The first in a new series on entertainment.ie examines when some famous names lived among us on our island. First up: Michael Jackson.
Words: John Balfe
Unless you count the likes of Joe Dolan and The Blizzards, Westmeath isn't particularly well known for its musical heritage but for a six-month spell in 2006 the sleepy town of Rosemount counted the world's biggest pop star among its inhabitants.
After his acquittal on counts of child abuse in 2005, Michael Jackson wanted to put as much distance himself from the unending glare of the media and living in his Neverland ranch simply wouldn't allow such a luxury. Jackson decided to leave the United States for a few months, apparently without a concrete plan on where to go. A quick spell in the Middle East followed but didn't last very long, leaving the King of Pop searching for a new destination free from the watchful eyes of legions of paparazzi.
Somehow, almost as if he threw a dart at a map of the world, Michael Jackson ended up in County Westmeath.
Grouse Lodge is a Georgian estate around an hour's drive from Dublin airport. It's entirely self-sufficient; organic food is grown on its land and it boasts a swimming pool and fully kitted out recording studio among its amenities. Its biggest plus point, at least from Michael Jackson's perspective, was the utter serenity which surrounded it.
Rural Ireland is about as far removed from the hustle bustle that Jackson had been surrounded by for the majority of his life. Jackson's recent personal life had been chaotic, stemming from the recent child abuse charges and Martin Bashir's 'Living with Michael Jackson' documentary, which painted the singer as a reclusive eccentric, completely out of touch with reality.
Perhaps it was the isolation, the idyllic setting or the fresh country air but Michael Jackson liked Westmeath. A lot.
After spending a month living in a converted cowshed on Grouse Lodge, Jackson moved a few minutes down to the road to the Coolatore estate and eventually enlisted local taxi driver Ray O'Hara as his personal chauffer. Legend has it that O'Hara drove Jackson and his children to the now defunct Screen By The Sea in Greystones to see Superman Returns, the same location where Ted and Dougal protested the fictional 'The Passion of St. Tibulas' in an episode of Father Ted.
Another noteworthy point in Michael Jackson's unlikely stay in County Westmeath is just how the locals took him and his family under their collective wing. When word inevitably leaked that the King of Pop was staying just down the road, many locals would do their best to push any journalists or paparazzi off his scent by giving them incorrect directions to his lodge. One farmer allegedly even threatened to fill a photographer's car with slurry if he was to bother the singer.
Paddy Dunning, who owns Grouse Lodge (as well as the Button Factory, Temple Lane Recording Studios etc), told the Guardian: "One night we ended up in the studio. Michael was on the drums, I was playing guitar and [producer] nephew was on the keyboards and we just started getting a rhythm together and slowly but surely Nephew just creeped the song into 'Billie Jean'".
"It was just mad playing 'Billie Jean' with Michael Jackson - I never thought I'd get to do that."
Dunning also told the Guardian about a time Jackson had gone for a walk in the woods and stumbled upon a waxwork on Elvis, a retired exhibit from Dublin's Wax Museum Plus. Jackson exclaimed: "Paddy! I just met my father-in-law in the woods!"
As his stay came to a close Jackson discussed with Paddy the idea of buying a house locally and taking up permanent residence in Ireland. At the very least, Jackson said, he'd rent another and had intended to spent a large part of his time in Ireland during the ill-fated 'This Is It' series of dates in London which, ultimately, he would never even begin.
Just three years after his stay in Westmeath, Michael Jackson was dead. Dunning maintains that had he stayed in Ireland he'd still be alive today. Ultimately that's impossible to prove, of course, but Jackson's fans across the globe can take a modicum of solace in the fact that for a six month spell in 2006 Michael Jackson was at peace, temporarily at least.