‘Every generation tried whatever the hell they could’
Regarded as a national treasure, historic Westport House has faced many challenges through the years. ‘It’s been a struggle, I don’t think we’ve ever been a family to deny that . . . money has been a big issue,’ say the owners who have seen the business grow 60 per cent in the past four years
Westport House, Westport, Co. Mayo. Photograph : Keith Heneghan/Phocus
Karen and Sheelyn Browne
Lord Altamont, Karen and Lucinda on a horse-drawn caravan in 1982. Photographs: Liam Lyons
Lord Altamont wrestles with a llama from the zoo in 1972
Sheelyn and Karen Browne help their parents to beat a path on the estate in 1967
Sheelyn Browne can’t remember a time when keeping Westport House in the family wasn’t a financial struggle. The house is regarded as a national treasure and is a well-known destination and venue for events with a pirate adventure park on its grounds but like most big estates it is a money-pit that the Browne family have been battling for years to keep viable.
Sheelyn’s father Jeremy Browne (Lord Altamont, 11th Marquess of Sligo) was the commercial brain who put Westport House on the map at a time when the town was considered to be in the middle of nowhere.
By the early 1960s, when he was barely into his 20s, he was already heavily involved in the running of the estate. A video in one of the exhibition rooms of the house shows him as an earnest young man being interviewed by Frank Hall on RTÉ’s Newsbeat programme promoting the newly-opened tearooms and gift shop. In the 1970s he made the bold and unusual move of opening a zoo in the walled garden of the estate in partnership with Fossetts, followed by a short-lived gypsy caravan hire business. A camping and caravan park that opened in 1982 is still part of the business . “We got an awful lot of resistance from the council to the campsite, they thought it would encourage drugs,” says Sheelyn.
At one point the family briefly entertained the idea of turning Westport House into a ten-bedroom hotel but then decided against it. “It would have been too disruptive and would have ruined the existing integrity of the house and we had no experience of the hotel industry.
“It’s been a struggle, I don’t think we’ve ever been a family to deny that and every generation tried to do whatever the hell they could to move with the times. Money has been a big issue. Now and then we do wonder are we mad because even when turnover increases, the family doesn’t ever benefit.”
The pirate-themed adventure park, which opened in 2007, was inspired by the Brownes’ direct lineage to Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century pirate queen of Connaught. Col John Browne, who built the original Cassels-designed house in 1730 was married to Maud Bourke who was Grace O’Malley’s great-granddaughter. The family can’t be accused of not being innovative. At the end of June, they will hold their third boutique music festival with Bryan Adams as the headline act and over Christmas the place was transformed into a winter wonderland with Santa and his elves. There’s also a wedding venue that can cater for up to 130 guests but which currently only has a wine licence. However, income is seasonal and overheads include a staff of 76 during peak season.
“I know these are recessionary times and everyone is in the same struggle, but our business has grown by 60 per cent in the last four years which is a fairly good story. What we want is for it to be sustainable and viable, which is always a challenge for an estate like this. You think you are getting on top of things and a wall collapses or a weir collapses or something needs to be built or maintained.”
The hope is that an ambitious 50-year master plan for the 480-acre estate will eventually put it on a strong financial footing and generate some commercial partnerships. Included in the long list of future developments are a 100-bed hotel in the grounds, a conference centre, several pockets of residential development including a mini-landed estate overlooking Clew Bay and the restoration of the coach house into apartments. They are on the lookout for a retail partner and plan to turn the farmyard area of the grounds, a collection of old heritage buildings, into a commercial honeypot. “I’m sure as the years go by the masterplan will be tweaked and changed as times and demands and necessities arise.We are working very closely with the local council now with regard to any potential developments we are doing.”
Sheelyn is joint managing director with her sister Karen. Their younger sister Alannah runs Gracy’s Bar and Café on the grounds. Their parents, Jeremy and Jennifer Browne were tireless promoters of the estate when she was growing up and all of the children were drafted in to help out. “My mother helped dad out a lot, she is fantastic with people and ran the antique shop which closed in 1995 and worked on reception in the house every season up until two years ago.”
