End of an era for Westport House

Historic Mayo property on sale after a long battle by Browne family to retain ownership

Westport House in County Mayo, home to the Browne family since the 1700s and one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations is on the market for €10 million. Video: Enda O’Dowd

 

The placing of Westport House for sale on the open market by its administrators follows a protracted five-year battle by the Browne family to retain the property, which has been in their hands since the 17th century.

When a loan taken out during the boom years to reinvest in the house became unserviceable, the family faced an uphill battle to hold on to the house.

Their ultimate failure in this regard will strike a chord with other owners struggling to retain historic properties within their families.

The property on 455 acres goes on sale today as a going concern through agent Ganly Walters, asking €10 million.

Though the house and immediate grounds are not affected by the outstanding debt of €9.6 million on the lands, any sale of the entire estate will be contingent on acquisition of this debt at a (presumably) negotiated discount.

From the time Westport House opened its doors to the public in the 1960s, Sheelyn Browne, the eldest of five daughters of the late Lord Altamont, Jeremy Ulick Browne, the 11th Marquess of Sligo can only ever remember the family battling to keep Westport House in the family’s hands.

Sheelyn admits that amid her devastation at the loss, there is also some relief that the huge responsibility for this historic home will be passed on to someone who can afford to invest in it.

“Despite our efforts there’s an urgency for us to sell now, because the house is stagnating.

“The gates may be open, but if someone doesn’t buy it soon it won’t be maintained and funded in the way it should to ensure its upkeep,” Sheelyn says.

Reputed to be built on the foundations of a castle owned by pirate queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile), the original Westport House was built in 1679 by Colonel John Browne after he married Maud Burke, Grace O’Malley’s great-great granddaughter.

The main house as it now stands was designed 50 years later by German architect Richard Cassels, who also designed Leinster House, Carton House and Russborough House.

It was completed by English architect James Wyatt who was also commissioned by John Browne, the 1st Earl of Altamont, to lay out the town of Westport, Ireland’s first planned town.

The second Earl of Altamont, Howe Peter Browne, later added a more gracious south facade designed by architect Thomas Ivory.

As a consequence there are striking contrasts in the design of the house, from the delicate ceiling plasterwork by Ivory, to the imposing double-height front hall with its barrel vaulted ceiling and decorative parquet flooring.

A library to the rear of the house was replaced with a magnificent Sicilian marble staircase with wrought metal balustrades.

Jamaica

Many of the finer later additions were made by the second earl who appears to have been the last Browne to have had sufficient funds to invest in the house with abandon.

Having married Elizabeth Kelly from Galway, her family’s numerous estates in Jamaica greatly enhanced the family purse.

Howe Peter became governor of Jamaica in 1834 and was instrumental in the campaign to end slavery there.

He later commissioned Benjamin Wyatt to complete the long gallery and long diningroom with their ornate ceiling artwork and friezes with medallions of classical figures.

The mahogany doors are from the family estate in Jamaica.

Upstairs, accommodation comprises 10 bedrooms, three dressingrooms and six bathrooms, with three smaller bedrooms in the attic. The Chinese bedroom, also by Wyatt, features extraordinary hand painted wallpaper to a Chinese design that doesn’t repeat.

There is some water damage which occurred prior to the house being reroofed in 2011 with a State heritage grant of €1.6 million.

Though everywhere is in need of an upgrade – the west side is showing the effects of constant battering from the coastal winds and the windows throughout need restoring – the views from many of these rooms out to Carrowbeg River and Clew Bay are spectacular.

Also extraordinary on this floor is a room occupied by eight waxworks of leading cultural figures with west of Ireland connections, including WB Yeats, Percy French and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Several upstairs rooms feature exhibitions focusing on the role played by family members in various periods in the house’s history, not least the late Lord Altamont’s landmark case in 1993 to secure the inheritance for his five daughters by having a private Bill in the Oireachtas passed.

This dissolved a 1963 settlement by which Westport House could only be inherited by an eldest male heir. Downstairs at basement level, a permanent exhibition recalls the exploits of Granuaile in the “dungeon”.

Sections of the grounds have in the past been variously used as a zoo, festival venue and caravan park and more recently as a Pirate Adventure Park.

Ironically enough, the sale of the house coincides with a turnaround in its fortunes.

The last couple of years have seen it firmly establish as a leading tourism destination in the region.

A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found there were 162,000 visitors to Westport House in 2014 contributing €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and the local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing Westport House as their main reason for visiting Mayo.

Clearly disappointed that the State has not followed through on public expressions of interest in saving Westport House, Sheelyn believes much of the ground has been laid for a buyer to continue operating it as a tourism offering.

Contents

The contents of the house, which include rare paintings by John Lavery and James O’Connor, and exceptional items of rare silver, are not included in the sale price.

The family is hoping for a benign buyer who might also be interested in making an offer for the contents.

“The contents tell the whole story of the house. The family has always been here, and everything we have done until now has been done to save the house with the contents intact. It would be a terrible shame.”

Included in the sale is a five-bedroom coach house, a stable yard, substantial farm buildings, an orchard, cottage and fully-serviced caravan park.

The homes of two family members living on the estate are not included in the sale.

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