A new RTÉ documentary delves into the fascinating life of arts patron and Guinness heir,the late Garech Browne, writes.
When the Guinness heir Garech Browne was 11-years-old, his parents split up. His father Dominick (Baron Oranmore and Browne) called him into his study and told him he had to choose who he wanted to live with — his father or his mother.
The young boy chose his mother, reasoning she’d be more upset to lose him. It is one of several extraordinary details that emerge in a Mick Mahon-directed documentary his life, Garech Browne: Last Days at Luggala.
Browne, who died last year, and whose achievements included co-founding Claddagh Records in 1959, was a colourful figure on the Irish arts scene. His grá for Irish traditional music initially raised eyebrows amongst the hardened trad crowd in the late 1950s, as he paraded among them with an aristocratic accent that could cut glass, some reckoning he was a spy (albeit a poorly disguised one).
“He was a terrible snob,” says John Boorman, co-executive producer of the documentary. “We were very devoted friends. He had great charm. He had no education. He regarded schools as rehearsals for prison.
He had a wonderful way of speaking and reacting to things, and a fascinating way to view the world.
"He had some terrible habits. He was always late. In the 45 years we were friends, not once did he turn up on time.
“I was very irritated with him on one occasion. I said: ‘Garech, don’t you have a watch?’ He said: ‘Yes. I have a collection of watches.’ I said: ‘Well, where are they?’ He said: ‘I locked them up in a safe.’ I think by locking time away, he felt he could be free from its strictures. That was the way his mind worked.”
Browne’s parties and social gatherings at the magnificent 5,000-acre Luggala Estate in Co Wicklow — which was given to his mother by her father Ernest Guinness as a wedding present in 1937 — were legendary affairs. Among Browne’s friends interviewed on the documentary are Bono and The Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney.
“For someone who was often found holding court, I found him actually quite a shy person,” says Liam McGrath, co-executive producer of the documentary. “He was great to spend time with on a one-to-one basis. We spent many days discussing the clan system and the various films that I have made with Travellers.
“He seemed to connect with Travellers and said he knew Paddy Keenan [The Bothy Band].
It surprised me how much he knew about Irish history, and then one day when I came down to visit him he had all of his paperwork out and was able to show me how on his father’s side he could trace himself all the way back to Strongbow!
Browne’s brother, Tara, was six years younger. He was a scenester in bohemian London in the 1960s. Mick Jagger and Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, for example, were friends and came to his 21st birthday party at Luggala shortly before he died in a car crash. That tragedy was in turn immortalised in the opening verses of The Beatles’ song ‘A Day in the Life’.
Paul Howard, a biographer of Tara Browne and a friend of Garech’s, mentions in the documentary that Garech told several people his mother said to him while she was grieving for Tara that he should have been the son who died, not Tara.
“Garech loved his brother and protected him,” says Boorman. “I know it’s mentioned in the documentary that [Garech’s mother said he should have died instead of Tara]. I thought it was something that shouldn’t have been mentioned in public.
"It’s such a horrible thing. I don’t know the circumstances of when and where it was said. I never asked. It did have a big effect on him. He always felt somehow that he ought not to be alive. He said to me a number of times that he wished he’d never been born. He was a tragic figure in one way.
“The big problem for Garech was that he was an alcoholic. He either was drinking or else he was trying not to drink. When he wasn’t drinking, you could be talking with him and know that what he was really thinking about was having a drink. He would start drinking, and he could drink for a week or 10 days and eventually he would collapse.”
Browne’s greatest cultural legacy is the work he did in preserving so much traditional Irish music and literary work, to the chagrin, for example of Erskine Childers who once remarked: “Why are you preserving old women wailing by firesides?” Browne’s record label created works of art – he was canny in pushing to get literary writers to pen the sleeve notes on albums, and talented artists or photographers to do the album covers.
When music executives argued it would be better to get actors to record the audio on poetry albums, believing they sounded more animated than the poets themselves like Patrick Kavanagh and John Montague, Browne railed, recognising that actors would sound better than the poets in 500 years’ time – “when the poets were dead”. Browne died himself last year, but his lust for life will live long after he’s gone.
“The Rolling Stones were playing at Slane Castle [in 1982],” says Boorman. “Garech said: ‘Come with me.’ And I said: ‘No, I’m not going to the concert because I’m going to a party given by the Cochrans.’ Garech said he was invited to it, too, but he made a choice and went to the concert and I went to the party.
“I pieced this story together because Mick Jagger told me a bit of it. Mick had given him concert tickets but of course he lost them. Mick was about to go on stage and one of his roadies came up to him and said: ‘There’s a man with a wispy beard and he says he’s a friend of yours and he’s lost his ticket.’ So Mick said: ‘Just let him in.’ Then the roadie told him he had five friends with him. ‘Well,’ said Mick, ‘let them all in.’
“So Garech gets in, and an hour or two later, the same roadie comes up to Mick and says ‘that friend of yours is unconscious; he’s collapsed’. Mick said: ‘Get an ambulance for him.’ They got an ambulance for him and once he was inside they gave him oxygen.
"With a few whiffs of oxygen Garech was as right as rain. He said to the ambulance people: ‘Don’t take me to the hospital. Take me to this party I’ve been invited to.’ Sure enough, he turned up to the party in an ambulance.”