Paddy Dunning talks of the Famous Grouse

Paddy Dunning opened Ireland"s first international recording studio Grouse Lodge in Rosemount in 2002, putting Westmeath on the map as one of the most exclusive recording destinations.He has had the likes of Michael Jackson, REM and Snow Patrol come to stay at Grouse, which lies at the foot of the Hill of Knockastia and Uisneach, which adds to the unique historical appeal of the place.And since opening the world renowned studio, Paddy has notched up regional, national and international entrepreneurial awards, through his keen business sense, understanding of music and respect for land on which he has built his music empire.A native of Dublin, Paddy moved to Westmeath in 1999, but his Westmeath roots are strong, with both his parents hailing from the Lake County. In fact, Paddy"s uncle was the great Kilbeggan Fianna Fail TD, Sean Keegan, who was first elected to the Dáil in 1977.Paddy became interested in music at early age, and like many teenagers in the eighties, at a time of high unemployment, Paddy was part of band, who practised nightly in a purpose built 8ft x 8ft clay-topped shed in his back garden.He studied media studies in college in the hope of making a career out of his love of music, and went in search of a more suitable practice space after his neighbours complained about the noise level emanating from the back garden.After scouring both sides of the Liffey, he discovered a redundant and dilapidated warehouse in what is now Dublin"s cultural centre - Temple Bar.'There were all these redundant, dilapidated empty buildings and we eventually got a short term lease from CIE,' says Paddy. 'I was a bin boy at the time, so I had access to broken bricks and sand and cement, basically materials that would have been thrown out in skips, so I would bring that into town and we used that to build what is now Temple Lane Studios.'As it turns out, Paddy had a knack for seeing the potential in old run-down buildings and a liking for restoration which in the years to come would stand to him as he went about building up what is now Grouse Lodge.A year later, Paddy established a Sound Training Centre that went on to be Ireland"s first and largest school for sound engineering, with a total of 22 rehearsal rooms that buzzed weekly with over 100 bands passing through its doors.However, when the Government wanted to demolish the old buildings towards the late eighties, planning to replace them with a bus transportation centre, Paddy discovered that he had a knack for standing up to the big boys.'I was part of a movement of people that just met, and with enthusiasm and determination, we essentially bullied a government into changing things.I promoted the whole music end of it.'The Government wanted to demolish the oldest part of Dublin and turn it into to a bus transportation centre, so we got together and set up the Temple Bar Development Council, and lobbied the Government into turning it into a cultural quarter,' says Paddy.Out of that came the Temple Bar Music Centre headed by Paddy, that houses rehearsal studios, and a lighting, sound and stage production school approved by City and Guilds.'We"ve now got people working all over the world in television, radio and recording studios, and working with the bands of the world like U2,' comments Paddy.In the meantime Paddy had met his wife Claire and had two children. They were living on South Circular Road but decided they wanted to change the way they were living, get out of Dublin to have more space for their family, and open up Ireland"s first international recording studio.'We spent two years looking for the right place, and after seeing a picture of Grouse Lodge in a paper, we drove down on September 9, 1999, and signed the deal,' recalls Paddy.'It was in bits: the roof was caving in and the chimneys had to replaced, but we knew Grouse was the place for us.'Employing the expertise of a local family of stone masons, Paddy set about restoring Grouse Lodge to its former glory, as well as adding recording studios, accommodation, a swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi, gym and a cinema.'We wanted to keep the character of the place, so what was here 300 years ago has now been restored, and what was built on, we built behind everything, making sure everything we added was built sympathetically so that it blended in.'In the end, it took five years to make Grouse Lodge into what it is today:'It is one of the oldest Georgian houses in Westmeath, built in 1724, so we used traditional building principles and restored the gardens. We went broke several times but we managed to get it finished, and our first five years since we started in 2002 have been massively successful.'We have bands coming over from America - the likes of Bonnie Rait to Michael Jackson, English pop bands like Stereophonics, Muse, Manic Street Preachers, as well as Irish bands like Westlife to Snow Patrol, Republic of Loose to The Blizzards.'So what was it like to have Michael Jackson come to stay?'Michael Jackson was a gentleman and pure artist with a pitch perfect voice. He brought his family for a month and ended up staying for five months,' says Paddy.'He loved the midlands, loved Mullingar, Tullamore, Athlone, and his family had a fantastic time. He"s not what everybody thinks he is and he was a pure and utter gentlemen. He"s an extremely great parent to his kids, they were schooled here every single day, and he was so happy and relaxed that people didn"t hassle him or harass him.'The locals were great in the area by not letting it out to the paparazzi that he was here, they gave him his privacy and he appreciated that.'He contacts us every months and asks how Rosemount is!'International appealTurning Grouse Lodge into the exclusive recording space it is today wasn"t always easy however:'I got on a plane and went and knocked on loads of doors, and encountered a lot of disappointments along the way. But it wasn"t new to me because of the recording studios up in Dublin, so I persevered.''Bands came to love it down here and the reason why they come back is because the staff are so accommodating and so real.'They become relaxed once they arrive, we feed them good Irish food as in that it"s fresh from the garden, and everything is local, our meats are supplied from a local butcher"s in Moate, and I think people appreciate that because they can concentrate on their music which is the most important thing for them.'There is a real energy in the area and a good atmosphere among the people, the musicians love the history of the area,' he continues.'They love the fact that there"s 3,500 ringforts in Westmeath. I mean you could be on a boat within 15 minutes in Lough Ennell, having a picnic and doing a bit of fishing, or you could be on the Shannon and 25 minutes later be in Roosky, there is so much going on in the midlands,' he says.'I think Fáilte Ireland are doing a great job to promote the area, along with LEADER and the County Council: they are all working tremendously together to push the area.Good neighboursWhen the Dunnings moved to Grouse Lodge, they made good friends with their neighbours, that included John Scanlon, an Irish American and advisor to President Regan and PR for to Bill Clinton.John was played by Robert Redford in the film The Insider, and owned the house opposite to Grouse Lodge - the Victorian Coolatore House, which he promoted as an artists" retreat, with Seamus Heaney penning some of his work there.Coolatore now makes up part of the Grouse Lodge estate, which Paddy rents out for both corporate events and family gatherings: 'You cannot exist on one main business, you have to have a variation, and that"s why we"ve gone out into holiday accommodation,' he says.Indeed, not ones to rest on their laurels, the Dunnings are about to invest in another venture, again a restoration project in Bishopstown:'Bringing something back to its heyday, back to its glory days, is something very rewarding,' says Paddy. 'It also creates a lot of employment in the area and has a good ripple effect in the community.'Grouse Lodge has hit success with ten number one albums and attracting massive investment into the region, but Paddy said the facilities are not just for the big name bands.He is currently inviting musicians starting out, to come and have a chat about recording at Grouse Lodge, where they will discuss rates reasonable to any budget.'We are in constant contact with record companies if they want us to get in touch with them, and we are also promoting the sound training centre for anyone who is interested in the engineering side of things, such as lighting, sound or stage production,' says Paddy.'We"ve gotten great support from FÁS, the County Enterprise Board and LEADER who are all aware of the potential employment that exists within this industry.We"re currently running a job training scheme and so far we"ve had a 70% success rate of placing people in employment from that.'