The debate over public right of way at Lissadell, the former home of the Gore-Booth and family and erstwhile retreat of William Butler Yeats, is more complicated than it appears, writes Sarah Clarkin
The case between Sligo County Council and Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, owners of Lissadell House over the Council’s claims for public rights of way returned to the High Court last week, after having been previously adjourned in autumn of last year. In a modern Trojan War story, the County Council would have this case presented to the general public as a tale of the locals rising up against the big bad Dublin lawyers who are barring them from public land, while they camp outside the manor’s regal walls, trying to reclaim what was stolen from them. Nothing could be further than the truth, and the dispute is in reality nothing short of a national disgrace that could potentially see the Irish people robbed of our heritage, and the stunning house formally owned by Countess Markievicz’s Gore-Booth family closed permanently.
Lissadell, the grandiose property immortalised by Yeats with the infamous stanza “The light of evening, Lissadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle” lay in ruins, a remorseful shell of its former extravagant self, five years ago. The State was given first refusal of the house, but did not see fit to make a purchase and the house was subsequently bought by Constance Cassidy and her husband, Edward Walsh for €3.75 million, and after an auction instigated by Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth, a further €800,000 was spent on the house’s contents by the couple; a small amount in comparison to what the couple would go on to invest in renovating the property over the next half decade.
Immediately after buying Lissadell, work began to restore the stately house and magnificent grounds to its former glory, with the aim of sustaining and encouraging Lissadell’s literary and cultural associations. Many of the buildings, such as the riding schools, stables, the coach houses were restored, as well as the house’s court yard, and were made unrecognisable from their previous purpose, having been converted into galleries, a café and the shops which sold Lissadell’s exclusive produce. Yet it wasn’t just the buildings that were in dire need of renovation: the surrounding property had deteriorated to such an extent that it was necessary for the roads throughout the estate to be tarmacadamed. The stunning walled garden was fully reconditioned, and the Alpine Garden was in the process of restoration. A grand total of €12 million has so far been invested in the estate.
Just when the house was beginning to resemble its former glorious self, and one could easily capture Markievicz and her revolutionary ideals roaming the estate, or Yeats composing his dazzling rhetoric by the shore, the case reached the High Court, halting all progress.
Throughout the extensive restoration period, anonymous members of the public had written letters proclaiming public rights of way, and several gates and barriers were removed and dumped. However, such cases had ultimately terminated when deep in the winter months of 2008, Fine Gael’s Sligo’s county councillor Joe Leonard put on the plumed helmet of Agamemnon and tabled a public right of way motion at Lissadell, presumably in an attempt to further his political career.
The imposing old house still stands majestically against the romantic Sligo coastline, but the house and gardens, previously open all year round have been forcibly closed for much dispute, and Sligo County Council have effectively cut the people of Ireland off from their heritage by the figurative encampment of councillors outside the spectacular walls.
A major new Yeats exhibition scheduled to be displayed last year in the newly developed Yeats gallery in the coach house complex had to be shelved. The gallery was to be a major focal point of the Yeats Trail, promoted by Fáilte Ireland and expected to generate much in revenue in the dwindling tourism economy. The exposition now lies in storage.
Lissadell will remain closed to the public if the County Council goes on to win its case; it would be virtually impossible for the estate to operate as a historic house or indeed as a private home if public rights of way were established. Insurance would not be granted for health and safety reasons.
In a recent Irish Times article, the Lissadell Action Group claimed they had been unfairly represented in the media, but Sligo’s mayor has spoken out, saying, “I think the public at large in Sligo are very much against Sligo County Council taking this case.” Furthermore, the CEO of the Yeats Society, Stella Mew, is reported as saying that she hopes the court finds in the favour of the Walsh-Cassidys. The former president of the society claimed the owners were “restoring Lissadell to its former glory.”
With the bare facts of this appalling vista laid bare, it is startling to think of the County Council participating in such a case in the name of the people they represent. Visits by students were always offered as part of Lissadell’s extensive programme, and as a student of History, I am shocked that our elected representatives would further their political career with impunity, rather than think of preserving our heritage for future generations themselves, prohibiting others from doing the same and risking a huge bill for the tax payer should they lose.
This Lissadell case has become our very own Trojan War, a case that will “establish no boundaries, win no territory and further no cause,” the main difference being of course that Joe Leonard and the rest of Sligo county council are no Achilles, Ajax or Patroclus, and if they win this case, they will forever be remembered savagely as cowards, not heroes.