This week, we are delighted to partner with David Hicks, the man behind @irish_country_houses on our Restoration Blog. David visited last month for a Restoration Tour with us and it was such a pleasure to host him. We love his detailed blog and unique perspective given his breadth of knowledge of Country Houses across Ireland. The blog below is re-posted with his permission from David Hick’s blog and we highly recommend you follow him on Instagram or his personal page on Facebook.
This project is part of the works that commenced on Westport House earlier in 2021. It is phase one of a restoration project that is expected to be completed in Autumn 2021. The restoration project is estimated to cost in the region of €5 million and will see much needed conservation work carried out to the Georgian-era home to help prepare it for the larger €75m development project announced earlier this month.
Several weeks ago, I was afforded the opportunity to visit the restoration works that have continued apace at Westport House, Co. Mayo for the last number of months. To describe the works as vast is an understatement, multiple storeys of scaffolding now shroud the grand mansion, as issues are tackled from the basement to the tops of the chimney stacks. The weather in the west of Ireland is often described as changeable, which mirrors the fortunes of Westport House. The efforts to keep the rain out of this historic home and to allow it to remain in the Browne Family has exhausted many fortunes over the centuries. Financial pressures eventually led to the decision of the Brownes to end their tenure of the property after nearly 300 years and entrust it into the hands of the local Hughes family, once tenants of the estate in generations past. The excesses of immense wealth in the 18th and 19th century aggrandised and extended the house, in a time when the Browne family owned thousands of acres of Irish land and Jamaican sugar plantations. Changing times and the reversal of fortune meant that this jewel in the crown of Mayo’s architectural heritage had become tarnished. Water ingress was prevalent through the roof, walls and windows leading to a host of problems hidden behind the trappings of this grand home. Several years ago, I visited the house, and initially the grand rooms appeared impressive but when one looked closer, water damaged cornicing and stained ceilings abounded. A valiant attempt to re-roof the house in 2007 heaped further financial pressure on the Browne Family and it became clear, when working on a historic structure of this nature, fixing one problem revealed a host of others.
Once the Hughes family took over the property in 2017, moisture was permeating every crack and crevasse in the external envelope of the structure, damaging the historic and beautiful interiors within. George Moore of another nearby Mayo estate, Moore Hall, complained in the early 1900’s about ‘the drip’ and how rain always managed to find a way to penetrate the house. The landed gentry at that time lived with dampness in their homes but also had a large staff to ensure many open fires were lit and refuelled which ensured that the constant battle with dampness was always won. Today, Westport House is hidden under layers of scaffolding and polythene, disguising the hive of activity underneath. This year marked the beginning of the first phase of works on the house which will be completed in Autumn 2021 when the house will emerge once again from its protective covering. The vast and necessary forensic repairs to this house means that there will be very little change left out of €5 million and forms part of a €75 million plan for the entire estate. Acres of roof, hundreds of windows and numerous chimneys meant a herculean task faced the Hughes Family when they became part of the continuing history of Westport House in 2017.
Westport House was built for John Browne, later the first Earl of Altamont, to a design by the architect Richard Castle (also known as Cassels) in 1730. An impressive feat for the 21-year-old Earl who initiated the construction of Westport House and created what is now the entrance front. The Browne home was possibly built on the site of an earlier house and is believed to encompass the cellars of an O’Malley castle. The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall is thought to be one of the only internal elements from the 1730’s house that has survived which was designed by Castle. Castle also designed Hazelwood House in Sligo which shares several similarities with its Mayo cousin, particularly the decoration and arrangement of the main entrance door surround.
