Visionary heir who saved Westport House

Jeremy Altamont: June 4th, 1939 - July 13th, 2014

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

Despite inheriting a stately home and 800 acres of land, Jeremy Ulick Browne Altamont, the 11th Marquess of Sligo and 13th Earl of Altamont, who has died aged 75, could be described as a self-made man.

Against severe odds in a much poorer Ireland, from the early 1960s he saved his family’s home, Westport House and estate in Co Mayo, from abandonment or enforced sale.

In the process he created one of Ireland’s most important privately-owned tourist attractions, which today employs some 200 people in high season.

In securing this inheritance for his five daughters, he also struck an unlikely blow for female emancipation by initiating, through his solicitor Michael Egan of Castlebar, a parliamentary agent enabled by law to perform such a task, a private Bill in the Oireachtas which dissolved a 1963 settlement by which Westport House could only be inherited by an eldest male heir.

The Altamont (Amendment of Deed of Trust) Act was signed into law in 1993, appropriately by Mary Robinson, who had helped to draft it before her election as president in 1990.

Former MEP Avril Doyle, who with Dr Ken Whitaker and others had supported the Bill in the Senate when she was also a member there, told The Irish Times that Jeremy Altamont – as he was always known, even after succeeding his father Denis as Marquess of Sligo in 1991 – “whether he realised it or not, burst the bubble of primogeniture” in this country.

Far-seeing Doyle added that “he had to change the whole outlook in relation to heritage houses; he was very far-seeing. He never let his silver-spoon background prevent him from being a practical man, as he was.”

He very much needed to be to achieve what he did. The combination of three successive Marquesses of Sligo dying in 1941, 1951 and 1953 respectively, and the payment of accompanying inheritance taxes, almost forced the sale of the house in the mid-1950s, except that a buyer could not be found.

Almost as a last resort, Altamont’s parents opened Westport House to the public in 1960, when some 2,000 visitors came through the doors.

By then, after schooling at St Columba’s College in Co Dublin and a year at the Royal Agricultural College in England, their son and only child had joined them in managing the venture.

The prospects were not good. In his memoir, A Life at Westport House, 50 Years A-Going, published only in May of this year, Altamont wrote of his observation that successful enterprises of this kind in Britain in the 1960s, such as Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, were all within two hours’ drive of large centres of population.

To make Westport House a success as a tourist destination, it had to add attractions “which would have to [have an] appeal . . . as something everyone wanted”.

The opening of a children’s zoo, a miniature railway, a caravan and camping site and eventually a bar and a flume ride, saw visitor numbers climb to 60,000 per year by the late 1970s.

Today’s figure is well in excess of 100,000, making the house an important part of the economic life of Co Mayo.

Altamont had a sharp eye for publicity: he became a regular feature on The Late, Late Show, opened the Rosc show of contemporary Irish art in 1971 and travelled in a Bord Fáilte delegation promoting Irish tourism in the United States in 1974.

Demolition threat In 1976 he threatened to demolish the house when faced with the prospect of a wealth tax that would have made the estate liable for 1 per cent of its value at a time when it was still losing money.

He told a journalist in 2006 that the threat had been a stunt to draw attention to what he saw as the unsustainability of the proposed measure.

He dealt diplomatically with an invasion of the house in 1981 by IRA sympathisers who hung black flags from the upper storeys in solidarity with the Maze hunger-strikers, although they left within a few hours.

The irony is that Altamont was directly descended from Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen who had made such trouble for the English in the 16th century and whose castle occupied the site where Westport House stands today.

More discreetly, he and Lady Altamont visited Jamaica in 1994, where his ancestor Peter Howe Browne, the second Marquess, had freed the slaves when his was governor there in 1836.

They were welcomed there by black Jamaicans, many called “Browne,” in what their close friend, historian Anne Chambers described as “a very emotional service” in the Baptist church of the town of Sligoville, named in honour of Peter Browne.

Lord Altamont is survived by Jennifer, Lady Altamont, nee Cooper, whom he married in 1961, their five daughters, Sheelyn, Karen, Lucinda, Clare and Alannah, and by grandchildren.