Friday, 19 August 2022

 Westport House

Evaluation and Evolution

The Entrance Front of Westport House, Co. Mayo dating from 1730,
the work of the architect, Richard Castle
Copyright: ICHC

After any prolonged period of decline, the road back to robust health is a long one, evident with the continuing restoration of Westport House in Co. Mayo. After decades of ineffective repairs and compromised finances, the fabric of the house was on the brink of being beyond rescue. Water was penetrating the building through many avenues, all of which had to be quickly stemmed when the Hughes Family took over the estate in 2017. Moisture ingress was evident through the walls, around the windows, chimney stacks, leaking through damaged roof lights and overflowing from badly designed valleys. 

Photographs showing the central glazed roof light before works were completed in 2007 
and also after further works were completed in 2021 Copyright: ICHC
Photo Credit of Before Photo: DL Martin and Partners

Water was attacking the house on all sides, damaging and degrading the precious interiors designed by the best architects of their day. The house was also plagued by a lack of ventilation, damaged plasterwork, structural issues, cracking and  subsidence. It is now one year since my first visit when the house was a hive of activity and shrouded in scaffolding. I have now returned to review progress, the scaffolding is gone, the roof is complete and watertight, thus allowing the decay to be arrested and finally reversed. 

Westport House shown in above in 2019 and below 2021 Copyright: ICHC

However, there is no quick fix here, there is no 60-minute make-over for this historic house. Sodden walls and plasterwork will now be allowed time to dry out, slowly, thus leading to more issues such as cracks appearing and historic wall finishes flaking. This reaction is expected, now that the water ingress is stemmed. The next phase of works is being planned and adapted as the house is being observed and evaluated as it reacts to the changes brought about by the last phase of works. Westport House is about to undergo a transition, for years this was a country house and family home that just happened to be one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mayo. Now that the house is secure, in terms of its external fabric, it must now evolve. The future of this great house must now be considered in terms of accessibility, presentation and interpretation. As with any visitor attraction, it must be developed to create an immersive experience with innovative means of informing visitors about the history of the house, the Browne family and the estate. This and the continued restoration of the house is the challenge for the years ahead for the estate and its owners.

Westport House in 1912 , here we can see the Italianate gardens to the
Garden Front of the house situated below the terraces. 
Copyright: ICHC

The Entrance Front of Westport House was built for John Browne, later the first Earl of Altamont, to a design by the architect Richard Castle (also known as Cassels) in 1730. An impressive feat for the 21-year-old Earl who initiated the construction of Westport House and created what is now the entrance front. The Browne home was possibly built on the site an earlier house and is believed to encompass the cellars of an O’Malley castle. The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall is thought to be one of the only internal elements from the 1730’s house that has survived which was designed by Castle. Castle also designed Hazelwood House in Sligo which shares many similarities with its Mayo Cousin, particularly the decoration and arrangement of the main entrance door surround. For nearly 200 years after this, the Browne Family extended, adapted and changed both the house and garden. Leaving us with the great architectural legacy that is Westport House and the wider estate. 

Completed works to the roof of Westport House including a
large chimney which had to be cased inlead to ensure it is watertight.
Copyright: ICHC

As with my previous visit, I began my tour at the top of the house, on the roof, which is a changed landscape, or should I say roofscape. Gone is the scaffolding and now for the first time, probably in decades, and possibly since the house was first built, does this structure have a watertight roof. Poor detailing both historic and in the recent past have been replaced with beautiful lead flashing. Gone are unsuitable materials substituted over the years when the original owners fought as best they could to secure their home against the elements. These herculean roof repairs have brought the house back from the brink. When recent works began, it halted a process of continued decline. Poor historic detailing has contributed to a lot of the issues in the house such as masonry buttresses found along the side of some chimneys. This allowed water to penetrate into the house interior affecting the coved plaster ceilings of the bedrooms and the hallways on the upper floors. One of the larger chimney stacks, visually dominant from the garden front, had to be encased in lead to ensure it would be waterproof, it was previously plastered in sand and cement. While the original finish did nothing to keep the water out, the sand and cement layer ensured that the water remained in the structure and could not escape. This allowed water to penetrate down the back wall of the main staircase causing damage to the distinctive coved ceiling and sky light. 

