Saturday 27 December 2014

Jewel of the north-west reopens at Lissadell House

Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30

Enda Kenny at Lissadell with Charlie Barron
Enda Kenny at Lissadell with Charlie Barron
Elanor Walsh at Lissadell
Eddie Walsh and Constance Cassidy
The main hall and staircase at Lissadell

AFTER a five-year bitter battle through the courts which has left Sligo County Council facing a massive legal bill of an estimated €5.25m, Lissadell House reopened for business yesterday.

At 2pm, the gates swung open for the first time since 2010, and after an hour around 1,500 curious locals and tourists had already streamed into the grounds of the graceful 19th century Regency-style house.

Inside the entrance to the renovated courtyard, the owners Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy were cheerfully dispensing shots of Jameson whiskey to the adults, and lollipops to the kids.

There was an upbeat atmosphere as members of the public rambled around the grounds, into the walled Victorian gardens and the flower-bedecked Alpine Garden, which slopes down to the bay.

It was a far cry from the hostile atmosphere that poisoned the area and split the community after a dispute over rights of way through the estate landed in the Four Courts, culminating in a victory for the Walsh-Cassidys last November and a headache for the county council after the Supreme Court ruled it must pay 75pc of the legal costs.

And so the reopening of a precious jewel of the north-west tourism trail such as Lissadell House is simultaneously being greeted with relief by businesses in the locale but also with deep concern over how such a massive bill will be paid, and in particular if it will land on the shoulders of the Sligo taxpayers.

Paul Keyes, CEO of Sligo Chamber of Commerce, described the reopening of Lissadell as "hugely positive and warmly welcomed by the local community. We're so happy that the Walsh-Cassidys decided to reopen the house and grounds. It's hugely important to the area, and the open-air concerts they used to host with world-class artists such as Leonard Cohen and Westlife brought huge numbers to Sligo."

However, he also admitted that the legal bill had left the area "in a difficult place. We genuinely feel it's beyond the scope of the local authority and it's probably going to require outside intervention from other Exchequer resources".

Outside in the grounds, members of the public explored the terrain. "Since the court case finished, the place was surrounded by a tall fence, which only came down two weeks ago, so we were wondering if they'd have the place ready so fast," explained one local woman.

Also inspecting the estate was renowned artist and illustrator Annie West who is based nearby. "It's better that Lissadell is open rather than closed, and they've obviously done a huge amount of work in the last few weeks," she said. "It looks like nothing ever happened."

Remarkably, the family only decided to reopen the house two weeks ago, and it was a frantic scramble to ready it for yesterday, when the Taoiseach was due to perform the official opening honours.

And it looked pristine. It's evident that the house is not just a business proposition, but a labour of love for Eddie and Constance and their seven children.

The stunning house is a treasure-trove of jumbled, eclectic delights; in the hallway hangs a large 1940s Russian painting of the Revolution, with the unmistakable face of Leon Trotsky in the middle; beside it on the floor is a portrait of Lenin, and above it an 11-foot-tall portrait of Karl Marx.

A room off the hall is crammed with exhibits of Henry Gore-Booth's expedition to the Arctic in search of a friend – including an imposing Arctic bear, which was shot on the voyage.

Inside every room, there are cabinets containing all sorts of nuggets – pencil sketches of De Valera done by Constance Markievicz during a board meeting of the Abbey Theatre; a window pane overlooking the bay upon which is scratched 'Con Gore-Booth'.

Everywhere are books and paintings by Lissadell House's two most famous occupants, Constance Markievicz of the Gore-Booth clan and their most luminous guest WB Yeats who wrote of its "great rooms open to the south".

There is an astonishing attention to detail – which Constance Cassidy attributes to the work of her husband, Eddie.

"Myself, Eddie and all the kids have been here for the past two weeks, working, cleaning, scrubbing floors," she said.

The couple's eldest daughter, 21-year-old Elanor, said she has a huge attachment to Lissadell. "It was very difficult when we had to close for five years, we were all involved, working in the tea-rooms and doing tours, and we all really wanted to come back," she said.

The opening was performed by the Taoiseach who said he was "honoured" to be at "such an historic house – and one with a very bright future".

And as to the future of the debt-ridden council? "Clearly the outcome has to be dealt with and will be dealt with in time," he said.

Irish Independent

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