Irish Georgian Society founder had many connections with the Midlands

JJ Gibbons

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JJ Gibbons

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The late Desmond Guinness

Desmond Guinness, who has died aged 88, co-founded the Irish Georgian Society with his wife  Mariga,  after witnessing the demolition of two government-owned Georgian houses on Kildare Place, Dublin.

There were soon joined by a stream of volunteers to offer support including Tullamore born architect, Jeremy Williams; the talented artist and archaeologist Alison Cooke-Hurle who later married Lord Oxmantown of Birr Castle and is the current Countess of Rosse, and a trainee solicitor, Brian Molloy who worked as a volunteer to help repair Charleville Castle in Tullamore and was a first cousin of Fr Niall Molloy who died tragically in Clara. 

In 1954 the Hon Desmond Guinness married Princess Marie Gabrielle von Urach  Wurttemberg (Mariga) in Christ Church Cathedral and they moved permanently to Ireland the following year where  they rented Carton House near Maynooth from Lord Brocket.  After renting Carton for a couple of years, they decided to buy Leixlip Castle in Kildare in 1958 for £15,000, the same year they founded the Irish Georgian Society.

Lady Rosse helped Desmond and Mariga with the restoration of  a chapel at Fiddown in Kilkenny, which was one of the society’s earliest projects.  When Desmond  divorced in 1981, Mariga moved to Tullynisk House, on the grounds of the Rosses' estate in Birr.    Birr was no stranger to princesses as Lord Rosse’s sister-in-law Princess Margaret, was a regular visitor to Birr and on one of her visits, in 1965, she went to visit Desmond and Mariga in Leixlip Castle.  Mariga died in 1989 and her remains were interred in the Conolly Folly at Castletown.

Debonair and hugely charismatic, Desmond Guinness pursued every avenue of support for our dwindling stock of Georgian heritage; he also loved a good chat.    He sighed some years ago when told that Offaly County Council was proceeding with its plan to build houses on Clara Demesne  - one of the last intact picturesque style demesnes in Europe – and that the local authority’s heritage department remained silent.    He recalled that Brian Molloy volunteered at Fiddown but turned up in a blazer with gold buttons and white trousers and despite looking like he was about to board a yacht got straight to work:  “Brian also helped out in Charleville Forrest in Tullamore near your hometown [Clara] in 1966 and he was a first cousin of Fr Molloy who died rather tragically in Kilcoursey House.”  Desmond was more interested in the architectural merit of the house than with the circumstances of Fr Molloy’s death.  “Kilcoursey is mock Tudor like many of the houses in Foxrock, except in scale, whereas Fr Molloy grew up in a most beautiful house, Carrowroe Park in Roscommon, which is a magnificent example of Georgian architecture.” 

Brian Molloy later helped the society to save threatened architectural masterpieces such as Damer House, Roscrea, Co Tipperary; Roundwood, Co Laois and was alive for the start of the work on Doneraile Court, Co Cork before he died aged 33.  His brother John Molloy and sister-in-law Ann, bought a house on Mountjoy Square and were one of the first families in Dublin to open their house to members of the public. 

Jeremy Williams’ cousin, Jane Williams, an antiques dealer who grew up in Tullamore, invited Desmond to sit on the Tara’s Palace Trust.  Later Desmond and Jane asked this writer to write a history of Tara’s Palace which was launched in the Shelbourne.  Jeremy Williams and Jane Williams died in 2015 and 2018 respectively.

A few years ago at the opening of an exhibition at the Oriel Gallery Desmond ran over to me and said, “What am I going to do? I forgot my glasses and my speech and have neither pen nor paper!”  He somehow managed and the exhibition was declared open. 

When the Guinnesses moved into Leixlip in 1958 there was no furniture; the castle’s baths were being used in the fields as water troughs and they began to source furniture from salerooms or house auctions; the antlers in the hall were bought at auction from Powerscourt House, while a gilt over mantle in the library came from Lady Kildare’s bedroom at Castletown House.

Following in the philanthropic tradition of the Guinness family, Desmond Guinness took on the ownership of our greatest country house, Castletown in Co. Kildare, when it was endangered in the 1960s and according to An Taisce could have been lost or compromised by inappropriate development.  Guinness himself arranged to borrow the £93,000 needed to buy the house, which had become a derelict slum, and which he then leased to the Society rent-free. Castletown became the Society’s headquarters.

‘When Brian [Molloy] put some daffodils into an old marmalade jar he was unconsciously effecting the first improvement to the interior,’ Guinness recalled.  A few months later, after a massive clean-up operation, Desmond organised a tour for a widowed Jacqueline Kennedy who was visiting Ireland with John and Caoroline and visitor numbers to Castletown rose dramatically.

According to An Taisce, his donation of Castletown house ‘to a charitable foundation should be recognised as one of the greatest bequests to the nation.’

Desmond Walter Guinness was born into the Brewery clan on September 8 1931, second son of Bryan Guinness - Lord Moyne - by his first wife Diana, the third and the most beautiful of the six Mitford sisters, from whom Desmond inherited his glacier-blue eyes.  The other Mitford sisters were  Nancy (the novelist); Pamela (who lived for a period in Tullamaine Castle in Fethard); Jessica (known as ‘Decca’ a journalist); Unity (a supporter of Hitler) and Deborah (who married the Duke of Devonshire and became chatelaine of Chatsworth in the UK and Lismore Castle in Co Waterford). 

In 1934 Bryan Guinness allowed Diana to divorce him and in 1936 she and Sir Oswald Mosley –  the charismatic leader of the British Union of Fascists  - were secretly married in the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, with Adolf Hitler as a special guest. Desmond was just five years old.

Diana and Sir Oswald lived in Clonfert Palace for a period, and later in Co Cork, before moving to France.    Desmond Guinness married secondly, in 1984, Penelope Cuthbertson, who had lived previously with the artist Lucian Freud.  Penny is the daughter of the late Teresa Cuthbertson, the last of the Bright Young Things who died age 103 in 2010 at the Garden Cottage in Leixlip Castle.

Desmond was the author of several works, including Portrait of Dublin (1967); Irish Houses and Castles (1971); Great Irish Houses and Castles (1992,  with Jacqueline O’ Brien) and Dublin, a Grand Tour (1994).

Desmond Guinness is survived by his second wife, Penelope and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, Patrick and Marina.