The zoo, which opened in 1973, was “a full-on zoo, with lions, an elephant and bears in enclosures. They would bring animals in with a minder,” says Sheelyn. Finally, by the 1980s, her mother had had enough of the zoo and issued an ultimatum. “She said, ‘One of us has to go, the lions or me’. She didn’t like the idea of them being so close, and anyway zoos were no longer the thing to be doing.”
While Sheelyn’s father began running the estate from a young age, her grandfather Denis Edward, the 10th Marquess of Sligo, was in his mid-40s and an artist living in London when he inherited Westport House. “His father was next in line but was killed in the war, so it went to him. He was a Londoner and it was a difficult move, it was not a great time in Ireland for landlords with compulsory acquisitions.” The main entrance to the house at Church Lane was acquired for public housing.
Denis Edward immersed himself in the history of the house, even writing a book called Westport House and the Brownes. Her grandmother Jose wasn’t as keen on Westport but eventually resigned herself to her lot and threw herself into decorating the house before it was opened to the public in 1960, a pioneering venture at the time in an area that was depressed and seen as remote.
“They realised they had to become commercial, and really that is when my father took over. My grandfather was really into the history and the land and farming, it was dad who went out there to get the families in and the attractions in.”
Fast forward over 50 years and it appears that thanks to the relentless efforts of several generations of Brownes, Westport House finally has financial sustainability within its grasp. The reopening of the pedestrian entrance at Church Lane in October re-established the connection between the big house and the town and provides tourists with more direct access .
For Sheelyn, all the exciting plans for the estate are serving one end, the preservation of the historic house. “My interest is in the the house, if it wasn’t here, I’d be gone. Everything we do is about saving the house. There isn’t another Westport House in Ireland, there is no feeling this is a museum, there is a real family still here and you can get up close to a painting and look at it. Some say that is too lackadaisical, but we’ve never had anything stolen, people respect that . The plan is to slowly keep adding to the product, Thank God we never went down the hotel route, we really have something special.”
Big House challenge: How other estates are faring
Owned by the Slazenger family, Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, is a country estate with gardens that span over 47 acres. The house, originally a 13th-century castle, was altered during the 18th century by German architect Richard Cassels. A fire in 1974 left the house lying as a shell until it was renovated in 1996.
Only two rooms are open to the public as they originally appeared while Powerscourt had residents, while the rest of the ground floor and first floor are now retail units. The gardens survived the fire, so they were opened to the public as a way to generate income to restore the house. Over time small sections of the house were restored. Two sections of this space were leased out, both to the Avoca Handweavers group who opened a cafe and a restaurant on one end of the house and a retail shop on the other end. In 1997, the upper floor was reopened, which includes a new sweeping staircase, a small room with rescued artifacts and the restored ballroom.
The estate now includes the house and gardens, a garden centre, golf course and a property firm.
Bantry House and garden in Cork is a privately-owned house and 100-acre estate run by the Shelswell-Whites, descendants of the Earls of Bantry, since the 1760s.
Bantry House was one of the first to open its doors to the public in 1946 in the hope of raising an income. The Shelswell-Whites have been vocal about how making a stately home a viable proposition is a struggle and the house was the subject of an episode of Channel 4’s Country House Rescue. As well as the house and gardens being open to the public, Bantry House offers bed &breakfast in its east wing from April to October, caters for weddings and runs a tea shop.
Castle Leslie in Glaslough, Co Monaghan is one of the last great Irish estates still in the hands of its founding family. The castle hotel in Ireland is managed by Sammy Leslie and governed by a family trust. It offers a range of of on-site activities, and has its own Gourmet Gifts and Goodies range.
While restoration of the house and grounds is ongoing, features added over the years to the estate include a spa, a bar and restaurant and a cookery school. A new pavilion, adjacent to the long gallery of the main house, facilitates conferences, weddings and other large events.
The 1,000-acre estate has an equestrian centre and hunting lodge and miles of new horse trails and jumps, plus a state-of-the-art indoor horse arena and stabling.