Westport House is synonymous with Westport, and it’s certainly the town’s best-known building. However, there is much more to Westport’s rich built heritage. Many of the town’s architecturally beautiful buildings have strong links to the great house, and all tell a story of Westport’s evolution over the generations. Read on to find out about some of the secrets hidden inside just five of them…
Five historic Westport buildings to watch out for
1) The Market House
The gorgeous four-bay, two-storey Market House sits in the terrace to the west side of The Octagon statue, immediately recognisable by its prominent clock and timber louvred cupola. Designed by William Leeson around 1767 and built by 1815, it has not been in use since 1922.
However, the Market House was once a hive of trading activity. An open-air market was held in front, and the outline of a separate weigh-bridge can still be seen in front of the building. Standing outside its façade, you can imagine the hustle and bustle as goods and livestock were weighed, buyers haggled for the best price, dockets were drawn up and measures were checked. You might also imagine voices of another kind – the building also saw incarnations as both a school and a chapel.
2) Holy Trinity Church (Church of Ireland)
The magnificent Church of the Holy Trinity was built on a site donated to the parishioners on December 23, 1868, by the Third Marquess of Sligo, George John Browne. It replaced the old parish Church of Ireland church built in 1797, the ruins of which can be found beside the Carrowbeg River in the demesne of Westport House. Holy Trinity is said to be the last church built before the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland as the country’s official state religion in 1871.
Designed by Benjamin Woodward and Sir Thomas Newenham Deane, the neo-Gothic building is of national architectural importance. Its fine pencil spire – such an iconic part of Westport town – is 100-feet tall and capped with a 12-foot-high cross. The building’s interior is unusual, featuring a single nave with a hammer-beam roof and striking murals. Intricate hand-carved stonework can be seen throughout. The church’s pulpit is said to be made from alabaster taken from a shipwreck in Clew Bay. Finders keepers…
3) Old Dower House
On the North Mall, the striking Georgian building that currently houses Westport Credit Union was originally built in 1809 as the dower house for Westport House. Dower houses were moderately large residences available for use by the widow of an estate-owner, and this one was originally built for the Dowager Lady Sligo (Louisa Catherine Browne, first Marchioness of Sligo). She was expected to retire to this location on the marriage of her son, Howe Peter Browne.
It was never used by the Browns however and was leased out and eventually became the residence of the agent for the Bank of Ireland. Far from being dispatched to the mother-in-law’s place, the widowed Lady Sligo stayed on in Westport House to manage the estate while her gregarious son galavanted around, getting into trouble in foreign lands. (She ended up marrying the judge who put him in prison, but that’s another story….)
The grounds of the Old Dower House include a courtyard and a Georgian walled garden, the remnants of which can be seen today. The courtyard boasted outhouses, a carriage house, a kennel and animal quarters. The garden was heaving with fruit and veg for the house and was smattered with pretty flower beds and pathways, perfect for strolling along during one’s daily constitutional, before taking high tea.
4) Old Methodist Church
The church visible today on the South Mall was built at a cost of £1,000 in 1876, on the site of an older Weslian Methodist chapel, the construction of which was prompted by a visit by John Wesley himself around 1791.
The methodist clergymen did not always get a great reception in the early days. In 1812, the distinguished preacher Gideon Ouseley was in town, and speaking loudly in both English and Irish, attempted to convert townspeople on the street. A local Catholic priest, one Fr Judge, took exception, ‘wrenched a bludgeon out of the hands of one of his countrymen’ and proceeded to batter all who had gathered to listen to the sermon. In the ensuing melee, Mr Ouseley, who was standing on a chair, was targeted and hit in the face by a sod of turf ‘rendered hard by the frost’. Ouch.
Eventually, due to falling numbers (not more turf missiles), a dedicated ministry was withdrawn from Westport in 1910. The last Methodist baptism in the chapel took place in 1943, the last Harvest Service in 1957, and it stopped being used as a religious building around 1960, before being sold in 1961 for £400.
Nowadays, the only things worshipped there are the delicious Nepalese dishes served up by the restaurant that now occupies the space. (The curries are heavenly, in fairness.)
4) Jeffers Hotel (Railway Hotel)
Formerly a 27-bed hotel, this listed building on the North Mall was built as a coaching inn by John Denis Browne, the first Marquis of Sligo, between 1798 and 1809 in order to encourage visitors to the town. The archways were originally designed to hold horse-drawn carriages and coaches.
After the Carrowbeg river was straightened, the North Mall became the main route into Westport House, passing through huge gates near what is now Westport Library and Hotel Westport (an entrance to Westport House that was in use until the 1970s.)
Passing through Westport in the summer of 1842, famous travel writer William Makepeace Thakeray praised Lord Sligo for establishing “one of the prettiest, comfortablest inns in Ireland, in the best part of this little town, stocking the cellars with good wines, filling the house with neat furniture, and lending it is said, the whole to a landlord gratis, on condition that he should keep the house warm, and furnish the larder, and entertain the traveller.” Bet John Denis had a few takers for that job!
The name was changed from Jeffers Hotel to the Railway Hotel when the railway arrived in Westport in the early 1900s. Over the years, the building was adapted, and the wings on the ground floor were given over to commercial use and once housed a courthouse and post office. The hotel finally closed its doors in 2006, but is still counted as one of the longest-running hotels that Connacht has seen.