Westport House – History and Architecture
Designed by the famous architects Richard Cassels and James Wyatt in the 18th century, Westport House in Westport, County Mayo, is one of Ireland’s most beautiful historic homes open to the public. It enjoys a superb parkland setting with lake, terraces, wonderful gardens and magnificent views overlooking Clew Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Achill, Clare Island and Ireland’s holy mountain Croagh Patrick. It was built and is still privately owned by the Browne family, who are direct descendants of the 16th century Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.
During the 16th century Grace O’Malley or Granuaile was a famous Pirate and “Queen of Connacht”. After her death a report stated that for forty years, she was the stay of all rebellions in the West. She was chief of the O’Malley clan and ruled the seas around Mayo. Grace O’Malley had several castles in the West of Ireland, and it was on the foundations of one of these that Westport House was actually built. There is still an area of her original Castle in the basement of the House (now known as the Dungeons) which is on view to the visitors. A bronze statue of Grace O’Malley by artist Michael Cooper is situated on the Westport House grounds.
For over 300 years, the Browne family have lived in Westport House, each generation, by hard work, enterprise and determination, ensuring its survival through good times and bad. That they have succeeded is something of a minor miracle.
The Browne Family came from Sussex in the 16th century. Through marriage with daughters of native Irish landowners and by purchase, they built up a small estate near The Neale, in south County Mayo. As a Catholic family they were fortunate that their lands were in Connacht and thereby escaped the notorious confiscations of Cromwell. It was with John Browne III (1638-1711) that the connection with Westport House commenced. He built the original house. He also married Maud Bourke, who was Grace O’Malley’s great-granddaughter. The House then had no lake or dam, and the tide rose and fell against the walls.
The east front of the House as it is today was built in 1730 by Colonel John Browne’s grandson, 1st Earl of Altamont, who hired the famous German architect Richard Cassels. It is built with the finest limestone taken from the quarry south of the estate farmyard and was executed by local craftsmen. Richard Cassels also designed Carton, Hazelwood, Russborough and Leinster House.
Westport House was completed by James Wyatt, one of the great English architects who also laid out the town of Westport. On the south face of the House is the date 1778, and inside many of the ceilings, cornices and fireplaces are examples of his finest work. The Large Dining room is perhaps the finest remaining example of his work. The doors are mahogany, brought back from the family estates in Jamaica. There are still a number of original James Wyatt drawings on show, together with some of his son’s, Benjamin Wyatt, who also did some work in the House.
There are several architecturally stunning rooms on show, complete with original contents, most of which have a long association with Ireland and are of particular interest to visitors.
In addition to the House itself, the family have a deep and long-standing connection with the town of Westport. Originally and until the late 1700’s, the town stood on the front lawn of the house. The Brownes commissioned James Wyatt to plan Westport Town in 1780 in the Georgian architecture style and to include a tree-lined river (in fact, re-routing the river to perfect the presentation).
Westport House was opened to the public for the first time in 1960 and since then has welcomed over 4,000,000 visitors. In addition to the House, the Pirate Adventure Park and Adventure Activity Centre onsite provide for a host of family activities. Still very much a family business, this popular venue for a family day out – recently voted one of the Best Family Visitor Attractions in Ireland – was bought in 2017 by another long-standing local family, the Hughes family.
Granuaile at Westport House
Fearless leader by land and by sea, the “most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland” Granuaile (Grace O’Malley), the Pirate Queen of Connacht, was the 14th great grand-mother of the generation of sisters currently running the Westport House Estate.
In celebration of this heroic ancestor, Westport House has integrated much of this woman into the Estate by
- theming the Pirate Adventure Park in her honour.
- commissioning a bronze statue of her by the artist Michael Cooper placed in the gardens. Michael Cooper is brother to the 11th (and current) Marchioness of Sligo.
- installing a permanent exhibition dedicated to Grace O’Malley detailing her life and times which located in the basement area of the house – next to the “dungeons” which are the remaining foundations of her 16th century castle upon which the house is built.
- creating a child-friendly guided tour that chronicles her relationship with the house in a way that is both educational and entertaining for children (delivered during high season or for school tours).
- installing a themed exhibition in the dungeons that showcases her maritime life and times.
A visit to Westport House is sure to leave you inspired by this legendary pirate queen!