Saturday 24 February 2018

Battle to save Westport House

With the future of the house and 380-acre estate in doubt, locals are rallying to save the landmark

Money spinner: Westport House generated €50m to the region in 2014.
Money spinner: Westport House generated €50m to the region in 2014.

Clodagh Finn

Down through the centuries, every generation of the Browne family tried "whatever the hell they could" to hold on to their ancestral home, the award-winning tourist attraction Westport House.

As the late Lord Jeremy Altamont put it in his 2014 memoir: "My family had been through famines and wars, had been born in Westport, lived and died in Westport and at no point had any generation ever 'given up'."

They were put out of the house in 1798 when French troops landed in Mayo. They were forced to leave again because of high taxes during the Famine and, in the 1980s, the IRA briefly took over the house during a protest.

Now, Westport House faces another formidable challenge: a €10m loan that Lord Altamont secured against the 380-acre estate is being sold by the National Asset Management Agency (Nama), putting the future of the house and estate in doubt.

The irony in all this is that Westport House has never been in a better financial position.

Visitor numbers went up 82pc in the past five years. Last year, 160,000 people - the vast majority of them Irish - walked through its doors.

That's a 50-fold increase on the 3,000 people who visited in 1960 when Lord and Lady Altamont first threw open the doors and moved into an old-fashioned flat with no mod cons in the south wing themselves.

They thought that opening up the house was the only way to keep it open and to tackle its considerable difficulties - debts, crippling insurance costs, trustee difficulties.

Lord Altamont proved to be a marketing genius and a canny courter of publicity; he appeared on the Late Late Show 14 times.

He was also an innovator and tourism pioneer. In 1973, he decided to do what historic estates like Woburn Abbey in the UK had already done and open a zoo. There are pictures of him ushering in the new era by wrestling with llamas on the lawn as staff members Nora Heraty and Margaret Gavin pose in their bikinis by the seal pond - in mid-winter.

A range of projects followed: kiddy rides, horse-drawn caravans, camping on the grounds, tea-rooms, a gift shop and a pirate adventure park harking back to the family's notorious descendant, Grace O'Malley, the 16th-century pirate queen who once had a castle on the site.

Lord and Lady Altamont had five daughters, but no sons, which left them with another headache. They were tied into an inheritance agreement that stipulated the estate must go to the oldest male heir.

To make sure Westport House went to his daughters, Lord Altamont enlisted the help of local solicitor Michael Egan and former president Mary Robinson. They took a private bill through the Oireachtas and succeeded in having the rules of primogeniture overturned.

That allowed the baton to pass to his two eldest daughters, Sheelyn and Karen, who now manage the house. A third daughter, Alannah, runs Gracy's Bar and Café on the estate while Lucinda and Clare are regular visitors.

They have faced their own obstacles - recession, spiralling maintenance costs and a roof that took a decade to fix.

It's been a long, hard slog. There is nothing glamorous or aristocratic about running around with buckets in a frantic attempt to stop rain from the leaking roof destroying the rare Chinese wallpaper on the top floor as Sheelyn and staff at house describe doing some years ago.

Yet, those efforts have paid off. Just last month, an economic report commissioned by Mayo County Council showed that, in 2014, Westport House contributed €1.7m directly to the exchequer and local economy and €50m (or five times its debt) indirectly to the region.

The appeal isn't hard to see. Every inch of Westport House has a story to tell: it is an unrivalled receptacle for over 300 years of Irish history that has been kept intact thanks to the unstinting efforts of the Browne family.

The house, its portraits, its antiques, its furniture and its archives bring to life the story of Mayo - and of Ireland - over the last three centuries.

One of those portraits, painted by Sir William Beechey in 1809, is of the bold and striking Howe Peter Browne (Lord Sligo) who made history when, as Governor of Jamaica from 1834-36, he helped to abolish slavery.

The first free slave village in the world was built in Jamaica and named Sligoville in his honour and to this day, he is still celebrated in the Caribbean.

At Westport House, you'll find traces of his colourful past, too. While travelling in Greece with Lord Bryon, Lord Sligo bribed British seamen to load up a pair of ancient Greek columns from the Temple of Atreus at Mycenae and bring them back to Westport.

He was tried for bribery in London in 1812. The Morning Chronicle reported: "The court was crowded at an early hour yesterday morning by noblemen and gentleman anxious to hear the proceedings in this case." Lord Sligo was sentenced to four months in Newgate jail.

The columns, though, were forgotten in the basement until they were identified 100 years later by the 6th Marquis who donated them to the British Museum. A replica of them now adorns the south wing of the house.

There are many other vivid remnants of the past in Westport House's 30 rooms. One of the most recent additions is an exhibition of Famine letters written by Howe Peter's wife, Lady Hester Catherine Sligo. Like her husband, Lady Sligo was something of a celebrity in her day. She moved in aristocratic circles and dressed in the last fashions - she writes of her silk and satin gowns and showy fans - yet she also showed a clear sense of duty to her tenants struggling during the Famine.

She took a first-hand interest in the failing potato crop at Westport, gave money to charity and later instructed her estate manager to give her tenants good-quality warm blankets. She divided her time between Tunbridge Wells in Kent, Clontarf in Dublin and Westport where she proved to be an effective but loved landlady.

There's an account, in the Tuam Herald in 1857, of "rejoicings" at Westport - with bonfires, gay and brilliant illuminations - when Lady Sligo returned from England in late October.

"Her ladyship's former acts of benevolence and Christian charity in this locality has endeared her name to a grateful people," the paper reported.

Decades later, the descendants of those "grateful" people are rallying behind the Brownes in an attempt to save Westport House.

There's a public meeting in the Town Hall tonight and Tourism Minister Michael Ring has said he is working with Mayo County Council "behind the scenes" to make sure the estate does not fall into private hands.

Now that Westport House is finally viable, the family responsible for making it so are no longer in control. The next number of months will tell a lot but it is not only the people of Mayo who are hoping the outcome will reflect the Browne family motto, Suivez Raison (follow reason).

Irish Independent

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