Misplaced Priorities

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This weekend the grounds of Westport House, County Mayo play host to a music festival. Revellers of sensitive disposition are advised not to venture into the adjacent town as the neglect of its historic core can only lead to feelings of disgust. In the closing decades of the 18th century, the centre of Westport town was laid out by John Browne, third Earl of Altamont (and later first Marquess of Sligo); its design is often attributed to James Wyatt – who was certainly responsible for some of the house’s interiors – but there is no direct evidence to support this.
In any case what cannot be questioned is that Westport has the potential to be one of the most attractive towns in Ireland, a potential which at present is being squandered as the photograph above shows. This is a former coaching inn standing on the North Mall and overlooking the canalised Carrowbeg river. In 1835 John Barrow described it as being a hostelry ‘where the most fastidious could scarcely fail to be pleased’ and seven years later Thackeray called ‘one of the prettiest, comfortablest inns in Ireland.’ The hotel continued in business for over two centuries until 2006 when plans were announced for its refurbishment: since then this crucial site has remained shut, despite Westport being heavily dependant on tourism.
If only this were an isolated case, but worse can be found towards the eastern end of the North Mall where the hotel’s equivalent can be seen below. Of similar date, five bays and two storeys, and originally created as a private residence the building served for many years as a bank until that closed in 2007 since when it has likewise been permitted to fall into the present state of decay. Furthermore the same is true of several other properties along the mall, their roofs sagging, their window frames decaying, the whole spectacle a sad testament to on-going neglect.
Almost 180 years ago John Barrow regarded the North Mall as ‘bearing a close resemblance to a street in a Dutch town’ although it is unlikely any local authority in Holland would allow such dereliction to occur. Mayo County Council’s current development plan for Westport states ‘It is the policy of the Council to maintain, conserve and protect the architectural quality, character and scale of the town.’ Looking at these pictures, it is hard to find evidence of the policy being put into practice. Westport even has a town architect who as recently as last November could be found lecturing the burghers of Fermoy, County Cork on how to improve their historic centre. He would do better to stay at home and ensure the place where he is employed, officially designated a Heritage Town of Ireland, holds onto its heritage before this is lost forever.

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7 comments on “Misplaced Priorities

  1. Danny says:

    Bang bang bang! Bravo! Thanks for calling it out, and for addressing your observation/complaint directly to Westport’s town architect. Interested to hear if you have a response.

    • Thank you for your comment. I fear the town architect may be too busy on the lecture circuit to respond: before visiting Westport a few weeks ago I telephoned him and left a message, but he has yet to return my call…

  2. Sandy says:

    It is a national scandal, well done for highlighting it. Keep up the good work!

  3. John Coleman says:

    Robert, I think all this is a little unfair. When in Westport last year I was impressed that the local authority has been successful in ensuring that all the new I fills are in character with the remains of the older houses with appropriate sash windows etc so I think the town is moving in the right direction and the local authorities need to be encouraged not treated sniffly! But generally well done with your blog.

    • Thank you for your comment, and for getting in touch. I wish that I was being unfair, but there are much worse photographs I could show of the Mall – and other parts of Westport. It is simply not on for a local authority to claim Heritage Town status and then fail to maintain that heritage, as the various boarded up and neglected properties blatantly show. ‘Encouraging’ these organisations has done no good: they need to be brought to task for failing to do their job properly. I might add that I heard the Minister with responsibility for tourism on the radio this morning saying he wished to attract more high-spending visitors to this country. Such visitors are likely to be interested in history and heritage, and will not visit Ireland if it is replete with the kind of shabby, dilapidated buildings one finds in Westport.

      • Danny says:

        I heard the self same minister, and though I think among politicians, he has integrity, he and his agencies need to understand the nuanced needs of “high end” tourists, (and not all of them desirable). That said, I do think an education in civil pride an an evaluation of often intangible qualities need to be understood by Ireland Inc. if it wants to pursue its self marketing as a ‘luxury brand/destination’.
        But then I note Ashford Castle is now owned by an outfit called Red Carnation Hotels,(which in marketing terms, I would have seen as more Milk Tray, than Laduree)!

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