300 Years of Heritage & History
Still privately owned, Westport House is one of the few remaining Irish historic homes – of national and international significance – that can make that claim. For over 300 years the Browne family, who built the house, lived here. Each generation ensuring its survival through good times and bad with hard work, enterprise and determination.
In 2017, Westport House was bought by another local and historic family, the Hughes family, who hope to ensure its survival into the future.
We have shared a brief history below. You are invited to visit to experience this 18th century Palladian mansion in person and learn more about its fascinating stories.
Built in the 18th century, Westport House was designed by the famous architects, Richard Cassels, James Wyatt and Thomas Ivory. Westport House is located west of the Shannon and is considered to be one of Ireland’s most beautiful historic homes open to visitors – and is today often described as being one of Ireland’s National Treasures. It is situated in a superb parkland setting with lake, terraces, gardens and magnificent views overlooking Clew Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Clare Island and Ireland’s Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick right in the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way. It was built and is still privately owned by the Browne family, who are direct descendants of the famous 16th century Pirate Queen – Grace O’Malley.
After Grace O’Malley’s death, a report stated that for forty years she was the stay of all rebellions in the West. She was chief of the O’Malley Clan and ruled the seas around Mayo. Grace O’Malley had several castles in the West of Ireland and it was on the foundations of one of these that Westport House was actually built. There is still an area of her original castle in the basement of the House (now known as The Dungeons), which is on view to visitors.
The original house which would have been smaller, was built by Colonel John Browne, a Jacobite, who was at the Siege of Limerick and his wife, Maude Burke in 1679-83. Maude Burke was Grace O’Malley’s great-great granddaughter. The house did not have the lake or a dam and the tide rose and fell against the walls.
The east front of the House, as it is today, was built in 1730 by Colonel John Browne’s grandson, also John- 1st Earl of Altamont. He hired the famous German architect, Richard Cassels. It is built with the finest limestone taken from the quarry south of the estate farmyard and was executed by local craftsmen. Richard Cassels also designed Carton, Haselwood, Russborough and Leinster Houses.
From the plans made in 1773, the ground floor contained:
- The Waiting Room – now The Library
- Front Staircase – now the Ante- library
- Living Room – now The Front Hall
- Back staircase – now part of the present Drawing Room
- Dressing Room – now the East end of The Long Gallery.
It was only one room deep, built round an open courtyard.
In 1778, Peter, the 2nd Earl Of Altamont built the south wing to the Thomas Ivory plans his father had commissioned but had not carried out. Ivory’s south façade has a delicacy quite unlike Cassel’s bolder work on the East. In the 1780’s Peter’s son John Denis, 3rd Earl of Altamont (who later became the 1st Marquess of Sligo), completed the square of the House. He engaged James Wyatt to decorate his new Long Gallery and Large Dining Room (one of the great English architects who is responsible for other significant buildings in the town of Westport and further afield).
In 1816, Howe Peter (2nd Marquess of Sligo) began his alterations to the House. He built on the north wing for men servants and between 1819-1825, he built on the south wing. The south wing was built as a two-tiered library designed by Benjamin Wyatt. This was warmed by hot air and due to defects in the system, it was destroyed by fire almost immediately in 1826.
In the 1830’s, the central open courtyard where the Marble Staircase now sits, was covered in and Howe Peter made a new library by running a gallery round the now enclosed wall. In 1858 his son George abolished his father’s Library, moving it to where it is today and replaced it with the Marble Staircase.
On the west side of the house, the highly effective balustraded terraces’ above the lake and the landing places were put in by George Ulick (6th Marquess of Sligo). These were designed by the English architect, Romaine Walker, whose main Irish work was the remodelling of Waterford Castle.
The Browne Family
The story of the Browne Family is a microcosm for the wider and, at times, turbulent history of Ireland. Each generation has had to contend with and adapt to the prevailing social, political and religious changes encountered along the way. Despite revolution, invasion, plantation, famine and confiscation, the bond uniting Westport House and it’s family remained right up until 2017.
The Browne Family originally arrived into Mayo 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) with whom 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 Cathair-na-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. A Catholic, John supported the Jacobite cause and was appointed a Colonel in the Jacobite army. From the iron mines on his lands near Westport, he supplied the army with cannon balls and weapons. The defeat of the Jacobite army at Aughrim and Limerick in 1691 brought financial ruin in the confiscations that followed. 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 IV 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. In 1767, he – along with architect, William Leeson – 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. It is said that – as part of the dowry – her father insisted that he take the Kelly name and he became known as Peter Browne Kelly.
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 and many of the streets in Westport today are named after Browne Family members such as Peter Street, James Street, Altamont Street and John’s Row. 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. During his lifetime, the French inspired 1798 Rebellion occurred. Aided by the arbitrary actions of Denis Browne, his younger brother, against the Irish insurgents (which earned him the reputation of “ black sheep” of the family), the Rebellion was crushed.
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 traveled extensively throughout Europe on the “grand tour”. He excavated at Mycenae and discovered the 3,000 year old columns of the Treasury of Atreus. To bring them back to Westport, he took some seamen from a British warship and was subsequently sentenced to 4 months in Newgate prison. He married Hester, the Earl of Conricard’s daughter, with whom he had 14 children and settled down to life in Westport. He bred many famous race horses both at Westport and the Curragh. One of his horses, Waxy, won the Derby. He owned the last two of the original breed of Irish Wolfhound. 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 met with great opposition from plantation owners and other vested interests. 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. With the guidance of his mother, Hesther Catherine, he imported cargoes of meal to Westport Quay and sub-vented the local workhouse, then the only shelter available to the destitute. He wrote tirelessly to the British Government demanding that they do more to help the famine victims. He wrote and had published a pamphlet outlining many pioneering reforms of the economic and social conditions that had led to the famine. 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 reoccurring sentiment at Westport House!), the 3rd Marquess wrote “ I have no desire for the honour.” An exhibition about the Great Famine is on display in Westport House as told through Hesther Catherine’s letters to the estate’s agent in Westport, Hildebrand.
