The Mayo town of Westport celebrates the 250th anniversary of its foundation this year, writes RAY CLEERE
The coastal town of Westport is situated near the mouth of the Carrowbeg River in a corner of Clew Bay. The earliest habitation of the charismatic town dates back some 5,000 years. Westport is the third largest town in County Mayo and it is one of the few planned towns in Ireland.
The name in Irish is Cathair na Mart (Stone Fort of the Cattle). In the sixteenth century Cathair na Mart was an important O’Malley stronghold at the head of Clew Bay. It was burned down by the Governor of Connacht in 1583. During the seventeenth century Cathair na Mart was passed from the O’Malley family to the Browne family.
In the mid eighteenth century Peter Brown Kelly, the 2nd Earl of Altamont, decided to remove the village from the front of his house and build a new town of Westport 1,500 metres inland. He employed the architect William Leeson to plan the new town around an octagon enclosed with large, well-finished slated houses, together with avenues for streets of houses.
An advertisement, which sought people and tradesmen to help to build the then proposed new town of Westport, was placed in Faulkner’s Dublin Journal 250 years ago, on March 17, 1767.
The early town was quite small, as there was yet no major industry. However, the linen industry, which was introduced by the Browne family in the early 1770s, was the foundation of the town’s later prosperity. The development of the linen industry gave the impetus for the expansion of the town.
The 1780s saw the rise of a middle class, both Catholic and Protestant, who became the principal developers of the new town and port of Westport.
Clew Bay possessed extensive herring and oyster fisheries which were responsible for first establishing the port. By 1818 the Quay was fully developed as a port. According to a contemporary report: “The export of grain from this port is considerable. Warm sea-water baths form a part of the sumptuous establishment of this place.”
The migration of linen weavers from County Armagh after 1795, encouraged by Lord Altamont, helped the growth of the linen trade and Westport had a flourishing linen market, which was held in the Market House at the Octagon.