Built in the 18th century, Westport House was designed by the famous architects, Richard Cassels, James Wyatt, and Thomas Ivory. Westport House is located west of the Shannon and is considered to be one of Ireland’s most beautiful historic homes open to visitors – and is today often described as being one of Ireland’s National Treasures. It is situated in a superb parkland setting with a lake, terraces, gardens, and magnificent views overlooking Clew Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, Clare Island, and Ireland’s Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick right in the heart of the Wild Atlantic Way. It was built and is still privately owned by the Browne family, who are direct descendants of the famous 16th century Pirate Queen – Grace O’Malley.
After Grace O’Malley’s 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 visitors.
The original house which would have been smaller was built by Colonel John Browne, a Jacobite, who was at the Siege of Limerick and his wife, Maude Burke in 1679-83. Maude Burke was Grace O’Malley’s great-great-granddaughter. The house did not have a lake or a 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, also John- 1st Earl of Altamont. He 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, Haselwood, Russborough, and Leinster Houses.
From the plans made in 1773, the ground floor contained:
- The Waiting Room – now The Library
- Front Staircase – now the Ante- library
- Living Room – now The Front Hall
- Back staircase – now part of the present Drawing Room
- Dressing Room – now the East end of The Long Gallery.
It was only one room deep, built around an open courtyard.
In 1778, Peter, the 2nd Earl Of Altamont built the south wing to the Thomas Ivory plans his father had commissioned but had not carried out. Ivory’s south façade has a delicacy quite unlike Cassel’s bolder work on the East. In the 1780’s Peter’s son John Denis, 3rd Earl of Altamont (who later became the 1st Marquess of Sligo), completed the square of the House. He engaged James Wyatt to decorate his new Long Gallery and Large Dining Room (one of the great English architects who is responsible for other significant buildings in the town of Westport and further afield).
In 1816, Howe Peter (2nd Marquess of Sligo) began his alterations to the House. He built on the north wing for men-servants and between 1819-1825, he built on the south wing. The south wing was built as a two-tiered library designed by Benjamin Wyatt. This was warmed by hot air and due to defects in the system, it was destroyed by fire almost immediately in 1826.
In the 1830s, the central open courtyard where the Marble Staircase now sits was covered in and Howe Peter made a new library by running a gallery around the now enclosed wall. In 1858 his son George abolished his father’s Library, moving it to where it is today and replaced it with the Marble Staircase.
On the west side of the house, the highly effective balustraded terraces’ above the lake and the landing places were put in by George Ulick (6th Marquess of Sligo). These were designed by the English architect, Romaine Walker, whose main Irish work was the remodeling of Waterford Castle.