Westport House Estate, Mayo- Photo Courtesy- Failte Ireland
The view from the road is always best: This is how the aristocrats, wealthy merchants, landed gentry, and Anglo ascendancy had embraced Westport house for over 300 years.
The Palladian style manor-once, the most significant estate in Mayo, stands at Clew Bay harbour’s base.
This charming House is set in splendid natural surroundings.
My first visit to Westport House was for a summer job, and the year was 1991. I remember our old Toyota approaching the iron gates that lead us along a narrow road, twisting and turning, capturing a glimpse of the House in the distance. This was followed by a serene waterfall ensued by thickets and towering trees. We continued our journey under the lateral branches leaning closer to one another, their boughs coalesced in a united embrace. Then, emerging from under the burrow of woodlands, we noticed many horse-drawn wagons parked in a field to our left. We continued driving, admiring the rolling green hills and immense oak trees until we came upon it suddenly. My mother, a cautious driver, slowed down. It was postcard perfect, grey eagles perched on the edge of the slanted roof eyeing us.
I got the job, and for the next four summers, I worked in the Big House and other areas of the estate. This is where my connection to Westport House was established and holds many great memories.
Over the years, I’ve visited the ground of the estate. It is a beautiful place, and you can easily spend a few hours exploring its woodlands and lakes. The House is currently under Restoration, with the first phase completed in 2021.
How I heard about the restoration?
In the late spring of 2021, Disney and their movie crew descended upon the town of Enniskerry in Co Wicklow. They were filming the follow up to the successful 2006 Enchanted movie. (My daughter and I are big fans). Patrick Dempsey and Amy Adams, who were in the first movie, were filming in Ireland. Mr Dempsey, also known as Mr Dreamy from his Grey’s Anatomy TV days, was attracting a lot of attention and was travelling around Ireland, reconnecting with his Irish heritage and fan base. So naturally, his visit to Westport House and his interest in Restoration got my attention.
Unfortunately, I was very busy with my own self-catering Accommodation and I was unable to take the tour last year. However, I kept an eye on the Westport House website, where I came across a brilliant blog post written by David Hicks.https://www.facebook.com/david.hicks.3939503 David, whose background is in Architecture, was invited down to Westport House and given a personal tour. He is also a published writer, having written two books on The History of Irelands Country houses and Castles. I’d highly recommend reading his blog. David also has a Facebook and Instagram page which are worth following. I was very excited when they began the 2022 Restoration tours with all this information. http://davidhicksbook.blogspot.com/
The last time I had seen Westport House, it was shrouded in polythene and scaffolding. It reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe, where the fabric was draped over the iconic monument in tribute to a late artist’s unfulfilled dreams.
During my time working at Westport House, Jeremy Browne did his utmost to maintain the House and keep the estate in good condition. However, the efforts to keep the rain out and financial pressures lead The Browne family finally put it onto the market. Luckily the local Hughes family have taken over the reins.
How to book
I booked online through the Westport House website. You can pay at the door, but I’d recommend ringing, especially if you’re thinking of doing the tour during the summertime.
Due to the restoration work, the House and grounds across the bridge are closed and can only be accessed if you are doing a tour of the House.
Pirate Adventure Park Tickets, families can avail of this pass. This provides unlimited use of the park and access to the House. I would ring or send an email to double check this information is correct.
Season Membership is available for locals or visitors holidaying for more than a few days. These tickets are good value and are valid for 12 months.
The ticket office is located at the farmyard where you can find out information concerning all of the above.
Where to go?
I was unsure where to park, so I used the car park at the farmyard. There’s lots of room there and its free. I suggest you bring a small backpack and umbrella in case it rains. The walk to the House takes 10 minutes (I’m a fast walker) so give yourself plenty of time.
Some signposts will direct you to the House and other estate parts. I saw several people standing at the black cladded iron gate on the bridge and assumed this was the entrance for the tour.
The tour of the House?
My tour began at 2pm lasting 90 minutes. The guide informed us that the House was built on the foundations of Grace O’ Malley’s castle. The 16th Century pirate Queen owned several castles along the West coast of Ireland. The gardens, lakes, trees, and houses was designed by well-known architects Richard Cassel, James Wyatt, and Thomas Ivory. Our guide gave us detailed information about the restoration project. Phase 1 has been completed at the cost of €5 million and is fully funded by the Hughes family. In layman’s terms, the exterior of the House has been sealed, preventing any further damage from rain or water ingress.
Inside the Westport House
The entrance to the House is impressive. You really do appreciate the design of German architect Richard Cassel who wanted the House to enhance the landscape and not take away from it. The elevated steps to the building bring you to a 10ft doorway. Overhead is the cornet coat of arms of the Marquess of Sligo created for John Denis Browne when he signed the act of union 1800 (The parliament in Ireland was closed down, and Irish politicians had to attend the British parliament)
Inside, I attempted to grasp the genius of Cassel and the precision workmanship of the many craftsmen of that era. The magnificent chandelier that hangs from the barrel-vaulted ceiling draws your attention. It is a beautiful focal point and captures the grandeur of the times. To your left is the large ornate marble fireplace; overhead is a painting of a member of the Browne family with their horses, while the House and estate stand in the background.
Above the landscape painting are elk horns mounted to the wall. Both sides of the walls are decorated with souvenirs collected by various members of the Browne family while travelling to countries such as India. To the back of the room is a grand staircase. Our guide told us this was a later addition, and what is now three marble archways were originally Venetian windows.
The Blue Room
As I walked through the interconnecting rooms, the damage caused why the incoming rain was evident. The water ingress issues can be seen in various rooms around the House. Our guide mentioned that before any work can be undertaken, an assessment has to be carried out for each room.
From my days working in the House, the Blue room was my favourite. It is long and narrow, and each generation of the Browne family hangs on its walls. It’s in this room we got a profile on each Marquess.
The Wyatt Dining Room
Next up the impressive Wyatt Dining Room. At first glance, this dining room looks like it escaped the fury of the west of Ireland rain. However, on closer inspection, if you look behind the curtains, you can see the extensive damage to plasterwork and paint. The elaborately decorated dining table showcases the indulgence of the times. I would have loved to have been a guest at this table, but like the Hughes family, my relatives were mere tenants.
I really enjoyed the restoration tour of Westport House. Reimagining its 300-year history, immersing myself in the visitor experience. I could have written a further four blog posts. I think that the Hughes and their staff are doing immense work, and I look forward to the next phase of the Restoration. The staff and guides are very welcoming and are full of knowledge. I hope to visit next year as the legacy of Westport House continues. https://www.westporthouse.ie/