Water damage over the main staircase caused by water
ingress around a chimney  Copyright: ICHC

A bedroom on the upper floor, here we can see the effects of water damage
sustained over the years from the issues with roof. Copyright: ICHC

Sixty-four chimney pots sit atop chimney stacks that populate the roofscape of Westport House. Some have been capped with aluminium caps to prevent birds from nesting in the redundant flues again. Flues to the main reception rooms have been maintained, allowing fireplaces to remain in use when necessary. All chimneys were recently cleaned, removing years of birds’ nests, twigs and other detritus. The chimney flues now provide ventilation to the interior of the house, very important in this phase of drying out. Works also included the removal of asbestos and the treatment of both wet and dry rot.

The re-engineered valleys now provided with ventilation to
ensure that the issues of the past are not re-visited Copyright: ICHC

Shallow lead valleys behind the parapet have been re-engineered, incorporating overflow pipes and additional hoppers to manage the surface water generated by the roof. The poor arrangement of these valleys in the past was responsible for some of the damage to the interiors of the house. The valleys were shallow, so if there was any build-up of water in a heavy downpour of rain, they would overflow, saturating the walls and damaging the plasterwork inside. Now that the surface water is managed more effectively, this problem should cease. Ventilation has also been improved to the substructure of these valleys, preventing the old issues from resurfacing. Previously the hot air from the interior of the house allowed moisture to condense on the underside of the lead causing the supporting ply to rot. Light wells that illuminated the inner corridors of the upper floors, where bedrooms were located, had been covered with plywood and corrugated iron. Now glazing has been reinstated, allowing these areas to be illuminated with natural light again.  

Above and Below: The completed roofscape with lead work, slating and 
glazed roof lights now in good repair. Copyright: ICHC

The estate manager noted that during the works on the roof, the original King Post Oak Trusses remain insitu and it was considered that they were possibly the work of boat builders. Urns on the front of the house have been replaced with replica’s, the originals were removed as they had degraded and were cracked into multiple pieces, held together with an outer layer of chicken wire.  Other larger urns on the corners of the parapet were temporarily removed, the corroded steel rods holding them in place were replaced with stainless steel. This ensured that they are secure in their lofty position, high above the heads of the visitors below. In all 26 tonnes of lead has ensured that the roof will remain watertight for years to come.  While works carried out ensure that the roof is watertight, works also had to be implemented to ensure that the roof would remain watertight in the future. Therefore, access for future maintenance had to be considered and a new fall arrest system has been installed. This will allow operatives to easily and safely access the roof to carry out ongoing maintenance, removing blockages from valleys etc. ensuring the problems of the past are not revisited. A system of discretely placed steps, ladders and platforms ensure that no area of the roof is inaccessible.

A relic from the Victorian past of the house,
the elevator hidden from view in the centre
of the house Copyright: ICHC

In the centre of the house is a service core that provides access to the roof. Here is a time capsule of a part of the house once utilised by the large team of servants. In Victorian times, it was probably unseen by the family or their guests. Here can be found in this top lit space, the service staircase and the mechanism of the lift that would have served the various floors of the house. The basement section of Westport House is wonderfully preserved where the vaulted kitchen and servant’s hall can be seen. A cleverly disguised dumb waiter served the Wyatt Dining Room on the floor above. Servants accessed the house via an entrance in the under croft, which is found under the terrace on the Garden Front. This access arrangement and the service staircase ensured that the bulk of the servants remained out of sight of the family. 

