Westport & Environs (Co. Mayo)
Westport (Cathair na Mart) (pop. 6200) is an attractive town on the valley slopes of the Carrowbeg River near its mouth at the southeastern corner of Clew Bay, with a wide range of good pubs, eateries and accommodation options.
Westport and Croagh Patrick, known locally as “the Reek” / “the rock”. The small white church on top of the famous pilgrimage mountain can just be made out with the naked eye from the town. (Photo – www.discoverireland.com)
Westport was described by William Makepeace Thackeray, who visited in 1842, as “The most beautiful view I ever saw in the World. …….Were such beauties lying on English shores it would be a World’s wonder perhaps, if it were on the Mediterranean or Baltic, English travellers would flock to it by hundreds, why not come and see it in Ireland!”
Westport is County Mayo’s premier tourist destination, due to its handsome planned street layout, its strong musical tradition, and its location on the northeastern edge of the old Barony of Murrisk, an area of outstanding natural beauty. The biggest single local attraction is Westport House.
The original Cathair na Mart (“The Stone Fort of the Beeves / The City of The Fairs / Market”) was a C16th Tower House and surrounding settlement in the territory of Umaill, the part of the Mayo coast including the Clew Bay area, controlled by the powerful sea faring Clan Ó Máille / O’Malley (whose surname is still very common locally).
Their most famous chieftain was the “pirate queen” Gráinne Ní Mháille / Grace O’Malley / Grainne Mhaol / Granuaile / Granny Wales (c.1530 – c.1603), “much feared everywhere by sea“, who was described by Sir Richard Bingham, Lord President of Connaught, as “a notable traitress, and the nurse of all the rebellions in the province for forty years.” She “tolled” every ship that came her way, and famously travelled to London to deal personally with Queen Elizabeth I, with whom she seemingly came to an arrangement to split the loot.
The O’Maille castle was destroyed in 1588 by Ulick and John Burke, sons of Ulick Burke, 3rd Earl of Clanricarde, but the settlement of Cathair na Mart, historically anglicised as Cahernamart, survived with a population of around 700 living in cottages and cabins along a high street and alleys down to the river.
Maude Bourke, daughter of Theobald Bourke, 3rd Viscount of Mayo and great-great granddaughter of Grainne Ní Mháille (whom she was said to greatly resemble) married Col. John Browne, third son of the 1st Baronet of the Neale; through this marriage he acquired much of her family’s land, and Cahermart was one of several locations where he established ironworks to manufacture bayonets and ammunition. However, as a Roman Catholic barrister (he was involved in drafting the 1691 Treaty of Limerick) and supporter of the losing Jacobite side in the Williamite War he was forced to sell much of his property and found it politic to disappear, eventually being pronounced dead by the British government while unofficially still alive. His son Peter inherited the estate and changed the name of the village to Westport.
John Browne (b.c.1709), orphaned at the age of 15, was educated at Oxford, joined the Established Church and in 1729 returned took up his Mayo inheritance with enthusiasm and energy, introducing new farming methods and improving the estate. In 1730 he commissioned Richard Cassels to construct Westport House on the site of the original Ó Máille Castle, necessitating the removal of some tenants’ dwellings to what was to become Westport Quay. He became High Sherriff of Mayo in 1731, MP for Castlebar in 1743, Baron Mount Eagle in 1760, Viscount Westport in 1768 and Earl of Altamont in 1771.
Anxious to extend and improve his mansion, the Earl decided that a location further upriver would serve better as a place for his workers and tenants to live. A notice in the Dublin Journal of 17 March 1767 invited tenders for the construction of a “new town” and detailed the scale of the work envisaged; the construction of “a large and elegant Market house situated in the centre of an Octagon Area of 200 feet to be enclosed with twelve large slated Houses together with three Avenues for streets of thirty slated Houses and several very large Streets for great Rows of thatched Houses and Cabins to be built separately in such Streets where Houses and Cabins are to be admitted in”. The notice listed allowed construction prices for each house (20 to 40 guineas) and invited would be contractors to send in their offers to the Hon Peter Browne Kelly (later briefly 2nd Earl of Altamont) or to the amateur architect thought to have designed the Octagon and Markethouse – William Leeson.
The first two Earls were responsible for the introduction of linen and other textile manufacturing, which were the basis for the community’s prosperity during the following years, when the town also acquired industries such as the Livingstone distillery, two breweries, corn mills, a tannery and salt works, in addition to the commercial port trade conducted at Westport Quay.
