by Judy Enright
Special to the BIR
As most homeowners know, it can be very expensive to protect property from the ravages of time and weather.
So, imagine how costly it must be to maintain a huge 18th Century mansion such as Westport House in Westport, Co. Mayo, in the damp, coastal Irish weather.
The ingenuity of its owners back in the 1960s was the key to this old house’s salvation. Thanks to the insight and marketing skills of the late Jeremy Altamont, his wife Jennifer, and other members of the resident Browne family, Westport House became the first stately Irish home to be opened to the public. That was in 1960 and, since then, the house and grounds have welcomed more than four million visitors. And, Westport House has survived and flourished while many other historic Irish homes have been burned, demolished, or simply abandoned.
Over the years, the Browne family has enhanced the property’s appeal to all ages by adding a series of colorful, multi-generational attractions to the grounds. A ferris wheel, merry-go-round, miniature train, and fairway-type games and rides give Westport House somewhat of a carnival atmosphere, making the landmark a major tourist draw that adds millions annually to the town and the area’s economy.
And Westport House is a great place to spend the day. It’s great fun albeit a dichotomy in many ways. There is the frivolous atmosphere from games and rides on the extensive grounds that contrasts with the quiet elegance of a magnificent mansion chock full of priceless antiques and paintings from a gentler era of long ago.
In the historic house, visitors can tour 30 rooms and six exhibitions over three floors. Don’t miss the long gallery adorned with family portraits, the large dining room with the table set for the next round of dinner guests, or the numerous bedrooms, nurseries, and dressing rooms complete with family heirlooms. It’s inspiring and staggering to see how many personal belongings the family held onto over the years; they clearly had the available space to store everything.
There’s an interesting display “The Last 50 years at Westport House,” which was developed by Lady Sheelyn Browne to celebrate her parents’ lives there, and a waxwork exhibition with 10 life-size figures from music, literature, and the arts, most of whom had some association with Westport House. And be sure to look up over the marble fireplace to see Henry Barnard Chalon paintings.You enter the front hall to see an old Irish elk head that was dug up from a bog near Castlebar more than 150 years ago. The head is said to be more than 10,000 years old and the elk reportedly stood 10 feet tall. Of special interest is the Chinese Room upstairs, with its hand-painted wallpaper based on the story of the Willow pattern.
There is so much to see here that you could easily spend an entire day just walking around inside the house and reading the descriptions of the displays therein.
For the younger folk who probably don’t care much about antiques, there are many fun-filled activities around the grounds, including a pirate adventure park (named for the family’s famed 16th Century pirate queen ancestor, Grace O’Malley), a caravan and camping park, gigantic swan pedal boats that cruise the lake, and much, much more.
We recently attended Master Falconer Jason Deasy’s “Birds of Prey” show in the farmyard at Westport House and highly recommend it. The birds were amazing as they performed for Jason – and, of course, for food.
THE BROWNE FAMILY
“A Visitor’s Guide to Westport House” says that “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 its family remains unbroken.”
Members of the Browne family owned this historic property since 1680 but ever-spiraling costs forced them to seek a new owner. The house and about 380 acres of land were sold earlier this year to three members of the Hughes family, well-known and successful Westport businessmen.
Newspaper reports at the time said that Cathal, Owen, and Harry Hughes plan to invest at least 50 million euro in the house and grounds and create 200 jobs over the next five years.
Biddy Hughes, director of sales and marketing, said the new owners’ priority will be to make the house fully accessible and to keep Westport House open as a museum. “They are committed,” she added, “to keeping the house open and to making sure the house is restored but they plan to look and listen before making changes. It’s like a fairytale ending to know that the house will be owned locally and restored because this is one of the few historic homes in Ireland that has been maintained in its original state and not modernized.”
In 1960, the first year the house opened to the public, there were 5,000 visitors. There are now about 162,000 visitors a year, Hughes said.
Cathal Hughes was quoted in the press as saying, “On behalf of the Hughes family, I want to wish the Browne family every success in the future and I look forward to liaising with them as we develop our plans over the next few years. I want to assure all the existing staff, suppliers, and customers that we will continue to operate as normal under the new ownership.”
In addition to games, rides, and tours of the lovely house, Westport House also hosts numerous events that are open to the public during the year, including an international mini Cooper car meet, held this year on May 28, a “Grainne Ale” beer festival from June 3-5, a Harvest Festival on Aug. 26 and 27, and the Westport Festival of Chamber Music from Sept. 8-10. The house is open daily from 10 a.m. from March to October, and on weekends from November to February.
Westport House was chosen as the best leisure tourism innovator at this year’s Irish Tourism Awards. Wouldn’t the late Jeremy Altamont, who first opened the House to the world, be very proud of his vision?
For more information on times and events, visit westporthouse.ie or email email@example.com.
“Life is short – eat cookies.” What a great saying and it just so happens that it’s the motto for Clew Bay Cookies, a company based in Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, that currently offers three flavors - chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, and mint chocolate chip. The cookies are all natural, made from scratch and from a family recipe with real Irish butter and Belgian chocolate.
James and Lisa McCann started the company after their son asked for chocolate chip cookies for his football team members who were training on his birthday. They were a huge success. The packaged product was launched last August. James is originally from Michigan and Lisa is from Derry. They moved to Co. Mayo from the US four years ago with their two sons.
Clew Bay Cookies are currently available in Ireland at various Supervalu supermarkets in Co. Mayo and assorted specialty shops, including several in Galway. You might want to slip a few boxes in your luggage and savor the trip (and the cookies) after you’re home! For more information, see clewbaycookies.com.
On June 4 and 5, the 50th annual Westport Horse and Pony Show will be held at Drummindoo Stud in Knockranny and will include an indoor dog show. For more information, see drummindoo.com.
The Explore Mayo Cycle will be held June 10 with three different routes available for riders including 50, 100, and 150 km routes. All routes begin and end at Breaffy House Resort Hotel in Castlebar. For more information, see castlebarcyclingclub.ie
The 30th annual Burrishoole Walking Festival will be held in Co. Mayo on June 3, 4, and 5. Registration takes place at the old Derrada National School, now a community center, in Newport, at 9:30 a.m. with two levels of walks on Saturday and Sunday starting at 10 a.m. The walking festival is organized by local volunteers and trained guides, a majority of whom are local farmers whose knowledge of the local heritage, folklore, customs, flora and fauna are invaluable. For more details, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Have fun in Ireland whenever you visit and be on the lookout for new products, new places to visit, and new adventures.