'Dream is over' as Lissadell's owners lose right-of-way case
THE future of one of Ireland's most historic country homes as a tourist attraction was hanging in the balance last night after a High Court ruling confirmed the existence of public rights of way.
Barristers Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh initiated proceedings against Sligo County Council after the local authority voted to preserve four rights of way through the 410-acre Lissadell Estate, the ancestral home of Countess Markievicz.
The owners, who now face crippling legal costs that could reach €6m, are not ruling out a Supreme Court appeal.
They began their action claiming that opening the routes to the public would mean they could not operate the estate as a tourist attraction.
Speaking briefly outside the High Court yesterday, they declared their dream was over.
The couple purchased the property for €4m in 2003 and spent a further €9.5m restoring the house and gardens.
In a lengthy judgment, which took more than two-and-a-half hours to read, Mr Justice Bryan McMahon found that the rights of way had existed for many years by virtue of acquiescence by previous owners.
Had previous owners not wanted the public in the estate, they could have erected 'keep out' or 'private property' signs, the judge said.
The judge concluded that long use by the public inferred that the rights of way existed but only during daylight hours. He also urged the public to exercise their rights in a way that was "sensitive to the owners".
The judge rejected an application from the plaintiffs for a stay on his declaration pending a possible appeal to the Supreme Court.
In a statement issued afterwards, Sligo County Council said its over-riding concern had been "to safeguard the public interest".
"Complaints were made by members of the public that what they perceived as 'public rights of way' were being interfered with.
"The four roadways at the centre of this dispute have been used extensively by the public for well over 100 years. They were also used to access the magnificent south-facing beach at the location known as 'the Waterwall'.
"The effect of a judgment in favour of the owners of Lissadell would have been to remove the right of the public to use these roads and to remove their rights to access the beach at the Waterwall," said the statement.
The statement added that the council believed the issue could have been resolved locally by negotiation. "The council did everything it reasonably could to achieve such a settlement, including an offer of mediation, but all its approaches were rejected out of hand."
Speaking briefly outside the court afterwards, an emotional Eddie Walsh confirmed that the gates would reopen later yesterday afternoon.
"We want to try to get clarification with the county council as to exactly what vehicles are allowed to go through during daytime hours.
"We tried to do something that we thought was good. Our dream is over.
"We tried to do something useful. When we came there, it was sad, it was neglected, it was declining.
"We thought we had arrested that. We thought we had moved forward and obviously we haven't succeeded in what we believe Lissadell needed to be from the perspective of security, from the perspective of insurance, from the perspective of maintenance.
"I don't see how it could be done and I don't think we are the people to do it. The State should now step in," he said.
Jim Meehan, a long-time resident, welcomed the decision.
"The owners of Lissadell House are our neighbours and we wish nothing for them but the best," he said.