Westport’s history is as rich as it is long. From Neolithic farmers to pirate queens and rebel leaders, this history of the county offers a fascinating snapshot of life on the edge of Europe through the millennia. History lovers will find much to get their hearts and imaginations racing. Here’s a small taster…
Five Westport Facts & Finds for History Buffs
Westport is one of Ireland’s few planned towns. An estate town, it was built according to designs set out by famous Georgian architect James Wyatt in the 1780s. The town was commissioned by the first Earl of Altamont, John Browne of the nearby stately home, Westport House, as a place for his workers and tenants to live.
Today, Wyatt’s legacy can be seen in the elegant tree-lined banks of the Carrowbeg River, known as The Mall – and the town’s charming tree-lined streets.
Westport’s name in Irish or Gaelic is ‘Cathair na Mart’, which means The Stone Fort of the Beeves and refers to a 16th-century castle owned by the powerful sea-faring O’Malley family, who controlled the Clew Bay area. The most famous of the O’Malley clan was, of course, the fiery Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, chieftain of the clan and ancestor of the Brownes of Westport House.
The castle forms the foundations of Westport House, and amazingly, a portion of it is still visible in the building’s dungeons. The historic home, open to the public, is situated in a magnificent parkland setting, with a lake, terraces and gardens overlooking Clew Bay, not to mention an adventure park for lots of pirate-based family fun.
Boheh Stone/Rolling Sun
Lying four miles south of Westport is the mysterious Boheh Stone, one of the finest examples of neolithic rock art in the country.
Believed to have been carved as early as 3,800 BC, its surface is covered in many ‘cup and ring’ marks, as well as ‘keyhole’ motifs – about 250 engravings in total.
People visit the National Monument year-round to marvel at the work of ancient hands. However, on two dates, in particular, these visits take on new significance: When viewed from the Boheh Stone, the setting sun appears to roll down Croagh Patrick’s northern shoulder on April 18 and August 24. It is thought that this ‘Rolling Sun’ phenomenon may have inspired the prehistoric artists to decorate the stone.
The stone is also known locally as St Patrick’s Chair. Can’t you just imagine the weary saint settling onto the stone to watch the bi-annual sundown spectacular?
A local hero
John MacBride, also known as ‘Foxy Jack’, was an Irish republican and military leader executed by the British for his participation in the 1916 Irish Easter Rising in Dublin. Before his involvement with the republican movement, he was a member of the Boer army that fought the British in the Second Boer War, rising to the rank of major.
MacBride was born in 1865 at The Quay, Westport, to shopkeeper and trader Patrick MacBride and his wife, the former Honoria Gill. The building of his birth – now the Helm Bar and Restaurant – is marked by a plaque, while a bust of MacBride’s likeness can be found on the South Mall in the town.
Clew Bay Heritage Centre
The curious historian will be delighted to while away several hours at the Clew Bay Heritage Centre. The centre is housed in a loveably ramshackle 19th-century building right on the quayside on the promontory known as Roman Island. Here, you will find lots of historical gems about Westport and its surrounding area, dating back to pre-Christian times. Bury your head in artefacts, documents and photographs, and come away with a new appreciation of the picturesque town.
The Clew Bay Heritage Centre also offers a genealogical service, guided tours of the centre and group walks (by appointment). If this all sounds like too much work, why not buy a copy of the centre’s annual journal, ‘Cathair na Mart’? It features items of local historical and archaeological interest and everything in between. Cosy yourself up by a fireplace, and flip through the centuries.
Where to Stay
Westport has a plethora of places to stay while exploring the historic sights and sounds of the town. You will find our favourites here.