Michael Jackson's secret retreat in Ireland's County Westmeath
opens its doors to weekend guests. But is it a thriller?
Even in the context of the bizarre, twisted fairy tale of Michael
Jackson's life, the time he spent living in a converted cowshed
in rural Ireland shortly before he died takes some believing.
But in the summer of 2006, after his acquittal in the previous
year's court case, having left Neverland and spent some time
in Bahrain, the King of Pop secretly arrived in County Westmeath
with his children. Relieved he had found a sanctuary away from
the paparazzi and enchanted by an area so rich in history, myth
and folklore, Jackson ended up staying for the rest of the year.
I've been given some odd assignments by the Observer, but none
quite so off the wall as sleeping in what used to be Michael
Jackson's bed, after discovering that the Irish country homes
he stayed in are now available to rent for weekend breaks.
Grouse Lodge is a secluded Georgian estate located down an unsigned,
winding, potholed gravel drive near the village of Rosemount.
It was converted into a residential recording studio in 2002
by owners Paddy and Claire Dunning, and has been used by everyone
from REM to Doves, Muse to Ms Dynamite, Snow Patrol to Shirley
Bassey. Paddy is a modern-day renaissance man in his mid-40s
whose life at times seems only slightly less fantastical than
Jackson's. He started out as a Dublin dustman and became one
of the founding fathers of the resurgence of the Temple Bar
district of the capital. Now his Dublin businesses include Temple
Lane Studios, the Sound Training Centre, the Button Factory
nightclub and The National Wax Museum Plus. In 2006 a woman
called Grace Rwaramba arrived to check out Grouse Lodge studio
for an unnamed A-list pop star. She liked what she saw and booked
the studio plus a three-bed cottage on the grounds that had
been converted from a cowshed. But she still didn't reveal who
the artist was. Paddy and Claire only discovered the identity
of their new lodger when a bus turned up and out trooped Prince
Michael Junior, Paris and Blanket, followed by their father
Michael Jackson, nanny Grace and the children's tutor.
Grouse Lodge is set around an old farmyard, and there's a collection
of converted outbuildings that form a second grassed courtyard,
none of which is visible from the road, so it's not hard to
see why Jackson felt safe and secluded here. He began work on
new material at Grouse Lodge with Will.I.Am and Rodney Jerkins,
producers who flew in from America.
Jackson fell in love with County Westmeath and, after a month
in the converted cowshed, moved to the equally secluded neighbouring
estate of Coolatore, also owned by the Dunnings. Because Jackson
didn't have his own driver in Ireland, Paddy enlisted local
taxi driver Ray O'Hara to drive Michael and the kids around
in a borrowed people carrier with blacked-out windows. The Dunnings
somehow managed to keep the fact that the King of Pop was in
residence a secret for several months. Even when Jackson began
to venture out and there were rumoured sightings of him in the
nearby villages of Moate or Kilbeggan, the Dunnings would deny
all knowledge. "If someone said to me I've heard Michael
Jackson is there, I would tell them: 'Yeah, so is Elvis Presley!'
The only security Grouse Lodge arranged was to post three guards
on rotation at the top of the drive to intercept unwelcome visitors.
When word eventually began to leak out, locals in the know became
protective of Jackson, sending reporters the wrong way, and
one farmer even threatened to empty his slurry trailer over
the car of a paparazzo.
The Irish Midlands are often overlooked by people rushing from
Dublin to Galway or other parts of the west coast, but it's
a magical land dotted with ringforts and medieval castles. Within
a few miles of Coolatore are the twin historic hills of Cnoc
Aiste and Uisneach; there's Lough Ennell and Lilliput, where
Jonathan Swift first conceived Gulliver's Travels (Paddy is
planning on an eco village in woods near Lough Ennell, along
with a seven-storey model of Gulliver); and Locke's Distillery
in Kilbeggan, now a museum. There are also a few local pubs
that haven't changed for decades, such as the William Fox in
Loughnavalley, and Gunnings in Rathconrath, which doubles as
shop, newsagent, garage and community centre.