The second Earl of Altamont, married well, an heiress, Elizabeth Kelly who filled the family coffers with a substantial dowry that included vast Jamaican sugar plantations. The Browne’s were now one of the wealthiest families in Ireland who could afford to extend and improve their home in Westport on a grand scale. Improvements were not restricted only to the house as grand plans were also implemented for the wider estate which included the town of Westport. Additional wings were added to the house in the 1770’s to house the grand rooms required by a family of the Browne’s stature to entertain their contemporaries. A design thought to be by Thomas Ivory increased the size of the house, which eventually grew to three times the size of the original 1730 house, which now had a inner courtyard at its centre. However, it is disputed how much of this phase of the Westport House’s construction was actually designed by Ivory. A distinct similarity between the oval ceiling of the secondary staircase hall in Westport House and one that once existed in Clonbrock House in Co. Galway points to the architect William Leeson. The use of Venetian and Diocletian window openings on the garden front have further bolstered the opinion that this work is that of Leeson.
The third Earl of Altamont and first Marquess of Sligo employed James Wyatt to complete the interior of the dining room in 1781. The adjoining gallery is also said to have had an interior by Wyatt but his son Benjamin Dean Wyatt was responsible for its removal, considering his father’s work to have gone out of fashion. Each generation continued to leave their own mark , the second Marquess added terraces to either side of the house between 1816 and 1819, which contained additional rooms at basement level. It was in one of these areas that the second Marquess created a library designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt which was destroyed by fire in 1826, owing to a over ambitious heating system. The house once had a courtyard at its centre but after the destruction of the library in 1826, this courtyard was roofed in and accommodated the replacement library.
The library was replaced in the late 1850’s by the impressive staircase that now stands at the end of the barrel-vaulted entrance hall. Made of Sicilian marble with a metal handrail that features the family emblem of an eagle that can be seen throughout the property. It is one of the most dramatic and distinctive spaces in the property, presided over by a statue of the Angel of Welcome. Decorated with beautiful plasterwork, the staircase is top lit by the glazed section that remains at the centre of the roof of the house. When one views the roof works from on high, you can see the original mechanism is still in place for raising and lowering the chandelier over the staircase.
As previously mentioned, the house is now in the ownership of the Hughes family since 2017 who have now implemented the first phase of works to secure the structure and prevent the ingress of moisture in the external envelope of the building. Necessary roofing works carried out in 2007, included the restoration of the glazed pitched roof to the top of the central hall, having been covered in galvanised sheeting for a number of years. Many local people remember this time as the house was enveloped in a barn like structure while roofing works were carried out. However, a lot of lessons were learnt from this time and current works include the introduction of necessary ventilation to the roof structure. Historic structures were never intended to be hermetically sealed but were always allowed to breath. A previous lack of ventilation meant that warm air rising inside the house hit the bottom of the cold lead on the internal face of the roof surface. Once the moisture rich warm air interacted with the cold surface, it condensed, releasing its moisture. This moisture collected on surfaces within the roof structure and could not evaporate to the open air. It was trapped in the internal roof environment, rotting timber and causing damage. The stone capping around the perimeter of the building has been removed, the lead work has been renewed and ventilation introduced. Lead valleys behind the parapet have been renewed, new falls have been created to manage the water from the roof surface, so no rainwater pipe or gulley is overwhelmed in a downpour of rain. Where possible some of the original copper valleys have been retained.
I was recently afforded the opportunity to view the works being carried out on the roof, a privilege I would say enjoyed by very few. Seeing the numerous chimney pots up close, one can see they are made of cast iron and not terracotta which could not withstand the harsh winds and rain from nearby Clew Bay. There are between 55 and 65 chimneys on the roofscape of the house including some very unusual flues contained in the outer walls which terminate at parapet level. These flues from the basement have being hiding in plain sight for years and I never noticed them until the opportunity to view them from the scaffolding. These flues in the outer walls, have a structural implication, weakening walls and causing issues in the interior of the house.
The Wyatt dining room is decorated with superb plasterwork reminiscent of Wedgewood medallions. Designed to reflect the status of the Browne family, the doors in this room are made from mahogany that originated from the Browne’s Jamaican estates. The quality of the timber can be judged by its weight, as it requires four workmen to lift one door. The construction manager on this mammoth project, told me that when these chimneys were in use, it would draw air into the house moving warm fresh air through the property.