The entrance to the undercroft under the garden terrace which
provided access for the servants to the house Copyright: ICHC

Back staircases from the basement penetrated up into the floors above, to allow servants access to the various reception rooms and bedrooms, virtually unnoticed. These stairs were independent of the main staircase and were necessary so that the family would not meet their laundry or ashes from the many fireplaces being ferried up and down through the house by their servants.  These utilitarian back staircases, which were used constantly by the servants, kept the main marble staircase in pristine condition. The central core service stairs in Westport house is hidden by a set of beautiful etched glass doors on the upper corridor.

The vaulted kitchen area of Westport House found in the basement
Copyright: ICHC

The library wing of the house, destroyed by fire in 1826, remains unchanged but will probably house an events space at a future date. This is the one section of the house that will require a more invasive interior treatment. Here the roof requires attention, as various interventions over the years have compromised its structural integrity. The wing on the north side of the house has had its roof renewed, the balustrades around the edge had to be removed, roof timbers were replaced and covered with a new surface layer of lead.

The North Wing which has now had its roof repaired
and the balustrade repairedCopyright: ICHC

The next phase of the works will ensure that the house is accessible for all, with the establishment of circulation routes for visitors. Part of the planning process for this phase of works will consider how people interact with rooms and artefacts. This pre-planning is necessary so the integration of all necessary electrics, including task and display lighting, are incorporated. Westport House while once a grand country home is also a museum, with valuable paintings, antique furniture, rare books and artefacts on display. A heating system will have to be considered to ensure the rooms are maintained in a controlled environment, despite growing visitor numbers. The upgrading of fire prevention and suspension systems in Westport House are also being developed in tandem with the works. The recent calamitous fire suffered by Clandon Park in the UK, owned and operated by the National Trust, springs to mind. This stately home was destroyed by a fire that spread quickly and left the house in ruins.

The recent fire at Clandon Park in Surrey left the house a ruin,
hence the need for careful consideration of fire prevention at Westport House

These works are currently at the design stage and will be carefully considered. The house is being observed as visitors return to the property after the Covid lockdowns. Once these vital services are resolved, one of the final pieces of this puzzle will be repairs to the plasterwork and internal decoration.  In my innocence, I thought I would be returning to pristine interiors as issues with the roof were resolved. However, the house will take two years to dry out, which is a gradual and continual process. Walls that have been saturated for years, are slowly releasing moisture. Ventilation provided by the chimneys and the opened windows allow it to escape. This has led to its own problems, paint finishes and plasterwork on affected walls, are flaking and delaminating which is particularly evident in the Wyatt Dining Room. Therefore, this room like others in the house, are being observed by a raft of suitably qualified people who can put in place a plan for their stabilisation. 

Above: The Wyatt Dining Room with its contents returned
Below: Damage to the walls and plasterwork of the Wyatt Room
caused by water penetration Copyright: ICHC

Despite the interior of the house being a work in progress, it is beginning to look like its old self again, paintings have returned to the walls and furniture has populated the rooms. In the Chinese Room, the wallpaper has been removed for conservation, and stored onsite. The paper was removed by a specialist and his colleague over five days. This wallpaper hung on these walls for possibly 200 years and is known to have been hung sometime after 1817. This is the date that appeared on a stamp on the wallpaper found underneath : J & P Boylan, 102 Grafton Street, Dublin, 1817. Despite Westport House being situated in the West of Ireland, this room would have been very fashionable and is one of thirteen houses in the Republic of Ireland that possesses a Chinese Room. The walls of this unique space are now stripped back to its original construction, which is a great insight into how this house was constructed, laths, plaster and timber wall bracing have all been exposed. To see a space like this stripped back to its bare bones, is a must for anyone interested in historic interiors.

