Westport House was built and is still privately owned by the Browne Family. It is situated in a superb parkland setting with lake, terraces and gardens overlooking Clew Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and Clare Island to the west. To the south, Croagh Patrick sits on the horizon and to the front of the house the Carrowbeg River runs into the lake and down to the quay.
In 1580 the first John Browne 1 arrived in Ireland and settled at the Neale, near Kilmaine. He was the son of Sir Anthony Browne of Cowdray Castle in Sussex who was Master of the Horse to King Henry V111, a great landowner, and powerful at court. John Browne 1 married Anne Cardiffe and they had one son called Josias. Josias' eldest son, John Browne ll became the first baronet of The Neale, his son the third John Browne was educated as a Barrister and he married Maud Bourke of the third Viscount Bourke of Mayo. Her great great grandmother was the legendary pirate queen Grace O'Malley.
John Browne prospered and he acquired most of the estates of his in-laws, the Bourkes which included O'Malley Castle or Cathair-na-Mart (The Stone Fort of the Beeves). Ulick and John, sons of the Earls of Clanricarde destroyed Cathair-na-Mart in 1588. John began to build Westport House on the foundations of the old castle. At the time the house was built there was no dam or lake and the tide came right up to the house.
Browne was a Catholic and as such he supported James 11 against William 111. He maintained ironworks at Knappagh, Foxford, Heagh and Westport where he made fireworks, bayonets and balls. He was involved in drafting the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. The defeat of James resulted in the financial ruin of John Browne. Due to his involvement on the losing side of the war, his lands were confiscated and he was imprisoned for debt. While his estates were being sold to reduce his debt he managed to escape and disappear. He was eventually pronounced dead by the British government but unofficially he lived for several more years.
Colonel John Brown's son Peter inherited his estates and he is responsible for changing Cathair-na-Mart to Westport. Peter's son John was orphaned at the age of fifteen years and as a result he was educated at Oxford. He became a protestant and in 1729 returned to Westport to claim his inheritance.
In 1730 John engaged Richard Cassels, a German architect living in Ireland to design the present east facade as part of a classical house laid out around the core of the earlier fortified house. This was followed by the construction of the house bridge, the stable block and the old Protestant church, now in ruins. Woodlands were planted on the estate and the waterfalls were built across the river. John Browne was elected MP for the borough of Castlebar in 1743.
In 1760 the viscount's title was revised to Baron Mounteagle, again in 1768 to Viscount Westport and to the first Earl of Altamount in 1771. The original town was built close to Westport House so the Earl decided to move the village to its present site; he is also credited with organising the planning of the town. He was also responsible for the introduction of the linen industry, which was the basis for the town's prosperity during the following years.
John Browne was succeeded in 1776, by his son Peter, the second Earl of Altamont. Peter died in 1780 and was succeeded by John Dennis Browne, the third Earl of Altamont. He employed James Wyatt an English Architect to design the gallery and the dining room. The third Earl had been an MP and Lord Lieutenant of County Mayo and he used his extensive influence to aid further development in Westport town.
Following the 1798 rebellion, Westport House was initially used as the headquarters for the Irish forces, however following their defeat by the crown forces, martial law was introduced and following The Act of Union, the title the Earl of Altamont was changed to the Marquess of Sligo.
Westport continued to prosper in the early 1800's and the Marquess carried on with the town plan, which resulted in the completion of Westport's most distinguishing feature, the Mall. It was completed in 1818 and Westport House was given a new entrance with a lodge and gates at the western end of the North Mall.
During the famine years 1845-47 the West of Ireland was worst affected. Inheriting the year the famine broke out and Westport House being so close to the town, George – the 3rd Marquess of Sligo, was involved from the start. He had inherited an income and a sense of duty.
Westport House was closed and George and two of his sisters moved into a house in town on James Street (now the Tourist Office). With no rents coming in George borrowed where he could, spending 50,000 of his own money to alleviate the suffering from his own tenants. He imported cargoes of meal to Westport Quay and sub vented the local workhouse, the only shelter available to the destitute. He wrote tirelessly to the British Government demanding that they do more to help the famine victims.
The subsequent Family members have continued to live at Westport House and today Jeremy, his wife Jennifer, together with their five daughters, continue the long links that bind Westport House to it’s family.
Since first opening to visitors in 1960, Westport House and it’s adjoining Pirate Adventure Park has welcomed over 4 million visitors from all over the world and is now considered to be one of the most important tourist attractions in the West of Ireland.
By Bernie O'Malley