John succeeded his brother as 4th Marquess. He had to contend with the huge changes that occurred in the ownership of land in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. 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, in the midst of a great depression and facing rising death duties, the 10th Marquess, Denis Edward, his wife Jose and son Jeremy (11th Marquess) decided to open 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 developed the Estate into a Tourist Attraction.
The Grounds & Gardens
The Brownes of Westport House knew the value of trees in a landscape too, as the stunning woodland in the estate’s grounds attest. Westport Demesne retains 100 acres of historic woods dating back to the 1700s.
Back in the day, these trees provided a number of resources for the Westport House Estate. They created a shelter belt from the harsh Atlantic weather systems, they provided a fuel and timber source for heating and building materials, and they created a lush green back drop for the ‘naturalised parkland’ design landscape.
The lords and ladies loved to interact with the landscape by promenading along a deep networks of track and trails. They would bring their visitors along these paths too, impressing them with the grandeur and beauty of the estate’s stately woodlands. Aptly enough, these design pathways and the areas of woodlands they ventured through were known as ‘the pleasure grounds’.
An elaborate network of serpentine pathways meandered along, softly curving – following the style of landscape design that was popular during the 1800s and remains timeless to this day. The trails led the walker deep into the woodlands and surrounding landscape, where they could discover hidden design elements, such as sculptural pieces of architecture, exotic plant and tree species and new views.
The pyramidal cone of Croagh Patrick was one of the most emphasised views in the Westport House Demesne, and a number of the historic pathways were specifically designed to yield the most captivating vistas. The woodlands even had purposely made gaps to seduce the stroller with sudden framed glimpses of the famous Reek.
Opened to the Public in 1960
By the early 1960s, most historic homes of its nature were either burnt, knocked down or abandoned. Not so for Westport House. Jeremy – 11th Marquess of Sligo (1939 – 2014), took the estate in a whole new direction with inspiration from the “Big Houses” in the UK who had opened their doors to the interested public who were keen to see how the “other half” lived. In 1960, when Jeremy and Jennifer opened the attraction, the admission price was 2/6 for adults and 1/- for children. Admission to the grounds was 6d for both adults and children. In 1960, 2,400 visitors visited Westport House.
Jeremy had a remarkable passion for product development and marketing. He was inspired by other houses that were becoming sustainable and viable by diversifying their offering from not only heritage but including other leisure attractions. He felt strongly that Westport House needed to appeal to a wider audience than those solely interested in antiques and architecture. Over time, he introduced a number of fun attractions. In the 1970s, the Slippery Dip (Cannon Ball run) and the Miniature Railway (Westport House Express) were added discretely on the grounds. A Camping and Caravan Park was developed – as well as Horse Drawn Caravan tours of Connemara – and Gracy’s Restaurant (situated at the Farmyard was created from what was originally a cowshed) and a shop evolved from a similar situation. There were even one armed bandits in the basement at one point in time and the giant pink rabbit called Pinkie was introduced as the estate’s mascot. The Tennis Courts, Pitch and Putt, a Flume Ride (The Pirates Plunge), Jungle World (The Pirates Den), and of course The Giant Swans on the lake were also phased in. In 2008, the Ships Galleon (The Pirate Queen) was introduced.
It was during this time that Jeremy and Jennifer realised that in order to be able to leave the estate to their daughters, drastic action would need to be taken. Jeremy had signed a family trust aged 21 to leave the estate and title to his son. They went on to have five wonderful daughters (with no sign of a male heir). With the help of Mary Robinson QC (and later, first female president of Ireland) and Michael Egan, solicitor from Castlebar, Jeremy succeeded in bringing the Altamont Act through the senate in 1992 allowing him to leave the estate to his daughters and break the trust. He did not enact the same for the title of Marquess of Sligo and today, the 12th Marquess of Sligo, Sebastian Browne, resides in Sydney, Australia.
In 2003, Jeremy commissioned Michael Cooper, his brother-in-law, to create a sculpture of Grace O’Malley – the original of alabaster stone is situated in the House and a bronze casting is in the garden. This was the beginning of reinstating her back where she belongs – in her home, with her family, and where the re-branding of the estate in 2009 as Westport House and Pirates Adventure Park emanated from.
It was around this time that Sheelyn and Karen Browne – the two eldest of Jeremy’s five daughters – took the reins and added an Adventure Activity Centre, a seasonal Events Programme as well as holding the first large music festivals on the estate while Clare and Alannah ran Gracy’s Bar. Fifth sister, Lucinda, was always happy to lend a hand when home from the U.K.
2017 & Beyond
In 2017, the Browne family sold the house and estate to the local Hughes family who own neighbouring Hotel Westport and workwear provider, Portwest. A new chapter in the history of Westport House & Estate has begun. The Hughes family immediately started working on the grounds and gardens of the estate. The adventure park has been upgraded with a variety of new attractions and rides and there are plans to further invest in adventure. In 2021, urgent and necessary restorative works to Westport House will begin. And our new CEO’s main focus – along with the Hughes family – has been to produce a master plan for the entire estate that will ensure the sustainability and viability of the house and estate into the future. Exciting times ahead. If you’d like to hear more about our journey, please join our Newsletter mailing list below.
Westport House and Gardens are open all year around with some exceptions.