Above: The Chinese Room before works were undertaken in 2019 with its original
wallpaper in place which was subsequently removed for conservation
Below: The Chinese Room in 2022, the precious wallpaper was removed before
works were undertaken. This room suffered from a number of structural
issues which needed to be rectified. Copyright: ICHC

The artefacts associated with this house are also important, and one person who is passionate about these is Kathryn Connolly, Supervisor at Westport House. When touring the house with Kathryn, its objects are brought to life as she recounts stories about the provenance of each piece. In the Drawing Room, there is the dinner service on display which belonged to the Marquis of Sligo, items range from dinner plates to egg cups emblazoned with an ‘S’. Upstairs there are also on display a piece of porcelain that served the other end of the anatomy. In the sluice room, a vast range of chamber pots, foot baths and jugs are personalised in a similar fashion to the dinner service. 

Above: The chamber pots, foot baths and jugs in the Sluice Room of
Westport House, emblazoned with an S for the Marquess of Sligo
Copyright: ICHC

There are numerous items on display throughout the house, paintings and sketches by Sir John Lavery, chairs from the coronation of George V in 1911, taxidermy, old Irish silver, statuary, ancient military flags, art and antiques. Kathryn’s repository of ephemera associated with the house and the Browne family is found at the top of the house, ina room that was the bed chamber of Lord Sligo. Here are items that will eventually be on display and will tell the story of Westport House, but for the moment must be recorded, collated and archived.

The garden front which is thought to be the work of Thomas Ivory
but it is also possibly thought to have been created by William Leeson.
Copyright: ICHC

Works have continued apace outside the house as well. The limestone steps to the main entrance have been reconstructed, the side walls have been taken down and rebuilt. The bottom four runs of steps had become unstable and required re-alignment.  All works to the house have been non-invasive, unnoticeable to the untrained eye. The steps do not appear over restored and wonderful natural planting on either side, ensures the illusion is kept intact, that they have not been touched. On the garden front, the concrete terraces dating from 1914/1915 are renewed, again the mantra of replacing where only necessary has been upheld. Repairs to the concrete detailing and the installation of limestone steps ensures that this dramatic outdoor space, leading down to the water’s edge, has been retained. Over the decades the steps had been affected by subsidence and sections had become unstable. It was necessary that the area was deconstructed, foundations improved, and the area rebuilt. 

Above: The terrace on the Garden Front of Westport House which
has been subject to restoration and consolidation which included
works to the Summer Pavilion. Copyright: ICHC

The summer pavilion located at one end of the terrace is pristine, having been in a serious state of decay during my visit in 2021. It was composed of an early form of reinforced concrete, which was failing, and the structure was so fragile it had to be cordoned off until works could commence. Enabling works have also been completed around the property, including the provision of service ducting which will allow for the future installation of external lighting and services. The surface water management system and the sewage system have also been upgraded in anticipation of the next phase of works to be completed. Once the house is consolidated, further phases will concentrate on the wider estate including the re-establishment of the Italianate Garden and the development of the nearby coach house.  This project is a wonder to see, the conservation, adaption and restoration of Westport House will ensure it continues to be a wonderful resource for future generations.  I look forward to another visit, to record the continued development and evolution of this unique piece of Mayo’s architectural heritage.



Friday, 6 August 2021

 

Westport House

Restoration & Revitalisation


Westport House, Co. Mayo wrapped in scaffolding as restoration works continue
Copyright: ICHC

Several weeks ago, I was afforded the opportunity to visit the restoration works that have continued apace at Westport House, Co. Mayo for the last number of months. To describe the works as vast is an understatement, multiple storeys of scaffolding now shroud the grand mansion, as issues are tackled from the basement to the tops of the chimney stacks. The weather in the west of Ireland is often described as changeable, which mirrors the fortunes of Westport House. The efforts to keep the rain out of this historic home and to allow it to remain in the Browne Family has exhausted many fortunes over the centuries. Financial pressures eventually led to the decision of the Brownes to end their tenure of the property after nearly 300 years and entrust it into the hands of the local Hughes family, once tenants of the estate in generations past. The excesses of immense wealth in the 18th and 19th century aggrandised and extended the house, in a time when the Browne family owned thousands of acres of Irish land and Jamaican sugar plantations. Changing times and the reversal of fortune meant that this jewel in the crown of Mayo’s architectural heritage had become tarnished. Water ingress was prevalent through the roof, walls and windows leading to a host of problems hidden behind the trappings of this grand home. Several years ago, I visited the house, and initially the grand rooms appeared impressive but when one looked closer, water damaged cornicing and stained ceilings abounded. A valiant attempt to re-roof the house in 2007 heaped further financial pressure on the Browne Family and it became clear, when working on a historic structure of this nature, fixing one problem revealed a host of others. 

