We’re trying to be everything to all people at the moment
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 Gráinne 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 flame-haired 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 delicately hand-painted antique Chinese wallpaper that could be a draw to that growing tourism market (if the damp doesn’t get to it first). 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 — we’re trying to be everything to all people at the moment.”
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.”
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