John Dennis Browne, 3rd Earl of Altamont, voted in the Irish Parliament for the Act of Union 1800, and was rewarded with the titles of Marquess of Sligo in the Peerage of Ireland and Baron Monteagle in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, the latter carrying a hereditary right to sit in the British House of Lords. Although he rarely travelled to London, he used his extensive influence to aid further development in Westport, carrying on with the town plan commissioned by his grandfather.
The Great Famine caused great suffering in the area, and a delegation of locals was assured by the “Most Noble” young 3rd Marquess of Sligo that he would do everything in his power to help them. Nevertheless, in September 1847 a newspaper reported: “From the town to the Quay, on the Workhouse line, the people are lying along the road, in temporary sheds, constructed of weeds, potato tops . . . . on the road to Rosbeg, similar sheds are to be met with, with poor creatures lying beneath them. On the Newport line, the same sickening scenes are to be encountered“. Westport’s workhouse, originally constructed 1841 to house 1000, still had 5000 residents in June 1850 after the worst of the famine years were passed; the inmates earned their keep by creating clothes and shoes.
The Land War was hard fought in County Mayo. A mass meeting held on 8th June 1879 to protest worsening agrarian conditions, chaired by James Daly and addressed by Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt, was a prelude to the foundation of the Land League in August of the same year. (The venue is marked by a small plaque).
The War of Independence saw several incidents in and around Westport, notably the Kilmeena Ambush, which took place in the village of that name north of the town on 19th May 1921. British troops surprised an IRA ambush party, killing six volunteers and wounding seven; one RIC man and one Black & Tan were also killed. The remainder of the flying column, led by Michael Kilroy, fled over the mountains to Skerdagh. The British forces threw the dead and wounded IRA men into the street outside the Police barracks in Westport, causing widespread revulsion among the local people.
The Civil War found Westport held by Anti-Treaty forces until July 1922, when 400 Free State troops arrived by naval ship in Clew Bay to take the town.
The design of the town is believed to have been largely the work of William Leeson (d. 1805), but is often attributed to the great English architect James Wyatt, who was engaged in completing Westport House in the 1780s. The elegant central layout includes several topographically aligned streets commemorating Browne family members (e.g. James Street, Peter Street, Altamont Street) or named after local features (e.g. Bridge Street, Mill Street).
The Octagon, an eight-sided space at the junction of three major streets, was probably designed c. 1767 by William Leeson, who was also resposible for the Market House. The 3rd Earl of Altamont built a theatre on this “square” c.1785. (Photo by AF Borchert)
The octagonal plinth and column dominating the Octagon were erected in 1843 to support a statue of George Clendining (1770 – 1843), the local vicar’s son, whose entrepreneurial skills as an agent for both Lord Sligo and the Bank of Ireland made him a very wealthy man and were a huge asset in the rapid development of Westport during the early C19th. The sculptor is unknown.
During the Civil War, Irish Free State troops housed in the Town Hall used the statue for target practice and shot off the head. In 1943 the local authority removed the statue, crests and inscription.
In 1990 the vacant column was reoccupied by a rather Roman looking statue of Saint Patrick, crafted from Portland stone by the sculptor Ken Thompson.
The old Market House is an impressive structure with a pediment clock and an octagonal cuppola.
Nº1 the Octagon, owned by the Clendenning family until 1859, is now Dunnings Cyberpub, Restaurant, Guest House & Bureau de Change.
Octagon House, originally belonging to John W. Burke, Paymaster-in-Chief RN, and noted for its garden and orchards, was afterwards purchased for the Town Hall, and is currently undergoing restoration s a theatre.
The Carrowbeg River, spanned by several stone bridges, is contained for two blocks by low stone walls and lined by attractive tree lined avenues on each side; known as the Mall(s), these promenades are widely regarded as Westport’s finest feature. (Photo – www.boulevard-guesthouse.com)
(The North Mall was completed in 1818 with the construction of new entrance and gate lodge for Westport House; the local authority compulsorily purchased this end of Lord Sligo’s estate for council housing c.1950, changing the relationship between town and mansion, which until recently could only be accessed from the suburban outskirts).
Westport Courthouse, a Georgian edifice of restrained elegance, appears to be disused.
The architecture of most vernacular buildings in the town itself is generally unremarkable, although many of the C19th commercial premises retain charmingly old-fashioned shopfronts. Some modern interventions are less successful in maintaining the original continuity of the urban fabric.