Works to the roof include the renewal of roof surfaces and lead work
Copyright: ICHC

Once the Hughes family took over the property in 2017, moisture was permeating every crack and crevasse in the external envelope of the structure, damaging the historic and beautiful interiors within.  George Moore of another nearby Mayo estate, Moore Hall, complained in the early 1900’s about ‘the drip’ and how rain always managed to find a way to penetrate the house.  The landed gentry at that time lived with dampness in their homes but also had a large staff to ensure many open fires were lit and refuelled which ensured that the constant battle with dampness was always won. Today, Westport House is hidden under layers of scaffolding and polythene, disguising the hive of activity underneath.  This year marked the beginning of the first phase of works on the house which will be completed in Autumn 2021 when the house will emerge once again from its protective covering.  The vast and necessary forensic repairs to this house means that there will be very little change left out of €5 million and forms part of a €75 million plan for the entire estate. Acres of roof, hundreds of windows and numerous chimneys meant a herculean task faced the Hughes Family when they became part of the continuing history of Westport House in 2017.

The original entrance front Westport House, Co. Mayo dating from 1730
Copyright: ICHC

Westport House was built for John Browne, later the first Earl of Altamont, to a design by the architect Richard Castle (also known as Cassels) in 1730.  An impressive feat for the 21-year-old Earl who initiated the construction of Westport House and created what is now the entrance front.  The Browne home was possibly built on the site of an earlier house and is believed to encompass the cellars of an O’Malley castle. The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the entrance hall is thought to be one of the only internal elements from the 1730’s house that has survived which was designed by Castle.  Castle also designed Hazelwood House in Sligo which shares several similarities with its Mayo cousin, particularly the decoration and arrangement of the main entrance door surround.  

The glazed section of roof that sits at the centre of the roofscape of
Westport House and provides natural light to the staircase
Copyright: ICHC

The second Earl of Altamont, married well, an heiress, Elizabeth Kelly who filled the family coffers with a substantial dowry that included vast Jamaican sugar plantations. The Browne’s were now one of the wealthiest families in Ireland who could afford to extend and improve their home in Westport on a grand scale. Improvements were not restricted only to the house as grand plans were also implemented for the wider estate which included the town of Westport. Additional wings were added to the house in the 1770’s to house the grand rooms required by a family of the Browne’s stature to entertain their contemporaries. A design thought to be by Thomas Ivory increased the size of the house, which eventually grew to three times the size of the original 1730 house, which now had a inner courtyard at its centre. However, it is disputed how much of this phase of the Westport House’s construction was actually designed by Ivory.  A distinct similarity between the oval ceiling of the secondary staircase hall in Westport House and one that once existed in Clonbrock House in Co. Galway points to the architect William Leeson. The use of Venetian and Diocletian window openings on the garden front have further bolstered the opinion that this work is that of Leeson. 

The garden front which is thought to be the work of Thomas Ivory
but it is also possibly thought to have been created by William Leeson
Copyright: ICHC
The ceiling in Westport House, on the left and on the right, a similar ceiling 
once found in Clonbrock House in Galway
Copyright: ICHC

The third Earl of Altamont and first Marquess of Sligo employed James Wyatt to complete the interior of the dining room in 1781. The adjoining gallery is also said to have had an interior by Wyatt but his son Benjamin Dean Wyatt was responsible for its removal, considering his father’s work to have gone out of fashion. Each generation continued to leave their own mark , the second Marquess added terraces to either side of the house between 1816 and 1819, which contained additional rooms at basement level. It was in one of these areas that the second Marquess created a library designed by Benjamin Dean Wyatt which was destroyed by fire in 1826, owing to a over ambitious heating system.  The house once had a courtyard at its centre but after the destruction of the library in 1826, this courtyard was roofed in and accommodated the replacement library.  