When finances and staff levels dropped in the early 20th century, fires weren’t lit as often or at all. The Wyatt dining room looked to be in reasonable condition however when the curtains and pelmets were removed from the outer wall, the full effects of water ingress could be seen. Damaged plaster and paintwork highlighted the need for the works currently being undertaken to save this precious interior. A set of drawings survive dated 1781 by James Wyatt illustrating his scheme for the dining room of Westport House for the first Marquess. Works have now been carried out to arrest this decay and future plans include for the consolidation and repair of this precious interior.
Historically accurate improvements to the management of surface water from the roof of the house has ensured that mistakes of the past are not repeated. The large catchment area of the roof, which was once served by a single box outlet has now been increased to two. This additional outlet was in existence on the parapet of the house in the 1950’s but for some reason was reduced during that period. Other interventions on the roof include the introduction of modern health and safety requirements. The inclusion of a fall arrest system will allow the roof and its internal gutters to be cleaned with greater ease which will negate the need to set up scaffolding. This future plan for the maintenance of this roof structure will ensure the longevity of the works currently being carried out. Sand and cement pointing has been removed from the facades and replaced with lime render, which will allow moisture to escape from the building. Previously the sand and cement, trapped water against the façade meaning the stone could never have an opportunity to fully dry out. There is one aesthetic trade-off, the lines of the lime mortar pointing around the cut stone are not as sharp and defined as they once were with sand and cement. Some of the stonework on the facades of the house is damaged, so repairs are necessary in a number of locations. The forensic attention to detail is evident as the integrity of each stone is checked, catalogued and replaced if necessary.
The interior of the house is shrouded in darkness as repairs to the windows mean the glazed openings are covered, as works continue apace outside The interior is denuded of most of its contents and items that are too delicate or to large to move have been protected in an outer shell of plywood. Before any works were carried out, an inventory and assessment of each room was undertaken to ensure nothing was lost or damaged during the works. As one walks through each of the interconnecting spaces, the damage wrought by the decades of water damage is now clear. Now that curtains, paintings and furniture have been removed, damaged plasterwork is plain to be seen.
On the first floor of the house, the water damage from a leaking chimney is most evident. Plaster had become discoloured with soot, as water leached through the structure from the roof. Now that repairs to the roof and chimneys are afoot, this internal plaster has now been removed, revealing saturated red brick beneath dating from the time of the construction of the first phase of the house in 1730. In an adjoining bedroom, the judicious removal of the damaged building fabric has occurred. One can now see the various layers of lath, plaster and brick topped with a delicately decorated coved plaster ceiling. Once these walls have been allowed to dry out adequately, historically accurate repairs will be undertaken to return the room to its original splendour.
Another interesting revelation uncovered during the works is the return of the space that housed a library, destroyed by fire in 1826. While the fixtures and fittings are a distant memory, the original volume of the space is visible for the first time in nearly two hundred years. After the conflagration in the 1800’s destroyed the interior, the room was split into two floors and housed guest accommodation until the 1960’s when it became a home within a home for the Browne family. Now in 2021, the original 1826 space is now visible for the first time in nearly two centuries as the partitions and the dividing floor have been removed. Ghostly outlines are visible in brickwork that housed shelves which once contained many first editions. Around the perimeter of the room, at first floor level, can be seen some of the surviving supports for the gallery, which gives one an impression of the large collection of books once housed here.
This library was once topped by large cast iron framed, domed, glazed roof lights, which still survive on the estate in storage and one day it is hoped to return them to their original home on the roof of the former library. One can see the outline on the ceiling of the circular openings that allowed one to browse the collection bathed in natural light, albeit briefly, before it was turned to ash by an unregulated heating system. In 1936, Westport House suffered another fire which destroyed the billiard room. The house was only saved by the efforts of the staff and the Galway Fire Brigade that had to travel 50 miles. Again, the cause of the fire was the heating system, as the furnace was located directly below the billiard room.
