Westport House is one of the few remaining Irish historic homes of national and inter-national significance still in the ownership of the original family. For over 300 years, the Browne family have lived here each generation, by hard work, enterprise and determination, ensuring its survival through good times and bad. That they have succeeded is something of a minor miracle.
The Browne Family came from Sussex in the 16th century. Through marriage with daughters of native Irish landowners and by purchase, they built up a small estate near The Neale. As a Catholic family they were fortunate that their lands were situated in Connaught thereby escaping the notorious confiscations of Cromwell.
It was with John Browne III (1638-1711) that the connection with Westport House commenced. A successful lawyer, he married Maud Burke, daughter of Viscount Mayo and great-great granddaughter of the Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile 1530-1603). John Browne greatly increased his estate in Mayo and Galway including Cathairna-mart (Stone-fort of the Beeves), a ruinous O’Malley fortress on the shores of Clew Bay. John’s good fortune was swept away as Ireland was plunged into chaos in the Williamite Wars. At his death in 1711 his estate was reduced to Cathair-na-Mart and a few hundred acres.
The Penal Laws which followed left his grandson, John IV, with little option but to conform to the prevailing religion in hope of surviving the confiscations and political upheaval. John gradually revived the family fortune. Young and ambitious he set about extending his estate and transforming the old O’Malley castle into modern day Westport House. He replaced the old village of Cathair-na-Mart with a new town of Westport where he established a thriving linen industry. An excellent farmer he set about improving the fertility of his lands, which for the most part were of poor quality. He became the 1st Earl of Altamont.
In 1752 his son and heir, Peter, 2nd Earl Of Altamont, married the heiress, Elizabeth Kelly from Co. Galway whose estates in Jamaica further enhanced the family fortune.
John, 3rd Earl of Altamont, continued the innovative farming tradition of his grandfather. He created the lake to the West of Westport House and planted trees. He laid out the principal streets of the present town of Westport. He also established a theatre at the Octagon and built the town of Louisburgh. In 1787 he married Louisa Catherine, daughter and heiress of the famous English Admiral Earl Howe. In 1800 there was an Act of Union with England. The 3rd Earl voted for it and became the 1st Marquess of Sligo and an Irish representative peer. The reason the title is Sligo when the family home is in Mayo, is that in 1800 there was already an Earl of Mayo, a Viscount Galway to the south and a Lord Roscommon to the East. West was the Atlantic Ocean, so it had to be North – the land of Yeats and black cattle – Sligo.
His only son Howe Peter, 2nd Marquess of Sligo, inherited in 1809 at the age of twenty-one. Extravagant and generous his early life subscribed to the popular image of a “regency buck”. Friend of Byron, de Quincy and the Prince Regent he travelled extensively throughout Europe. In 1834 he was appointed Governor of Jamaica with the difficult task of overseeing the “apprenticeship system” a period prior to the full emancipation of the slaves. He was first to emancipate the slaves on the family’s Jamaican plantations. The first “free village” in the world, Sligoville, was subsequently named in his honour. A liberal, he was one of the few Irish Peers to vote for Catholic Emancipation. He died in 1845 as the clouds of the Great Famine descended over Mayo.
His son, George, the 3rd Marquess, inherited a terrible legacy. The West of Ireland was worst affected by the famine. Westport House was closed and with no rents forthcoming, George borrowed where he could, spending 50,000 of his own money to alleviate the suffering of the tenants. He imported cargoes of meal to Westport Quay and sub-vented the local workhouse, then the only shelter available to the destitute. In 1854 on being offered the Order of St. Patrick, an honour once held by his father and grandfather, disillusioned by England’s Irish policy (a re-occurring sentiment at Westport House!) the 3rd Marquess wrote “ I have no desire for the honour.”
John succeeded his brother as 4th Marquess. Above all he was a “professional” farmer whose main contribution was to transform a reduced and almost bankrupt estate into a profitable one, solely from agriculture. This work was continued by the 6th Marquess who added a sawmill, a salmon hatchery and planted extensively.
The compulsory acquisition of the main entrance to the House for local public housing occurred in the ownership of the 8th Marquess which altered the historic relationship that had existed between the House and the town of Westport.
In 1960, the 10th Marquess, Denis Edward, his wife Jose and son Jeremy opened Westport House and the grounds to the visiting public. It was a pioneering venture in a place – and at a time – that was remote and depressed. Over the succeeding decades the 11th Marquess and his family have developed the Estate into a major Tourist Attraction.
Jeremy – 11th and Present Marquess of Sligo (b. 1939) opened the doors of Westport House to visitors in 1960 was just the beginning of a totally new direction for the estate. A combination of his sheer determination to save one of the country’s most beautiful heritage properties and his natural passion for product development and marketing are the main reasons Westport House and The Browne Family are still here today.
Most historic homes of its nature were either burnt, knocked down or abandoned. Over time Jeremy has introduced a number of fun attractions.
Today Jeremy and his wife Jennifer, although still very much involved are beginning to take a back seat. They have five daughters – Sheelyn, Karen, Lucinda, Clare and Alannah.
And for the first time in history the mould has been broken and the reins have been taken by the female line – 14th great-grand-daughters of Grace O’Malley. Sheelyn and Karen run the business and Alannah has taken over Gracy’s Bar and Restaurant.