A few years ago, when going through old photos at home, I happened upon a set of old monochromes showing myself, about four or five, playing on the grounds of Westport House with the younger members of the Browne family. To this day I have no idea of how this came about, whether I had been kidnapped for the day, or merely abandoned, and the photograph offers no explanation that I have so far been able to decode.
It looked like it was taken on a Sunday — back then all pictures were taken on a Sunday when you were piled into the back of a hot car and brought for “ a spin after the dinner.” We lived only 40 minutes from Westport, so a trip to the house was a popular choice. A few years later, I recall being brought there to see the new zoo — and remember being amazed at the sorts of animals that, although not terrifying in the modern sense, were strange enough to fascinate a young lad from Ballinrobe who until then had just seen cats, dogs, cows and sheep.
Much later again, I recall visiting my good friend from Westport, Regina Corcoran who spent several of her summers working inside the sweltering hot suit of Pinky the Rabbit. Those hot days shooting the breeze with a large rabbit was another surreal experience on the grounds of the house.
And perhaps there are more memories, which illustrate just how central a role it played in Mayo life at the time, and ever since. And goes some way towards explaining why there was so much concern when its future as a historic facility was in doubt.
So it was with delight that we heard last week that the House had been saved from the hands of owners who might shut the gates, destroy the place and leave the thoughts of Westport House as a leisure facility, a distant memory from the past.
Westport House is worth about a million euros per week to the Mayo economy. It is also satisfying that the house has been bought by a local family who live and breathe Westport, whose lungs are full of covey air, who know what it is like to conduct business in a rural town on the western side of a rock facing out to the Atlantic.
All regions need core attractions to bring people in — these core attractions allow an industry to be built up around them. It is now up to the stakeholders in tourism in Mayo to build packages that draw all of these attractions together. Bundle the greenway and the house and the Reek and the lakes and the history and the nightlife to suit the varying markets.
This week, we heard Enda Kenny in Ballycroy, announce substantial new funding for the marketing and development of our national parks. And it all plays its part. Here in Mayo we are not only fortunate enough to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the country, we know that with the proper support and initiative, we can show this off to the world, so that sustainable jobs can be created in developing the potential of all we have to offer.
The Blue Flag beaches, the Reek, the greenway, the historical abbeys and castles, the fantastic lakes and of course, we have a modern efficient airport to bring in the visitors to the region.
This is great news — Mayo County Council and Minister Ring are to be applauded for their role in all of this. By retaining this core feature of our tourism infrastructure, they are preparing Mayo to battle Kerry for the title of the country’s most complete tourism destination — offering nature tourism and heritage tourism of the highest standard.
By doing this, they are copperfastening the next century in Mayo tourism and creating a strong local economy in which ourselves and our children can work and live without the need for emigration.