In 1876, the 3rd Marquess of Sligo remained the largest landowner in Mayo with an estate extending to 114,881 acres which was mostly sold to the Congested Districts Board in 1914 but the sale was not finalised until the 1920’s by the Land Commission. The estate today is reduced to 430 acres, its original main entrance and avenue from the town of Westport, has now been cut off from the house. Replaced with housing and other developments, this land was unnecessarily (in my opinion) acquired in a compulsory fashion by Westport Urban Council in the 1950’s. This dramatically altered the relationship of the house with the town of Westport forever. The combination of the deaths of three successive Marquesses of Sligo in 1941, 1951 and 1953 meant that the estate was burdened with inheritance tax. This almost forced the sale of the house in the 1950’s, except a buyer could not be found.
With the loss of estate lands, the 10th Marquess considered selling or demolishing the house due to the crippling rates imposed on a property and estate of this size. In 1976, Lord Altamont was reported as saying that he intended to apply for planning permission to have the house ‘’pulled down’’ because of the attitude at the time of the Government towards houses such as Westport House and imposition of a Wealth Tax. The 10th Marquess decided to test the market for a house such as Westport and advertised the house for sale in Ireland and England. He had two firm offers, one of £6,000 from a Kilkenny company who wished to demolish the house and another for £7,500 from a Galway solicitor who wanted 60 acres of the surrounding land thrown in for good measure. To try and maintain Westport House, the 11th Marquess decided to open the house to the public in the 1960’s to generate funds. Jeremy Ulick Browne, the 11th Marquess of Sligo and 13th Earl of Altamont also faced the problem that he had five daughters and no male heir. As he fought to save his family home, the prospect also existed, that upon his death, Westport House and Estate could only be inherited by the eldest male heir. The Altamont Act was signed into law in 1993, by Mary Robinson, who had helped draft the document before her election as president. This Act meant that the daughters of the 11th Marquess could now inherit the estate and could not be disinherited because of their gender. When Jeremy died in 2014, the estate would not last much longer in the Browne family despite his pioneering spirit. The title of the Marquess of Sligo, long associated with Westport House, now passed to a cousin based in Australia.
Despite eventually becoming one of the most visited tourist sites in Mayo, many works of art and pieces of furniture were sold over the years to try and preserve the architectural legacy of the Browne family. It was now clearly evident in the 20th century that the wealth of previous generations was gone which had once sustained a property such as this. Efforts made to make the estate and house self-sustaining, while preserving it intact, resulted in deeper and deeper debt. The Browne family reluctantly agreed to sell the estate following an accumulation of debt that amounted to millions of euro, borrowed to develop the estate. Westport House and Estate appeared on the market in 2016, with an asking price of €10 million, the county of Mayo held its breath. There was now a distinct possibility that the house could be sold to some reclusive billionaire who would shut the gates of this much-loved piece of our county’s heritage. Luckily for the people of Mayo, the philanthropic spirit of the local Hughes family is matched by their entrepreneurial and business acumen. A lot of the works now being undertaken, costing millions of euro, will be invisible but is instigated by the Hughes Family to create a stable base for the continuing improvement of Westport House. When the works are complete and the scaffolding removed, the house will look very much as it was. This is a testament to the care and attention now being lavished on the house solving hidden problems that have degraded the house for generations. None of the works will be so invasive that they will dramatically alter its appearance, to do so would detract and destroy the wonderful architecturally legacy that has endured.
For more photos of this highly fascinating project, follow David Hicks on Instagram @irish_country_houses.
About David Hicks
David Hicks is the author of ‘Irish Country Houses – A Chronicle of Change’ published in October 2012 and ‘Irish Country Houses – Portraits & Painters’ published in October 2014 , both published by Collins Press, Cork. His blog features unpublished articles and photographs assembled from my archive gathered over years of research. I am currently compiling my third book ‘Irish Country Houses – Restoration & Redemption’.
If you’d like to see the restoration works for yourself first hand, Westport House begins Restoration Tours on 12th August 2021, for further details please click here.