Browne, Dennis (1908–91), 10th marquess of Sligo (also Baron Monteagle of Westport (UK), earl of Altamont, and 7th earl of Clanricarde ), and promoter of Irish tourism, was born on 13 December 1908, probably in London, eldest child of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Alfred Eden Browne (Royal Artillery, DSO, killed in action 27 August 1918), fifth son of the 5th marquess of Sligo, and his wife Cicely (née Wormald) (d. 1918); he had one brother and two sisters.
Until he was in his thirties, it would have been considered highly unlikely that Dennis would become marquess of Sligo and inherit the remaining demesne around Westport House, Co. Mayo, which contained a 400-acre farm, and carried extensive ground rents, and shooting and fishing rights over the former Sligo estate. Dennis's father's eldest brother (the 6th marquess, who died in 1935) was succeeded by his only son (the 7th marquess, who died unmarried in 1943). The second brother having died on active service in India, the third brother became 8th marquess (1943–51); though he had married in 1919, the marriage proved childless, and the fourth brother, who never married, was 9th marquess until his death on 28 July 1952. This complicated lateral succession meant that Dennis inherited an estate that had changed hands four times, and paid two sets of death duties, within twenty years, and this severely affected its financial position (which would have been worse but for the existence of a family trust, which was also responsible for the house and demesne passing with the title, rather than to the daughters of the 6th marquess).
The demesne was insulated from Westport town and the surrounding countryside by a high wall, bridged only by those locals employed on the estate. It attracted a certain amount of resentment locally because of memories of landlordism and the involvement of members of the Browne family with the British army; shortly after the second world war, in what the Brownes regarded as a vindictive piece of vandalism, parkland surrounding the town entrance to the estate was acquired by compulsory purchase for public housing (though alternative sites were available), with disastrous effect on the visual relationship between demesne and town.
Despite his initial remoteness from the succession, Dennis regularly spent family holidays at Westport House; he was fond of his uncles the 6th and 8th marquesses, who told him many family stories, and he developed an attachment to the estate: 'to me, as to most members of my family, it has always made other places seem a little tame' (Browne, 76). In the latter 1940s, when it was clear he would inherit the estate, Dennis asked a distant cousin what it was like to live in Ireland and was told: 'You can do anything … if you behave yourself and keep out of politics' (Ir. Times, 30 October 1981).
Dennis was educated at Eton and became a painter, studying at the Slade School of Art, London, where he met his future wife, José Gauche, a fellow art student, with striking, dark good looks. José Gauche Browne (1908–2004) was born in June 1908, daughter of William Gauche , a businessman, and was reared in London. Her background was obscure, and little is known of her family except that it is believed to have been of Huguenot descent. After their marriage on 12 January 1930 she and Denis settled on a farm near Ipswich, Suffolk, where they remained until moving to Westport House on Dennis's succession in 1952. They had one son, Jeremy Browne (qv), who from the time of his father's succession as marquess was generally known as Lord Altamont; he still used the name after his own succession in 1991.
After moving to Westport, Dennis initially tried to sustain the estate through farming, bringing in pedigree cattle, but agricultural prices were low. By 1958 it had become clear that the house would have to be sold or commercialised. When placed on the market it attracted two offers: a Kilkenny firm offered £6,000 to demolish it, while a Galway solicitor said he would pay £7,500 if sixty acres of land were included in the sale. After discussing the matter with Jeremy, who wanted to remain in Westport, the Brownes decided to open the house and demesne to visitors on a commercial basis. Although it had become common in Britain (and to a lesser extent in Northern Ireland) to open country houses to the paying public, this would be the first example in the Irish republic; no government aid was available for such a project, and the remoteness of the west coast from population centres made it an unpredictable venture.
The house was measured and plans prepared by an architect, John G. Butler. José oversaw the restoration of the interior, which involved clearing every room of the detritus of centuries and the employment of painstaking craftsmanship to bring out the rooms' best features. She had always made her own handbags and clothing, including hats, and she designed and made many of the fabrics used in the restoration, including the crocheted bedspreads which were still on display at the time of her death. (Subsequently, examples of her hand-made clothing were also placed on exhibition.) According to her obituarist: 'Substantially, the visitor to Westport House over the past forty years has been viewing the “look” created by José Browne; it was her vision for the place' (Ir. Times, 11 September 2004). To safeguard the future of the estate, a new family trust was created in favour of Jeremy and his anticipated son. (As it transpired, Jeremy had five daughters and no son, and after Dennis's death had to have the trust dissolved by private legislation so assets could be divided among his daughters during his lifetime to minimise death duties.)
