The Custom House Studios were established at the Quay in Westport through a partnership involving the Artists Group in Westport, Westport Town Council, Mayo County Council, the Department of Arts, and the whole Westport community. 1
Function of a Customs House
A Custom House or Customs House was a building housing the offices for the government officials who processed the paperwork for the import and export of goods into and out of a Country. Customs officials also collected customs duty on imported goods.
The Customs House was typically located in a seaport or in a city on a major river with access to the ocean. These seaports acted as a port of entry into a country and the government was interested in locating a customs house in those seaports in order to collect taxes and regulate commerce.
Due to advances in electronic information systems, the increased volume of international trade and the introduction of air travel, the Customs House is now a historical oddity. There are many examples of buildings around the world whose former use was as a Custom House but have since been converted for other use.
Westport Customs House
Two hundred years ago was a good time in Ireland. All the ingredients of daily life were found within the bounds of ones Townland. The population was increasing. The age for marriage was low. The old Irish landowners had lost their lands but still managed to make a comeback. Generally, the lower classes (mainly catholic) accepted a lower standard of living with much sub-division of land. Ironically this had an adverse effect on the wages and rents which led to many Protestants emigrating. Gradually there were but two classes in society – the rich and the poor. But Westport and its port were only coming into their own.
The Earl of Altamont, writing to his agent James Millar in the late 1780s, notes the latter’s appointment as Landwaiter at Westport, and regrets that it is not of the status of Port Surveyor which was not possible because of Millars lack of prior service in the revenue. He hopes for persons of substance to build in his town ‘it being a port of discharge, a tolerably good market town and provisions almost at all times remarkably cheap and plentiful’. In a further letter he states that both a barracks and a custom house must be established in Westport almost immediately.
The harbour of Westport was under a body of men composed of magistrates and merchants resident in the town. In the first decade of the 19th century they formed themselves into a committee under the style of Harbour Commissioners, who chose pilots from among their number and instructed them, and they were then put on probation for the position of pilot. Sir Neal O’Donel writing to Dublin Castle in 1811 states, that the light house at Clare Island has been neglected, that Westport Harbour requires improvements since their once port and seat of collection at Newport has been changed to Westport.
At the commencement of the nineteenth century the Custom House was at the Octagon in the Market House lease given in May 1798 to the Commissioners of Customs and this premises was surrendered in 1837 to Mr. Matthias Mac Donnell, Merchant, Westport. The officials of the Customs were busy supplying and paying the crews of the Revenue Cruisers off the west coast; collecting duty and providing coast guard service; watching out for smuggling and interpreting numerous regulations from London. The seizure of tobacco smuggled in was a frequent occurrence. Westport customs were advised to proceed against the offending parties for treble the value of the smuggled goods. The next favourite on the smugglers list seemed to be Geneva which was the póitin of the time.
In September 1830 better sites for the Custom House were being pointed out to the authorities, and the seizure warehouse on the Quay was recommended, as the one
in town was two miles away. But the problem was shelved for the time being.
In 1837 the movement of the Custom House was under discussion once again and Mr. Mc Donnell wanted the Market House at the time to rent for himself.
The next door neighbour to the Custom House, Mrs Gill (mother –in-law of the father of Major John Mac Bride – executed in 1916), made some inroads into the property of the customs and this caused a search to be made of title deeds and earlier arrangements between Lord Sligo and the authorities in London. The Crown held a site 78’ in length and 221/3’ in breadth on which the Custom House had been erected. The lease was granted on 5th April 1837 by the Marquees of Sligo for the lives of King William IV and Queen Adelaide and HRH Alexandria Victoria at the annual rent of eighty five pence clear of all taxes and charges. It was noted that two out of the three persons mentioned in the lease had died.
Before this John Denis Browne, 27th April 1786, had given a lease for the ‘King’s Stores’ at the Quay Westport on this very site at a rent of almost £38 per annum.
The Custom House at the time contained the following rooms:
Collectors Office, Controllers Office, Long Room; Room, attic and kitchen occupied by a customs officer; Queens Warehouse, coal house (old watch house); yard and accommodation.
As mentioned above, due to advances in electronic information systems, the increased volume of international trade and the introduction of air travel, the Customs House was no longer needed and fell into ruin and in 1999 the Artists from the area received a grant from the Government to Refurbish the building and turn it into an Artists Studio. 2
- 2018, 22 Mar – 15 Apr, Mass Paths, Catriona Dunnett, Custom House Studios and Gallery