How former boss of Titanic Belfast is transforming one of the Republic's great houses
Sold last year by the Browne family to the Mayo clan that owns Portwest, beautiful Westport House is set for a significant revamp - and the man in charge is Tim Husbands, who formerly presided over Titanic Belfast, Belfast Waterfront and the Ulster Hall. Hilary A White goes to meet him.
The library of Westport House once functioned as a waiting room for visitors, and why should it be any different today. Outside, beyond the gravel, magpies bicker in the drizzle on the large front lawn. It's as overcast this morning as my last visit here as a child, a strangely indelible excursion despite not a whole lot really happening.
"That's what this place does," agrees Tim Husbands, who has also returned to Westport House in a very different capacity to his previous visit two decades ago. Ensconced in Belfast for the past 23 years, Husbands greets us now as a sunny-faced resident of this unreasonably picturesque Mayo town. Traditionally a crossroads for Connemara, Achill and the Mullet Peninsula, Westport is today better known for award-winning attitudes to tidiness and quality of life. You'd be smiling, too.
"I'm loving it," says the Nottingham native. "I've been here two months now. The town very much talks as 'Team Westport' and about what it can do for the town, for the region. It's really interesting."
Westport is a member of a select club that includes your Kinsales, Clifdens and Kenmares, gorgeous and house-proud domains seated between mountain and sea that are cooed over by the world thanks to the vigorous hum of the Wild Atlantic Way. Westport, however, has always had a particular ace up its sleeve that makes it a highlight on a seaboard littered with highlights.
Westport House made the news in early 2016 when it was placed on the open market for €10m by the Browne family, who, after years of struggling to service a huge bank loan needed for maintenance, finally accepted that the State was not going to step in and save this legacy cornerstone of the west.
For the Brownes, it had been their home since the 17th century, an ownership that seemed to be shared with fierce pride by the people of Westport. Centuries of good relations had ensured that this stately home did not go the same way as so many others during Ireland's struggle for independence a century ago.
The house and the 455 acres of landscaping and virgin woodland surrounding it are one of the more special and beautifully preserved privately owned tourist attractions on the island. This was largely down to the canny preservation work of family heir Jeremy Browne, Lord Altamont (who passed away in 2014).
The property was advertised as far afield as the New York Times, and naturally fears grew that the site could be lost to a private owner who might be less inclined to integrate with the community.
Knights in shining armour arrived in the form of the local Hughes brothers, who bought the concern last October. Part of the Hughes business group, whose fortune lies in the long-established Portwest work-clothing brand, the family also own the Hotel Westport which adjoins Westport House via a side avenue. Big plans are now in store for the estate and the hotel, including an investment of €50m that will look to create some 200 jobs and increase the site's footfall from the 162,000 recorded in 2014 to a million per year.
A balance must now be struck, however, and this is where Husbands comes in.
"For a stately home to be in such good nick and still be operating is a great credit to the Browne family," he says. "But times change, and it's time for a new family to take on that mantle. Certainly, Failte Ireland and Tourism Ireland see this as a very key platform for increasing international visitor numbers to this area. The Wild Atlantic Way has been very successful but more effort needs to be done north of Galway. It perhaps just needs to be a bit more connected."
Husbands knows what he's talking about. His six-year tenure as chief executive of Titanic Belfast saw it welcome millions of visitors and be named World's Leading Tourist Attraction at the 2016 World Travel Awards. Before that, he was director of the Belfast Waterfront and Ulster Hall, and was head of City Events and Venues at Belfast City Council. If further proof was needed of Husband's credentials, refer to the MBE he was awarded in 2014 for Services to Economic Development and Tourism.
But that was then and this is now. As CEO of Westport House and Hotel Westport, he is tasked with turning the Browne's ancestral home and its elaborate grounds into an international brand that is economically viable while being sensitive to local heritage. It frankly sounds daunting - even at its most mundane level, buildings of this vintage are notorious for haemorrhaging money. Then again, there is something even-keeled and unassuming about Husbands that dares you to doubt him.
"It was time for a change," he says with a shrug when I ask what drew him to this challenge. I thought the vision in this place was a really powerful one. It's a really good story - belonging to the Browne family for so long, then being bought by another local family. We see it as a legacy piece that has to be protected for generations to come, but we're also looking at creating something special here."
The new regime is just getting off the ground, by Husband's own admission. Plans are still being finalised for a 10-year "masterplan" while discussions with Mayo County Council are on-going. In the medium-term, there are ambitions to develop estate properties including the stables, farmhouse and a ruined church that Husbands feels could all perform as destination food-and-drink venues, wedding facilities and even health and well-being retreats. Weddings will be a particularly important part of the business model, Husbands says, and a 200-capacity extension (subject to planning permission) on the ground floor overlooking the lake and terraces is being looked at.
More immediately, Husbands wants to bring some of that interpretive Titanic magic to the house's ornate hallways. After all, there are remarkable stories to be told about the place, from the colourful generations of the Browne family to the estate's fortunes during the Great Famine and War of Independence. Likely to get pushed to the front of the queue is an umbilical connection to Pirate Queen Grainne O'Malley. The house was built in 1650 upon one of O'Malley's five castles by Col John Browne, who himself was married to O'Malley's great, great granddaughter, Maud Burke. Never one to miss a trick, Husbands knows there has never been a better time for this Irish heroine to seize the zeitgeist.
More pressingly, huge works are being finalised to shore-up the house and grounds. These include landscaping to bring the Italian lawns, terraces and much-neglected Victorian walled garden back to their original splendour. The park also boasts a Pirate Adventure Park that has had little or no attention over the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, there are talks with concert promoters to make further use of that large front lawn. Within the house itself is a unique room lined with hand-painted antique Chinese wallpaper that could be a draw to that growing tourism market. Central to the entire operation will be an overhaul of the adjoining Hotel Westport targeted for the next couple of years.
"We have to look at the 400 acres and what we can do with it," Husbands says to illustrate the decisions that lie ahead. "Is it a place for family adventure and entertainment, or is it a heritage piece in an estate? Those are the kind of quandaries that we have to balance."
A million visitors a year. Baby-and-bathwater conundrums. His every move watched with interest. If he's nervous, he's not showing it. "We are taking these responsibilities very seriously but it's something to be enjoyed."