To be original is to invite disapproval. This is why Baudelaire’s vision of the dandy as revolutionary is so perceptive. Dandyism is a form of contained rebellion in which certain rules are broken but others strictly obeyed. It is also often a form of aesthetic self-expression, an opportunity to give public voice to private interests. In Garech Browne’s case there is an obvious correlation between his advocacy of Irish traditional dress and Irish traditional music: he not only wears the clothes and cloths of Connemara but also, more than 30 years ago, founded Claddagh Records which has done so much to revive the fortunes of this country’s original performance arts.
In memory of the Hon. Garech Domnagh Browne (25th June 1939-10th March 2018)
Text extracted from my book Luggala Days: The Story of a Guinness House, with photographs by James Fennell.