Traditionally, the hill of Uisneach is the geographical centre
of Ireland. It's only 600ft high, but from the top you can see
20 counties on a clear day. It was the ancient seat of the kings
of Meath, the most sacred site in the world in Pagan times,
and home of the ancient festival of the fires, Bealtaine, which
attracted Egyptians up the Shannon 2,000 years ago. It's also
home to the Cat Stone (or Stone of Divisions), said to be the
burial place of the goddess Ériu (who gave her name to
Ireland, or Eire) and where the ancient provinces of Ireland
Uisneach is now part of the farm belonging to David Clarke,
and on 1 May this year, Clarke and Paddy organised the first
Festival of the Fires for more than 1,000 years, attracting
a diverse mix of locals, farmers, clairvoyants, witches, wizards
and gurus from far and wide. A beacon was lit on Uisneach, sparking
a chain of fires on 73 different hills across the country, from
Dingle to Donegal. "Michael was interested in history,"
says Paddy, "and smitten by the intricacies of Irish music."
The Dunnings have a wealth of stories from the time they spent
with Jackson. "One night we ended up in the studio,"
Paddy recalls. "Michael was on the drums, I was playing
guitar and [American producer] Nephew was on the keyboards and
we just started getting a rhythm together, and slowly but surely
Nephew just creeped the song in to 'Billie Jean'. It was just
mad playing 'Billie Jean' with Michael Jackson I never
thought I'd do that."
Paddy is a natural raconteur. He tells me how, when he bought
the Wax Museum Plus Dublin's answer to Madame Tussauds
the resident Elvis was looking a little tired, so Paddy
retired him, placing him in the woods by Coolatore. He had forgotten
about him until Michael Jackson came in from a walk one day
looking shaken. "Paddy," he said, "I just met
my father-in-law in the woods!"
Towards the end of his stay in Westmeath, Jackson started to
look at prospective houses to buy. When the Dunnings bought
a further property, Bishopstown House, a derelict Georgian estate
a mile or so away, Jackson visited it and discussed the renovations
with Paddy. So, although it would be a little disingenuous to
call Bishopstown the House that Jacko built, it's certainly
the house built with Jacko in mind. Jackson had a base in London
for his ill-fated 50-date run of gigs at the O2, but according
to Paddy he also planned to spend time in Ireland, escaping
the media glare of the English capital.
Both Coolatore and the newly converted Bishopstown are now available
for hire. Coolatore is the larger estate of the two – a beautiful
1866 Victorian country retreat with long halls and vaulted ceilings,
grand living and dining rooms, a library and a hidden staircase
that leads down to a basement bar installed by the Guinness
family. Bishopstown, having been derelict for years before the
Dunnings took it over, has been converted in a much more contemporary
style, with a wood- clad extension added to the original Georgian
house, along with a secret fourth-floor roof garden, designed
to afford Jackson panoramic views of the countryside without
being seen himself. Both houses have six bedrooms and five bathrooms.
The houses are rented primarily as self-catering properties,
and if you use all the available beds, they can work out costing
€100 a night each. It is also possible to have meals supplied
by nearby Grouse Lodge (they can also arrange everything from
massages to clay pigeon shooting), with menus focusing on local
produce and vegetables grown in their own walled garden. Claire
and the staff at Grouse Lodge cooked for Jackson, who favoured
a simple, healthy diet of porridge for breakfast and main meals
of fish or chicken with vegetables. "The guy was fit – he was
getting stronger," Paddy says, "and I reckon if he had lived
here and stayed here, he wouldn't have died."
How to get there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) has daily flights from London Heathrow
to Dublin, Cork, Shannon and Belfast, and from London Gatwick
to Dublin, Cork and Knock.
Source: Luke Bainbridge
The Observer, guardian.co.uk
Sunday 15 August 2010
Watch this interesting video:
Will.I.Am and Michael working at Grouse Lodge