The main staircase in Westport House presided over by the Angel of Welcome
Copyright: ICHC

The library was replaced in the late 1850’s by the impressive staircase that now stands at the end of the barrel-vaulted entrance hall.  Made of Sicilian marble with a metal handrail that features the family emblem of an eagle that can be seen throughout the property. It is one of the most dramatic and distinctive spaces in the property, presided over by a statue of the Angel of Welcome. Decorated with beautiful plasterwork, the staircase is top lit by the glazed section that remains at the centre of the roof of the house. When one views the roof works from on high, you can see the original mechanism is still in place for raising and lowering the chandelier over the staircase.

Roof Works at Westport House
Copyright: ICHC

As previously mentioned, the house is now in the ownership of the Hughes family since 2017 who have now implemented the first phase of works to secure the structure and prevent the ingress of moisture in the external envelope of the building. Necessary roofing works carried out in 2007, included the restoration of the glazed pitched roof to the top of the central hall, having been covered in galvanised sheeting for a number of years. Many local people remember this time as the house was enveloped in a barn like structure while roofing works were carried out. However, a lot of lessons were learnt from this time and current works include the introduction of necessary ventilation to the roof structure. Historic structures were never intended to be hermetically sealed but were always  allowed to breath.   A previous lack of ventilation meant that warm air rising inside the house hit the bottom of the cold lead on the internal face of the roof surface. Once the moisture rich warm air interacted with the cold surface, it condensed, releasing its moisture. This moisture collected on surfaces within the roof structure and could not evaporate to the open air. It was trapped in the internal roof environment, rotting timber and causing damage. The stone capping around the perimeter of the building has been removed, the lead work has been renewed and ventilation introduced. Lead valleys behind the parapet have been renewed, new falls have been created to manage the water from the roof surface, so no rainwater pipe or gulley is overwhelmed in a downpour of rain. Where possible some of the original copper valleys have been retained.

The cast iron chimney pots
Copyright: ICHC

I was recently afforded the opportunity to view the works being carried out on the roof, a privilege I would say enjoyed by very few. Seeing the numerous chimney pots up close, one can see they are made of cast iron and not terracotta which could not withstand the harsh winds and rain from nearby Clew Bay. There are between 55 and 65 chimneys on the roofscape of the house including some very unusual flues contained in the outer walls which terminate at parapet level. These flues from the basement have being hiding in plain sight for years and I never noticed them until the opportunity to view them from the scaffolding. These flues in the outer walls, have a structural implication, weakening walls and causing issues in the interior of the house.

The parapet chimney pots of Westport House, Co. Mayo
Hiding in plain sight for years 
Copyright: NLI

The Wyatt dining room is decorated with superb plasterwork reminiscent of Wedgewood medallions. Designed to reflect the status of the Browne family, the doors in this room are made from mahogany that originated from the Browne’s Jamaican estates. The quality of the timber can be judged by its weight, as it requires four workmen to lift one door.  The construction manager on this mammoth project, told me that when these chimneys were in use, it would draw air into the house moving warm fresh air through the property. 

The renewed chimney pots at parapet level
Copyright: ICHC
When finances and staff levels dropped in the early 20th century, fires weren’t lit as often or at all. The Wyatt dining room looked to be in reasonable condition however when the curtains and pelmets were removed from the outer wall, the full effects of water ingress could be seen. Damaged plaster and paintwork highlighted the need for the works currently being undertaken to save this precious interior. A set of drawings survive dated 1781 by James Wyatt illustrating his scheme for the dining room of Westport House for the first Marquess. Works have now been carried out to arrest this decay and future plans include for the consolidation and repair of this precious interior.

