€4m at stake in legal 'rights of way' battle over Lissadell House
Published 16/05/2010 | 05:00
IT IS a runaway train that will cost the losers €4m but the extraordinary legal battle over Lissadell House, the ancestral home of Constance Markievicz, will rumble on for another two weeks at least.
Already the case, which centres on an ostensibly straightforward issue of "rights of way", has heard 48 days of sometimes tortuous evidence delving into arcane and dusty manuscripts dating back to 1760.
Some 50 witnesses, including historians, cartographers and archivists, local residents and council officials, have taken to the stand and thousands of hours have been spent by solicitors and researchers burrowing through historic records housed in archives in Dublin, Sligo and Belfast.
And it's hard to see if there can be any winners when Mr Justice Bryan McMahon delivers his verdict after listening to final submissions from the brightest and highest paid stars of the Law Library starting on June 3. The final summaries may take up another two weeks of High Court time.
If Sligo County Council, which has taken a case against Constance Cassidy and her husband Edward Walsh to enforce what they claim are rights of way through the Lissadell estate, lose the case, it will be faced with a near ruinous bill of €4m.
But if the local authority wins, it's the wealthy owners of Lissadell who will face an eye-watering legal bill.
If they come out on the wrong side of the case, Mr Walsh and Ms Cassidy will almost certainly close Lissadell forever, depriving visitors from all over the world of access to what the poet WB Yeats called "that old grey mansion".
Intriguingly, should Mr Justice McMahon decide that the roads through Lissadell are indeed public, then it raises the spectre that some time in the future the historic estate that lies in the shadow of Ben Bulben could be ripe for development. The owners of old houses across the country who allow public access to their lands as a courtesy are monitoring the case carefully.
At the heart of the case is a decision in December 2008 by the elected members of Sligo County Council to approve a resolution to amend the local authority's County Development Plan to include a provision for the "preservation of the public rights of way" along certain routes at the 410-acre Lissadell estate. One of the routes leads past the front door of the mansion, which is the summer home of the couple and their large family. Mr Walsh and his wife, who paid almost €4m for the pile and spent €9.5m restoring it, objected strongly.
Mr Walsh and Ms Cassidy are seeking declarations that the routes in question are not subject to any public rights of way, and an order restraining the council and others from wrongfully asserting the routes are subject to a public right of way.
They have also lodged a claim for damages against the council for alleged slander of title, negligence and intentional and/or unlawful interference with the owners' economic interests.
They say that giving the public unhindered access to the estate would make running Lissadell as a tourist attraction and a private home impossible.
Both sides are busy preparing final written submissions running to hundreds of pages. This will be given to the judge by May 28 with final arguments in front of the judge beginning on June 3.
Because of the dispute, Lissadell has been closed as a visitor attraction since January 8, 2009, except for a few weeks during that summer. In 2008 the house and gardens attracted 50,000 visitors.