NEW Year. New starts. New hopes. New fears, perhaps. The human condition is ever the same in all its change. Westport Town will celebrate 250 years this year. It is a milestone that beckons us to move back to the old town – Cathair na Mart, Stone Fort of the Beeves – somewhere close to Westport House. The Irish translation of Westport (Cathair na Mart) is our link to the old town, long gone and flattened by the steps of history.
It is said that the victors write the history and the losers write the songs and poems. We are blessed with both sides. Our home nestles in the bosom of the O’Malley and Browne clans and all its attendant successes and failures.
In the 1500s, Cathair na Mart was an important stronghold but was destroyed in 1583 by Sir Nicholas Malbay, Governor of Connacht. The town also featured in the Cromwellian Papers in 1657.
Gránuaile (Grace O’Malley, c1530-1603), the Pirate Queen, built one of her castles at the mouth of Clew Bay in Westport, upon whose foundations Westport House was constructed. Her castles dot Clew Bay with links to Murrisk, Belclare, Westport, Kilmeena, Newport, Achill and Clare Island.
Westport went from the O’Malleys to the Brownes when Maud Bourke (Gránuaile’s great-grand-daughter) married Colonel John Browne (who started work on Westport House). He had organised a King James regiment and was one of those who drafted the Treaty of Limerick in 1691.
His grandson, also John, employed Richard Cassels (designer of Leinster House and Carton House) in 1732 to start work on designing Westport House estate. He planned to move the existing town (pop. 700) from the estate to where it is today. Some people were offered houses at the Quay. English architect James Wyatt completed Westport House.
Thanks to the research of John Mayock, Clew Bay Historical Society, the original advertisement for the new town was discovered from Faulkner’s Journal on March 17 1767:
“To all Bricklayers, Masons, Stone Cutters, Carpenters, Joiners, Sawyers, Slaters, Plasterers, Glaziers, Painters and all other Artificers in the Building Branch and to the public in general. This is to inform them, that a New Town is immediately to be built near the Old Town of Westport in the County of Mayo, according to Plans and Elevations &c already fixed upon, consisting of a large and elegant Market house, situated in the centre of an Octagon area of 200 feet, and to be enclosed with Twelve large well finished slated Houses, together with three avenues for Streets of thirty slated Houses, and several very large Streets for great number of thatched Houses and Cabins, to be built separately in such Streets where Houses or Cabins are to be admitted in, at an Expense from about Twenty to Forty Guineas for each House or Cabin, together with several convenient Plots for Cabins of an inferior kind. All Workmen who are willing to contract for any of the said Employments, are desired to send their Proposals particularly specifying every Article of their various Branches, in Writing, sealed to the Hon Peter Brown Kelly at Westport, Castlebar; or William Leeson, Esq, architect, any time before 6th of April next, when their Proposals will be examined, and as no preference will be given to any Tradesman, it is expected all Persons to whom it may be convenient, will apply, as such only will be closed with, as are Workmen, and willing to engage upon the cheapest Terms, and that can give sufficient Security for the Performance of their Covenant. All persons who choose to take a plot of Ground to build upon, according to the Plans and Regulations for each street, will meet with suitable encouragement. Westport is situated near the Sea Coast, in a remarkable healthy and plentiful Country, with the Convenience of very fine and large lots of improveable Ground, with Plenty of Fire and Water, and several convenient Plots for Bleach Greens, Mills, &c The Plan and Elevations &c are to be seen at Westport.”
What is noteworthy about the article is the declaration that William Leeson is the town architect. Regardless, the Cassels, Wyatt and Leeson debate over who designed the town will continue!
High Street – Monument Street was the first street. Franco McGing’s house (Mono café) was the first post office. Then onto Shop Street and Mill Street, down to the river where it had to be redirected to form the Mall and waterfalls. Note the cobblestone on the riverbed across from McGreevy’s where there was an entrance for horse and cart to enter, drink and turn.
The notice appeared on St Patrick’s Day with the words, “a New Town is immediately to be built near the Old Town of Westport,” so work must have begun immediately on the new town.
Then the linen industry started and developed further when Northern Catholics came after the Battle of the Diamond in 1795 and the Armagh Outrages. In 1800, Livingstone’s Brewery opened on Bridge St. Later, a distillery opened on Distillery Road. Leases had been granted to various people, including the Parish Priest for a church on Riverside (South Mall). The foundation stone was laid in 1813. The Great Hunger (1845-50) caused huge devastation in the area, where the Westport Union (Ballycroy to Killary) population was 77,500.
2017 is an opportunity for Covies to celebrate, remember, commemorate and leave a legacy. There will inevitably be differences of opinion on the programme of events which will mark this milestone. Suffice to say, ní neart go cur le chéile.
Perhaps it is time to celebrate our Covie cant. There will be many makes, wings, deuces, trums, tanners, and bunce spent. Covies, doners and shams will be whiddin’ and crushing and going for a lay.
2017 and 250 is a time for honest partnership. Everyone has something to offer. Past, present and future may collide this year but it can really be a beautiful explosion. May 2017 bring you as many blessings as you can handle. Ath-bhliain faoi mhaise daoibh.