Above:
The Wyatt Dining Room with its contents in situ
before works were undertaken
Below:
Damage to the walls and plasterwork of the Wyatt Room
caused by water penetration
Copyright: ICHC

Historically accurate improvements to the management of surface water from the roof of the house has ensured that mistakes of the past are not repeated. The large catchment area of the roof, which was once served by a single box outlet has now been increased to two. This additional outlet was in existence on the parapet of the house in the 1950’s but for some reason was reduced during that period. Other interventions on the roof include the introduction of modern health and safety requirements. The inclusion of a fall arrest system will allow the roof and its internal gutters to be cleaned with greater ease which will negate the need to set up scaffolding. This future plan for the maintenance of this roof structure will ensure the longevity of the works currently being carried out. Sand and cement pointing has been removed from the facades and replaced with lime render, which will allow moisture to escape from the building. Previously the sand and cement, trapped water against the fa├žade meaning the stone could never have an opportunity to fully dry out. There is one aesthetic trade-off, the lines of the lime mortar pointing around the cut stone are not as sharp and defined as they once were with sand and cement. Some of the stonework on the facades of the house is damaged, so repairs are necessary in a number of locations. The forensic attention to detail is evident as the integrity of each stone is checked, catalogued and replaced if necessary.

Areas of stonework on the facade that require further
investigation and attention
Copyright: ICHC

The interior of the house is shrouded in darkness as repairs to the windows mean the glazed openings are covered, as works continue apace outside The interior is denuded of most of its contents and items that are too delicate or to large to move have been protected in an outer shell of plywood. Before any works were carried out, an inventory and assessment of each room was undertaken to ensure nothing was lost or damaged during the works. As one walks through each of the interconnecting spaces, the damage wrought by the decades of water damage is now clear. Now that curtains, paintings and furniture have been removed, damaged plasterwork is plain to be seen. 

Water damage to the interior of Westport House
Copyright: ICHC

On the first floor of the house, the water damage from a leaking chimney is most evident. Plaster had become discoloured with soot, as water leached through the structure from the roof. Now that repairs to the roof and chimneys are afoot, this internal plaster has now been removed, revealing saturated red brick beneath dating from the time of the construction of the first phase of the house in 1730. In an adjoining bedroom, the judicious removal of the damaged building fabric has occurred. One can now see the various layers of lath, plaster and brick topped with a delicately decorated coved plaster ceiling. Once these walls have been allowed to dry out adequately, historically accurate repairs will be undertaken to return the room to its original splendor.

The area of the house that once contained the 1816 Library.
The outline of shelves and gallery supports are still visible
Copyright: ICHC

Another interesting revelation uncovered during the works is the return of the space that housed a library, destroyed by fire in 1826. While the fixtures and fittings are a distant memory, the original volume of the space is visible for the first time in nearly two hundred years.  After the conflagration in the 1800’s destroyed the interior, the room was split into two floors and housed guest accommodation until the 1960’s when it became a home within a home for the Browne family.  Now in 2021, the original 1816 space is now visible for the first time in nearly two centuries as the partitions and the dividing floor have been removed. Ghostly outlines are visible in brickwork that housed shelves which once contained many first editions. Around the perimeter of the room, at first floor level, can be seen some of the surviving supports for the gallery, which gives one an impression of the large collection of books once housed here. 

Top: The cast iron roof lights that once sat atop the 1816 Library
Copyright: NLI
Below: The rooflights photographed in 2015
Copyright: Gearoid Muldowney

This library was once topped by large cast iron framed, domed, glazed roof lights, which still survive on the estate in storage and one day it is hoped to return them to their original home on the roof of the former library. One can see the outline on the ceiling of the circular openings that allowed one to browse the collection bathed in natural light, albeit briefly, before it was turned to ash by an unregulated heating system. In 1936, Westport House suffered another fire which destroyed the billiard room. The house was only saved by the efforts of the staff and the Galway Fire Brigade that had to travel 50 miles. Again, the cause of the fire was the heating system, as the furnace was located directly below the billiard room.