Holy Trinity church
The church of the Holy Trinity (CoI), located on the Newport road on a site donated in 1868 by Lord Sligo (who also funded construction), is said to have been the last church built before the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1871. (Photo – www.westportparish.ie)
Designed by Thomas Newenham Deane, it has a “hammer” roof and a fine 185ft “pencil” spire topped with a 6ft cross. The intricate stone carving, attributed to Charles Harrison, can best be appreciated on the tower door and on the surrounds of the windows.
The richly adorned interior features fine stained glass windows, Carrara marble and gold leaf, mosaics and murals made by Italian craftsmen and a beautiful pulpit carved in alabaster, said to have been part of a cargo of a ship that was wrecked in Clew Bay and washed up on the lands of the Sligo Estate.
Cannon James Owen Hannay (1865 – 1950), who wrote under the nom de plume George A Bermingham, was rector of the parish from 1892 to 1913, and a loyal supporter of Dr Douglas Hyde and the Gaelic League. However, the Westport opening of his play General John Regan (1913) caused a riot when the locals recognised themselves depicted by the characters on stage, stopped only by the intervention of the Roman Catholic parish priest. (The successful play was made into a film in 1933).
Holy Trinity National School (CoI), across the road from the church, traces its foundation to 1813. The building, known locally as “The Lecture Hall”, was constructed over 200 years ago and formerly served as a fever hospital and church.
The Sisters of Mercy house, founded in Westport in 1841, and the first Christian Brothers school, established in 1865, were the forerunners of the Sacred Heart School (1925) and Rice College (1987), providing secondary education for girls and boys respectively, and Scoil Phádraigh (RC), Westport’s main primary school since 2006.
The old Methodist church on the Mall, currently occupied by a rather good Nepalese restaurant, was constructed in 1875 to replace an earlier chapel, and remained in use as a place of worship until c.1960. This is all that is left of a local tradition that began in 1762 with a visit by John Wesley. In 1812 the preacher Gideon Ouseley was hit in the face by a hard piece of turf while addressing the crowd at the market.
St Mary’s church (RC) on the Mall was built in 1932 to replace a smaller Riverside church erected in 1813, and incorporated the old Gothic façade, but this was demolished in 1959 to make way for a new façade, and the modern church was consecrated in 1961. In 1973 the interior was “liturgically remodelled” in accordance with Vatican II. The altar is made of Carrera marble, while the mosaic Stations of the Cross along the walls were designed by Samuel McGolderick and date from 1930. The stained glass windows include works by Harry Clarke and Patrick Pye.
(Since 1861, the Westport parish of Aughaval has been retained as a “‘mensal parish” by successive Archbishops of Tuam, who have officially been its parish priests).
Calvary church has catered for Westport’s small Evangelical congregation since 1994.
Westport Railway Station, a quaint but rather rundown edifice dating from 1866, is the terminus of a 250 km railway route from Dublin. The line continued as far as Westport Quay from 1875 to 1977 (when it was converted to a Greenway public walking route), and there was also a branch to Achill Island from 1894 until 1937.
The Clock Tower, a major landmark at the junction of High Street and Bridge Street, is an eccentric structure erected in 1947 to replace a fountain. (Photo by polecito)
Cornelius Coughlan (1828 – 1915), a soldier awarded the Victoria Cross for exceptional gallantry in the face of the enemy during the so-called Indian Mutiny, for which he also received a personal letter from Queen Victoria, returned to serve for two decades in the Connaught Rangers, achieving the rank of sergeant-major, and is buried locally.
In August 2004, his previously unmarked grave was recognised in a formal ceremony attended by the Minister of Defence and the British ambassador and conducted by a Roman Catholic priest and a Protestant clergyman. More than 200 people, including descendants, watched as 10 re-enactors dressed in period costume, fired a volley of shots over his grave.
His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National War Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh Castle.
Dr Johnson’s Fountain, an amenity on the edge of the Fairgreen, commemorates a physician who died in 1904.
Major John MacBride is commemorated by a monument on the Mall and a plaque at Westport Quay. Born locally in 1865, he fought against the British in the Second Boer War and was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. He was the father of international statesman and human rights activist Sean MacBride (1904-1988), a founding member of Amnesty and winner of both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes.
Matt Molloy of the Chieftains has a vibrant musical pub on Bridge Street.
The Mayo News, a regional newspaper based in Westport, was founded in 1892. Other local papers widely available are the Western People and the Connaught Telegraph, while copies of the Mayo Advertiser are delivered door to door to houses in the area, as well as being available in many businesses in and around the town.
Coveys, the nickname traditionally given to Westport town natives by inhabitants of nearby areas, including Castlebar, dates from a time some decades ago when the Covey dialect still existed and was unintelligible to outsiders. For example, the Covey word for a woman was a “doner“.