Protecting a pirate’s treasure at Westport House

TO SAY that Westport House has been in the family for generations doesn’t quite capture Lady Sheelyn Browne’s impressive lineage — her connection to the 400-acre Co Mayo estate goes right back to her 14th great-grandmother, the “most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland”, pirate queen Grace O’Malley.

Protecting a pirate’s treasure at Westport House

The fearless seafarer, once considered “a director of thieves and murderers at sea”, built a castle on this spot in the 16th century and her memory still lives on. She inspired the Pirate Adventure Park in the grounds, the maritime exhibition in the House’s ‘dungeons’ and, now, a four-day Pirate Queen Festival will be held in her honour over the May Bank Holiday weekend.

That her descendants are still here in Westport House is testament to generations of Brownes whose determination has kept the current house in the same family for over 300 years.

But then, it’s always been about saving the house. Lady Sheelyn Browne will tell you that again and again as she explains how every penny earned on the estate goes right back into running it. It seems like an idyllic life as we sit in the 18th-century library with a log fire sparking in the grate, but there is nothing glamorous about running around the top floor with buckets in a frantic attempt to stop rain from the leaking roof destroying the rare Chinese wallpaper in the aptly-named Chinese room.

When Browne, her partner Maeve, who is also from Mayo, and their two children Grace (13) and Eve (10) returned to Westport from San Francisco in 2003, the roof was in urgent need of attention. It took eight years and a long battle to secure €1.9m in funding from the Department of the Environment before it was finally fixed.

“The roof is one of the reasons I am grey,” Browne says with a wry smile.

Then there is the relentless upkeep — or “gunge maintenance” as she fondly calls it. An average day could find her standing on a chair to change a light bulb, talking to a tree surgeon, figuring out how to repair recent storm damage — “the train in the park is now more like a rollercoaster” — or getting her hands dirty in the garden.

Yet there was never any question that she wouldn’t return to Westport to take on the challenge.

“Everyone is born into what they are born into. You can’t change that, but you do want to hold on to it. We spent our childhood here, running wild, jumping up and down on the furniture without thinking about what we had. I never thought much of being able to trace my family back to Grace O’Malley, but now I feel very lucky to know that.”

Down through the centuries, the Brownes had a fight on their hands to hold on to Westport, the largest house in Connacht. They were put out of it in 1798 when French troops landed in Mayo. They were forced to leave again because of high taxes during the Famine and, in the 1980s, the IRA briefly took over the house as part of a protest.

When Browne’s parents, Lord Jeremy and Lady Jennifer Browne Altamont (the 11th Marquess and Marchioness of Sligo), had five daughters but no sons, Lord Altamont took a private bill through the Senate in 1993 to challenge the male succession law.

His daughters will now inherit the estate but the title will go down the male line to a cousin in Australia.

While that is a sad fact, keeping Westport House intact is what matters most to the three Browne sisters still living on the estate — Karen and Sheelyn run the business while Alannah runs the café/bar, Gracy’s. Another sister Clare lives in Westport and Lucinda lives in England.

Their collective focus is on expanding the range of amenities and activities on offer. This year, the venue will be rented out for a music festival in June that will be headlined by Bryan Adams and David Gray. There are events at Easter, Christmas and Hallowe’en and a plan to keep the House open year-round.

The big news for this year, though, is the opening of the town-centre gate, re-establishing a link with Westport.

“I think that is a metaphor for the improvement in relations between the Big House and the town,” Browne says, though she is quick to stress that she never felt an ‘us and them’ attitude during her childhood at Westport House. Her grandfather was stoned once coming though the gates but, she says, those days are long gone.

The marketing drive has paid off — some 130,000 people visited Westport House last year, an increase of 40%.

It’s a long way from the 3,000 people who visited when, in 1960, Jeremy and Jennifer Browne Altamont opened the house to the public to help pay off inheritance taxes.

Lord Altamont had a strong commercial sense and teamed up with Fossett’s Circus to open one of the country’s first safari parks. There is a picture of him on the front lawn wrestling a llama during one of the early advertising campaigns. There is another shot of staff member Nora Heraty posing by the seal pond in November in a bikini. Staff at the House still talk about the time the same lady was despatched to Dublin Airport in her orange Mini to pick up two monkeys and drive them back to Westport.

The focus might have shifted, but the principle at Westport House remains the same.

“We just want people to enjoy the house. It is a bit of a miracle that we are still here. Most of the time there is a new battle going on, but that’s what gets you out of bed,” says Lady Browne.

Spoken like the 14th great-granddaughter of a pirate queen.

* See www.westporthouse.ie and www.piratequeenfestival.ie

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