A portrait of Oonagh Guinness commissioned in 1931 from the fashionable artist Philip de László by the sitter’s then-husband Philip Kindersley, who paid £1,575 for the work. Much admired, the picture was exhibited in Paris the following year in a retrospective of de László’s career. Thereafter it hung in the drawing room at Luggala, County Wicklow until Oonagh Guinness’ death in August 1995 when bequeathed to Gay Kindersley, the son of her first marriage: he sold the picture and its whereabouts ever since remain a mystery. On Saturday afternoon (June 16th) at Farmleigh, Dublin I shall be speaking about Oonagh and her son, the recently deceased Garech Browne, and how they made Luggala a magnet for artists. This is part of a series of events to coincide with an exhibition of Irish portraits by Garech’s close friend Anthony Palliser currently being held in the same venue.
For more information on this talk and others in the same series, please see: http://farmleigh.ie/calendar-of-events
No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.
Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.
The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…
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.
Inside the walled garden at Powerscourt, County Wicklow: a view of the Bamberg Gate, its upper section of ironwork designed to give the illusion of a lengthy vista beyond. This work of art was originally constructed in Vienna in 1770 and installed in Bamberg Cathedral, Northern Bavaria. Probably in the late 1820s, when all Baroque additions were stripped from the building, the gate was removed and sold: around 1870 Mervyn Wingfield, 7th Viscount Powerscourt bought it from a London dealer and placed it in the present position. On the opposite side of the walled garden is the so-called Chorus Gate, the design supposedly based on a 17th century original (although this has not been found) and likewise purchased in London. Its intricate ironwork features myriad winged seraphim blowing trumpets. Both gates have recently been cleaned and re-gilded.
Mention was made here last week to Edward Synge, one-time Bishop of Elphin. His immediate predecessor in that diocese was Robert Howard whose eldest son Ralph in the early 1750s made the customary Grand Tour to Italy. While wintering in Rome in 1750-51 the younger Howard (who in due course became Baron Clonmore and then Viscount Wicklow) had his portrait painted by the city’s most fashionable artist Pompeo Batoni. The picture was brought back to Ireland and hung in the Howard’s seat, Shelton Abbey where its presence is recorded in an inventory of the house’s contents conducted by Bennett’s in July 1914: at that date the work was valued at £210.
Sadly Ralph Howard’s descendant, the eighth Earl of Wicklow was unable to maintain Shelton Abbey and accordingly in October 1950 a great sale of the house’s contents was held, an event so substantial that it lasted almost a fortnight. Among the lots was number 1740, the Batoni portrait, although by then its sitter seems to have been forgotten, since he is simply listed as a ‘gentleman in crimson with fur-edged coat.’ In addition, the work’s value had significantly decreased since 1914, as it only fetched £90. Today it hangs in the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
I shall be discussing the Shelton Abbey sale, and several others, next Thursday at 7pm in Lismore Castle, County Waterford during the course of a talk called ‘Art in Historic Irish Houses: Its Collection and Dispersal.’ For further information, see: http://www.lismorecastlearts.ie/events
‘I went on Friday last to receive you remainders of rents in the county of Wicklow and lay at Killruddery two nights…Capt. Ed Brabazon has and will make great improvements there, the park for his colts is long time since finished and he is making also a deer park and decoy. The decoy will be the finest in the kingdom or I believe in the 3 kingdoms. The pond is already made and the reed wall is making, round a out which he will built a wall at so great a distance that the fowl shall not be frightened thereat, the south and north ends of which wall shall without and against the other two…a dry wall. Against the south wall without and against the north wall within he will plant fruit of all sorts and will make a treble ditch without the south wall and quickset the fen to the end that the deer may not get to the fruit and that the park may be completed.’
Letter from Oliver Cheyney, agent to the third Earl of Meath, 1682.
‘Killruddery…being a large house with four flankers and terraces, and a new summer-house built by the said earl…with pleasure garden, cherry garden, kitchen garden, wilderness, gravel walks, and a bowling green, all walled about and well planted with fruit trees, with several canals or fish-ponds, well stored with carp and trench…’
From a report in The Dublin Intelligence, April 1711.
‘The demesne of Kilruddery [sic] occupies a narrow valley, which separates the mountain termed the Smaller Sugarloaf from the promontory called Bray Head, and is marked by many circumstances of great natural beauty. The grounds are laid out in a manner peculiarly adapted to the character of the present building, and present nearly a unique instance in this country of the old Dutch style of gardening. From the natural grandeur of the surrounding country, the formality of this mode stands revealed with peculiar distinctness. The enclosing mountains rise boldly and at once, with all their brilliancy of purple and brown colouring, above the long avenues of stately elms, the close cut yew hedges, and regular terraces of this little St Cloud.’
From The Beauties of Ireland by James Norris Brewer, 1825.
Just over sixty years ago in late January 1956, the occupants of Luggala, County Wicklow woke to find the building on fire, apparently started by faulty electrical wiring. Although three local fire brigades were summoned, deep snow hindered the arrival of their engines which in the course of a descent to the house slithered into a ditch and had to be dug out with shovels. Branches were then laid down to form a carpet over which the wheels could travel but once finally at the house, the firemen discovered no water coming from their hoses: they had forgotten to attach the nozzle to the engine. Even once they got underway, the intense cold hampered proceedings, with ladders becoming treacherous to use as ice formed on the steps. By the time the flames were doused at 10am, the greater part of the building had been gutted. Fortunately Luggala’s then owner, Oonagh, Lady Oranmore and Browne immediately embarked on a restoration programme and by March of the following year she was back in the house which today remains in the care of her son, the Hon Garech Browne.
I shall be discussing this and other incidents in the wonderful history of Luggala next Wednesday, March 9th during a talk hosted by the Irish Georgian Society at the Somerset Club, 42 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, please see: https://www.igs.ie/events/detail/us-event-the-magical-world-of-luggala-the-story-of-a-guinness-house