Tuesday 12 December 2017

New lease of life for two historic homes

Fate of Lissadell looks brighter but council faces crippling legal bill

Constance (16), Elanor (20), Eddie (10), Harry (19) and Kate (19) children of Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh after the verdict last year
Constance (16), Elanor (20), Eddie (10), Harry (19) and Kate (19) children of Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh after the verdict last year
Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh

Greg Harkin and Tim Healy

A LOCAL authority is facing a multimillion euro legal bill after losing a land dispute – and has already had an overdraft request refused, the Irish Independent has learnt.

The owners of Lissadell House, barristers Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh, have won a marathon legal battle with Sligo County Council over access roads through the historic estate.

It was an epic battle which pitched neighbour against neighbour, and has ultimately left the local authority's financial future on the line.

Lissadell House in north Co Sligo had been boarded up since wealthy owners Mr Walsh and Ms Cassidy pulled out, after being forced by a court order to open access routes to the stunning 19th century home.

But the sad fate of the magnificent house is likely to change: after the family won a unanimous Supreme Court ruling there are no public rights of way across four avenues through the historic estate.

The court did find a public right of way across part of a coastal route through the estate taking in the beach at Lissadell – but quashed a High Court declaration granting a right to park cars on Lissadell lands adjoining that section.

Just minutes before yesterday morning's verdict was announced, loud music could be heard blasting from the mansion, including Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On'. By lunchtime, new gates were erected at its entrance.

Lissadell was formerly the ancestral home of the Gore-Booth family, as well as the former home of Countess Constance Markievicz, and had strong links with WB Yeats.

The ancestral home of the 1916 Rising leader had already suffered half a century of neglect during the latter part of the 20th Century.

Then in 2003 the pair of wealthy barristers stepped in with €10m and a dream of restoring it to its former glory.

But a motion passed by Sligo County Council in 2008 would set the wheels in motion for their departure from the estate, and the slow decline of the property they adored.

The Cassidy-Walsh family – including seven children – had been pestered by boy racers who used the four driveways around the home, particularly on summer nights.

But their decision to shut off the main driveway which goes right up to the front door led neighbour and Fine Gael county councillor Joe Leonard to take the grievance of some local people to the council chamber.

Once the councillors voted to fight for the disputed rights of way, a lengthy legal battle ensued, resulting eventually in a High Court win in 2010.

The Walsh-Cassidys moved out, the tearooms and restaurant closed and stunningly restored walled gardens surrendered to the weeds once again.

Ornate wrought-iron work on the restored surrounding walls would be later vandalised.

There would be no more Westlife or Leonard Cohen concerts in the grounds. Apart from house tours from August until October, Lissadell had disappeared off the west of Ireland tourism map.

The couple appealed the High Court ruling to the Supreme Court on a range of grounds.

And when the Supreme Court's decision came yesterday, the family were vindicated. The seven children – some of them now adults themselves – stepped outside the courtroom with broad smiles.

A decision on costs was deferred, but sources say the total legal bill could top €10m – with council insiders confirming its bill alone currently stands at €6m.

The council's loss is set to plunge the local authority into another financial crisis. It has debts of €93m, made up of €80m in loans and a running deficit of €13m.

The council is overspending by almost €3m every year and the Irish Independent understands it is about to run out of credit with the bank.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan had approved a request for the council to extend a €4.5m overdraft to €7m.

But the Irish Independent has learnt that despite Mr Hogan's approval, Bank of Ireland has refused to extend its credit any further.

Locals have different opinions on the saga, summed up by two neighbours who live just 100 metres apart close to Lissadell House.

Fine Gael Councillor Joe Leonard maintained the public had a right to access. But many locals backed the barristers. Betty Large said: "That couple came here and saved Lissadell House when it was crumbling down."

Irish Independent

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