Westport House, County Mayo

Westport is the largest and most important country house west of the Shannon and the only house by Richard Castle to remain in the possession of the family that built it. Since the late eighteenth century, visitors have marvelled at the building's quality and contents and, above all, its magnificent setting on the edge of Clew Bay, though sadly its parkland has been seriously mutilated by development in recent decades.

The house is the work of several architects, although the main mass of the building was designed in 1731 by Richard Castle for John Browne, later the first Earl of Altamont (1709-76). Castle's house incorporated portions of an ancient O'Malley castle that had been acquired and much enlarged by the first Earl's grandfather, Colonel John Browne (1636-1711), a Jacobite who lost his fortune after the Williamite victory at the Boyne. In reduced circumstances, the family moved to Mount Browne outside Westport, but their fortune prospered again as a result of John Browne's marriage to Anne Gore, sister of the Earl of Arran, in 1729.

Two years later the German architect Richard Castle (1695-1751), who later established a highly successful practice in Ireland, began his remodelling of the house. His entrance front remains much as he designed it-a rather austere but attractive nine-bay façade made from beautifully dressed local limestone. Its imposing tripartite doorway, approached by a lengthy flight of steps, has a wide pediment supported by three satyrs' masks and containing the arms of the Earl of Altamont, which must have been added after 1771. Above there are roundels for busts, a three-windowed attic and winged eagles of the family crest at either end of the cornice.

We can see how Westport looked in 1761 from two landscapes by George Moore hanging on the stairs. They show the house in a parkland setting with young plantations, bridges, salmon leaps and the sea coming right up to the house walls. The paintings were commissioned on the completion of John Browne's new park- a massive undertaking that involved not just landscaping and planting trees, but moving the town of Westport from its position around the house to its present location about a mile distant, where a new planned town was created.

Castle's house extended round three sides of an inner court, but between 1776 and 1778 its size was enormously increased when a fourth side was built to the designs of the Cork-born architect Thomas Ivory. This was commissioned by the second Earl of Altamont, whose marriage to an heiress of sugar plantations in Jamaica had made him one of Ireland's wealthiest men. After his death in 1780 the third Earl, John Denis (1756-1809), who was made Marquis of Sligo in 1800, employed James Wyatt to complete the interior. Wyatt's original drawings, dated 1781, are on view in the house. More rooms were added at basement level in 1816 when large terraces were built on either side of the house by the second Marquis, Howe Peter (1788-1845)-remembered for his friendship with George IV and Lord Byron. He brought back to Westport the two columns from the doorway of the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae when touring Greece in 1812; they remained forgotten in the cellars until discovered by the sixth Marquis who presented them to the British Museum on 1906 on condition that they supply him with the replicas now standing on the south front of the house.

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