The house and demesne opened to the public in 1961, and in the first year attracted 2,600 visitors. Although Dennis and José assisted in the early years of the new venture, it was Jeremy who oversaw the development of the new enterprise and various other commercial initiatives, such as camping and caravan holidays, sea angling, a café and shop in the house, an annual horse show, a zoo park (run by Fossett's Circus), and a leisure complex. This voracious drive for publicity and customers (symbolised by the practice of assigning an employee to walk around the house in a pink rabbit costume) was seen as vulgar by more traditionally-minded landed acquaintances, but it helped to sustain a business with fifty employees, an annual turnover in 1978 of £250,000, and a desperate need to survive initial losses while the business developed (it lost £100,000 between 1961 and 1978 before breaking even). The estate benefited from growth in mass tourism by a more affluent public in the 1960s, but was severely affected by the impact of the Northern Ireland troubles on foreign visitors (annual numbers dropped from 60,000 in 1969 to 30,000 in the early 1970s), and by the oil crises and inflation of the 1970s. After the Brownes fully vacated Westport House in 1975, taking up residence in the estate lodge, the mansion became liable for rates, and Jeremy responded to the 1976 introduction of a wealth tax (for which Westport House, no longer a family home, would have been fully liable) by threatening to have the mansion demolished as financially unsustainable. More economically stable times and the development of better transport and tourism facilities improved matters, and by the early twenty-first century Westport House and its associated facilities were among the major tourist attractions of the west of Ireland.
Dennis played a significant role in the construction of a hotel by the Jurys group on demesne land (opened in 1969, and later called the Westport Woods Hotel), and in the development of a championship golf course (which he first proposed in 1964; it was opened in 1975) on demesne land sold to Bord Fáilte. An article that Dennis contributed to the Irish Times (22 December 1970) to promote the new course led to an acrimonious dispute with the Westport Golf Club, whose captain, using language suggesting lingering resentment towards the estate, accused Dennis of exaggerating his own role in creating the course (Ir. Times, 30 December 1970, 21 January 1971). The Mayo News report of Dennis's death, however, describes him as 'prime mover' of the course project (18 September 1991). This was not the only occasion on which traces of old resentments surfaced: in 1963 there was a dispute over attempts by the council to acquire some of the estate's fishing rights, and in 1968 Dennis resisted a proposal to drive a public road through the demesne. Such hostility died down owing to the integration of the estate, and of Jeremy and his family, into the economy and social life of the town; here, as in other matters, Dennis can be seen as a transitional figure.
Dennis corresponded regularly with newspapers in pithy and peppery style, generally on tourism- and heritage-related matters. For example, he denounced a proposal to build a bungalow in front of the scenic Aasleagh Falls, on the Erriff River near the Mayo/Galway border south of Westport, pictures of which were widely reproduced in Irish tourist literature (Ir. Independent, 11 June 1966), and he supported protests in 1963 against demolition of a row of Georgian houses in Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, to make way for the new ESB headquarters.
In 1975 Dennis and José moved from Westport to Surrey, where they spent the remainder of their lives (though Dennis continued to write letters to Irish newspapers on such issues as Knock Airport – of which Jeremy was a high-profile supporter – pointing out the advantages that a local international airport would bring to Connacht tourism (Ir. Times, 30 October 1981)). He sometimes attended the house of lords (of which he was a member through his UK title). In 1981 he published Westport House and the Brownes, dedicated to the staff at Westport House and to José. This is a brief outline history of the Browne family and Westport House, intended to answer the questions most frequently asked by visitors; although some reviewers found it sketchy in places, it has a vigorous style and displays considerable affection for his ancestors, their varying allegiances, and their home. Dennis takes the opportunity to air such grievances as the refusal of the Irish government in 1971 to provide a grant to allow the fitting-up of a document room in which samples of the Browne's large collection of estate documents and of the family's book collection could be displayed as an added tourist attraction. (In 1983 a significant number of antiquarian books from Westport House was sold at auction; the document collection was eventually housed in the NAI in Dublin.)
Dennis Browne died in Surrey on 11 September 1991 after a short illness. José died in England in August 2004. Their lives spanned the transition of perceptions of the Irish 'big house' from that of a reminder of political and economic oppression, to that of a cultural and commercial heritage resource. Jeremy told the Mayo News: 'My mother and father were very involved in this project and we are all very much dedicated to continuing with both their dreams' (15 September 2004). Dennis and José are commemorated at Westport House by a riverside walk and rustic seat, and a drawing of José by Eileen Chandler is displayed off the hall in Westport House.