Last week, fire gutted the former Convent of Mercy in Skibbereen, County Cork. Its original occupants had long since vacated the building, left to stand empty and falling into dereliction for the past 15 years: the police have since requested forensic experts to investigate the cause of the blaze. All across Ireland there are similar sites, substantial complexes built in the 19th century for religious orders which, with the decline in vocations and the need for better facilities, have become redundant and too often allowed to become ruinous. A similar series of buildings can be found in Westport, County Mayo, again a former convent formerly belonging to the Sisters of Mercy. Dating from the early 1840s and built on a site provided by the then-Marquess of Sligo, the place was vacated in 2008 after which it was bought by the local authority for €4 million, with assurances that the buildings would find new purpose by 2011 as the town’s civic centre. Twelve years later, although still owned by Mayo County Council nothing has been done and the old place is now a blight on the town. Westport rightly enjoys a reputation for its fine architectural heritage: the present state of the old Convent of Mercy does nothing to help that reputation. In 2017 local newspaper The Mayo News wrote about the condition of the property and quoted a council official’s assurances that there was ‘a masterplan for the whole site and the council will be putting parts of the project to tender in the next couple of weeks’. That was three years ago; those tenders seem to be awfully slow in arrival. Twelve months ago, the council posted a planning notice for work to be carried out on the site, including the construction of two new blocks, one to house a civic office, the other a library. Again, nothing has yet happened. Meanwhile the condition of the buildings grows steadily worse. Two points need to be made here. The first is that Mayo County Council was itself responsible for listing the buildings in question as protected structures. What kind of example does it give to anyone else when the authority so signally fails to protect property in its own possession? Secondly, €4 million of public money has already been spent on the purchase of the former convent: the longer it is left neglected, the more eventual restoration will cost. Everyone – especially members of the council – should remember this will be public money, provided by the Irish tax payer.
Last November the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched a document called An Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership. In her Introduction Minister Heather Humphreys observed that these properties ‘are an important part of our social, cultural and architectural heritage,’ as well as being ‘an essential thread of our national story and a great source of local community pride.’ Furthermore historic houses are ‘a vital attraction for both local and foreign visitors and they play an important role in stimulating economic development, particularly at community level.’
Last Thursday members of the Browne family announced that Westport House, County Mayo where they and their forebears have lived for almost 350 years, is to be placed on the open market. The financial difficulties faced by the Brownes, arising from a bank loan (and its attendant guarantees) taken out in 2006 by the late Jeremy Sligo, have been well known for some time. (Incidentally, they demonstrate yet again how in this country while a borrower can be penalised for making an ill-advised decision, the relevant lender suffers no such retribution). Westport’s predicament demonstrates how fragile is Ireland’s remaining stock of historic properties, how vulnerable to the vagaries of shifting circumstance, precisely because so few safeguards or supports exist to ensure they can weather past and future storms.
Westport House perfectly conforms to Minister Humphreys’ designation of the Irish historic property being a source of local pride, an attraction for domestic and overseas visitors and a key player in stimulating regional economic development. A report commissioned last year by Mayo County Council found the house and grounds attracted 162,000 visitors annually and contributed €1.7 million to the fiscal purse and local economy, with 60 per cent of respondents citing the Browne family home as their main reason for visiting Mayo. It is vital to the well being of the area, and the Brownes deserve applause for making this so.
Over the past year there have been plenty of reports, meetings, analyses and consultations over Westport’s plight. The time for talk has now come to a close. Decisive action needs to take place, the estate and house ought to be preserved, and the values espoused in its recent document by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht made manifest. Otherwise, yet again, we will witness the diminution of Ireland’s heritage, and the loss of another ‘essential thread of our national story.’
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.