Window have been restored and the original iron mongery
has been retained
Copyright: ICHC

In 1876, the 3rd Marquess of Sligo remained the largest landowner in Mayo with an estate extending to 114,881 acres which was mostly sold to the Congested Districts Board in 1914 but the sale was not finalised until the 1920’s by the Land Commission. The estate today is reduced to 430 acres, its original main entrance and avenue from the town of Westport, has now been cut off from the house. Replaced with housing and other developments, this land was unnecessarily (in my opinion) acquired in a compulsory fashion by Westport Urban Council in the 1950’s. This dramatically altered the relationship of the house with the town of Westport forever. The combination of the deaths of three successive Marquesses of Sligo in 1941, 1951 and 1953 meant that the estate was burdened with inheritance tax. This almost forced the sale of the house in the 1950’s, except a buyer could not be found. 

Westport House in 2019 before works were undertaken
Copyright: ICHC

With the loss of estate lands, the 10th Marquess considered selling or demolishing the house due to the crippling rates imposed on a property and estate of this size. In 1976, Lord Altamont was reported as saying that he intended to apply for planning permission to have the house ‘’pulled down’’ because of the attitude at the time of the Government towards houses such as Westport House and imposition of a Wealth Tax. The 10th Marquess decided to test the market for a house such as Westport and advertised the house for sale in Ireland and England. He had two firm offers, one of £6,000 from a Kilkenny company who wished to demolish the house and another for £7,500 from a Galway solicitor who wanted 60 acres of the surrounding land thrown in for good measure. To try and maintain Westport House, the 11th Marquess decided to open the house to the public in the 1960’s to generate funds. Jeremy Ulick Browne, the 11th Marquess of Sligo and 13th Earl of Altamont also faced the problem that he had five daughters and no male heir. As he fought to save his family home, the prospect also existed, that upon his death, Westport House and Estate could only be inherited by the eldest male heir. The Altamont Act was signed into law in 1993, by Mary Robinson, who had helped draft the document before her election as president. This Act meant that the daughters of the 11th Marquess could now inherit the estate and could not be disinherited because of their gender. When Jeremy died in 2014, the estate would not last much longer in the Browne family despite his pioneering spirit. The title of the Marquess of Sligo, long associated with Westport House, now passed to a cousin based in Australia.

A decorative stone finial is secured while the lead flashing
under the parapet stone is renewed
Copyright: ICHC

Despite eventually becoming one of the most visited tourist sites in Mayo, many works of art and pieces of furniture were sold over the years to try and preserve the architectural legacy of the Browne family. It was now clearly evident in the 20th century that the wealth of previous generations was gone which had once sustained a property such as this. Efforts made to make the estate and house self-sustaining, while preserving it intact, resulted in deeper and deeper debt. The Browne family reluctantly agreed to sell the estate following an accumulation of debt that amounted to millions of euro, borrowed to develop the estate. Westport House and Estate appeared on the market in 2016, with an asking price of €10 million, the county of Mayo held its breath. There was now a distinct possibility that the house could be sold to some reclusive billionaire who would shut the gates of this much-loved piece of our county’s heritage.  Luckily for the people of Mayo, the philanthropic spirit of the local Hughes family is matched by their entrepreneurial and business acumen. A lot of the works now being undertaken, costing millions of euro, will be invisible but is instigated by the Hughes Family to create a stable base for the continuing improvement of Westport House. When the works are complete and the scaffolding removed, the house will look very much as it was. This is a testament to the care and attention now being lavished on the house solving hidden problems that have degraded the house for generations. None of the works will be so invasive that they will dramatically alter its appearance, to do so would detract and destroy the wonderful architecturally legacy that has endured.  

For more photos of this highly fascinating project follow me on Instagram @irish_country_houses.

Westport House will begin their Restoration Tours on the 12th August 2021, for further details please see https://www.westporthouse.ie/historic-house/#visit