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Exit, stage right: Access row scuppers Lissadell concerts

Negotiations to bring music legends to Lissadell House this summer, including Elton John, Andrea Bocelli, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan have been halted following a High Court ruling which confirmed the existence of public rights of way on the historic estate -- the ancestral home of Countess Markievicz.

The owners of Lissadell, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, said after the case that the ruling meant their dream was over.

At least four more workers, including horticulturalists who resurrected the estate's alpine and kitchen gardens, have also been laid off.

When the estate had its first full successful year as one of the north-west's premier tourist attractions in 2008, a total of 34 people were employed at the height of the tourism season.

That's now been cut to four workers who will stay on to ensure the fabric of the gardens is retained. The gardens are an important repository of plants rarely grown in Ireland as well as important heritage varieties of vegetables.

Last year, open air concerts by Leonard Cohen and Westlife attracted sell-out crowds, bringing an estimated €20m to Sligo and the surrounding areas. But now the house, gardens and tea rooms are closed to the public.

Heavy steel barriers ringed with barbed wire and large boulders have been placed at the boundaries of the private parts of the estate and the areas now deemed public rights of way by the courts.

Early next month the issue of who pays the costs of the lengthy court battle -- estimated at well over €3m -- will be decided in the High Court.

It will only be after a decision by the courts that any decision relating to a Supreme Court appeal by Mr Walsh and Ms Cassidy will be taken.

After the success of last year's concerts but before the High Court handed down its decision on public rights of way, enquiries had begun about further concerts this summer to take place over consecutive Saturdays. But all plans have been effectively cancelled.

Last week, tour operator Keith McNair of Discover Sligo said the court decision last month had left the people of Sligo with a choice: to insist on their rights, or nurture Lissadell's tourism potential.

"Lissadell is a business, not a public park. We, the people of Sligo, need Lissadell and many other such projects to operate as successful businesses. The State not only cannot afford Lissadell, it doesn't know how to manage it or realise its potential," he said.

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The couple bought the house in 2003 for €3.75m and spent €9.5m restoring it.

The house, gardens, exhibition centre and tearoom remain closed but within hours of the court judgement, gates on the disputed paths were opened.

The owners declined to comment to the Sunday Independent but a note on the Lissadell House website puts their view succinctly. "Our vision was to transform the estate into a flagship for tourism in Sligo and the north west, whilst providing a secure environment for our children and for our visitors. We did not wish to exploit Lissadell commercially but to restore the house and gardens to their former glory, make Lissadell self-sustaining and protect this crucible of Ireland's historic and literary heritage. This was our vision for Lissadell. Our vision is now at an end."

Meanwhile Coillte, which controls hundreds of thousands of acres, much of it available for public access, said that they were still studying the judgement but did not envisage that it would impact on their lands.

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