[ Date: February 21, 2020 06:54 pm ]


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, travellers would flock to it by hundreds, why not come and see it in Ireland!”

The original Cathair na Mart (“The Stone Fort of the Beeves / The City of The Fairs / Market”) was a 16th Century 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.

Peter’s son, John Browne (b.c.1709), orphaned at the age of 15, was educated at Oxford. In 1729 he returned to Mayo and took up his 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 (John’s son and later briefly 2nd Earl of Altamont). 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 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, 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, John, 1st Earl of Altamount.

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.

The Carrowbeg River was diverted to run through The Mall and is contained for two blocks by low stone walls producing on each side of the river attractive tree lined streets. The Mall is an enchanting tree-lined boulevard lined with clusters of flowers and blooms and several stone bridges.

Coveys, the nickname traditionally given to Westport town natives by inhabitants of nearby areas, 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“.

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 National Famine Memorial, designed by John Behan to evoke a “coffin ship” with skeletal passengers, was unveiled in July 1997 by President Mary Robinson. It is located at the foot of Croagh Patrick in Murrisk, a short drive from Westport. A sister monument was unveiled in front of the UN building in New York in 2001. Western Mayo suffered particularly badly during the Great Famine.

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 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.

A few places of note in the town are:

  • 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. 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 remodeled” in accordance with Vatican II. The altar is made of Carrera marble, while the mosaic Stations of the Cross along the walls was designed by Samuel McGolderick and date from 1930. The stained glass windows include works by Harry Clarke and Patrick Pye.
  • 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 International and winner of both the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes.
  • The Octagon, an eight-sided space at the junction of three major streets, was designed c. 1767 by William Leeson, who was also responsible for the Market House. The 3rd Earl of Altamont built a theatre on this “square”. 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 19th century. 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 re-occupied by a statue of Saint Patrick, crafted from Portland stone by the sculptor Ken Thompson.
  • Nº1 the Octagon, owned by the Clendining family until 1859, is now Dunnings Cyberpub, Restaurant, Guest House & Bureau de Change.
  • Octagon House, originally belonged to John W. Burke, Paymaster-in-Chief, and was noted for its garden and orchards. In later years it was purchased for the Town Hall, and is currently undergoing restoration as a theatre.
  • Dr Johnson’s Fountain, an amenity on the edge of the Fairgreen, commemorates a physician who died in 1904
  • The church of the Holy Trinity (Church of Ireland), 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. 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, it was stopped only by the intervention of the Roman Catholic parish priest. (The successful play was made into a film in 1933)

Westport Quay can be reached by a road running beside the old stone wall of the Westport House estate and by the Greenway walking route along the former railway track, nowadays it is effectively a seaside leisure resort, notable for its many pubs, restaurants.

Established in 1780 and extended 1837, the harbour was long the home of a herring fishing fleet and the nucleus of a busy commercial port, exporting corn around the British Isles and importing timber from North America. Although no longer used for shipping, it remains popular with boating, sailing and water sports enthusiasts and has the very interesting Clew Bay Heritage Centre.

The Clew Bay Drowning Tragedy Memorial on the Quay recalls the 32 young Achill Islanders killed in the 1894 disaster when their boat overturned on their way to meet the steamer that was to take them to Scotland for potato picking jobs (“tatie hoking“), it is said the boat overturned because the people all rushed to one side to get a good look at the big steamer. Their bodies were transported in the first train to go from Westport right through to Achill Sound. Tragically, the last train from Westport to Achill in 1937 also carried the bodies of young Achill Islanders, they had died in a bothy (barns where they used to stay) fire in Scotland while there picking potatoes.

The Clew Bay Heritage Centre, a small museum celebrating the local maritime traditions and the history of Westport also holds 19th Century genealogical records for the Westport area. It has many fine exhibits of people and places in Westport and if you are searching for your ancestors then their Genealogy records are a great place to start.

Clew Bay (Cuan Mó) is a natural Atlantic Ocean bay overlooked by Croagh Patrick and the mountains of North Mayo. Rosbeg is just beyond Westport Quay.  From the southwest part of the bay eastwards are Louisburgh, Lecanvey, Murrisk, and Westport; north of Westport is Newport, and westwards from there lies Mulranny, gateway to Achill. From the south side of the bay, between Clare Island and Achill, Bills Rocks can be seen.

So whether you are looking for culture or history, adventure activities or a more relaxed holiday, whatever you are looking for, you can find it in Westport.

So come to Westport where the unknown becomes the familiar and the stranger becomes a friend.