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‘After the stress of the court case it is great to be back in Lissadell’

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Maggie Armstrong and Constance Cassidy

Maggie Armstrong and Constance Cassidy

Seaside hang-out: Maggie and Constance enjoying lunch at Shells Cafe in the coastal village of Strandhill, Co Sligo

Seaside hang-out: Maggie and Constance enjoying lunch at Shells Cafe in the coastal village of Strandhill, Co Sligo

Lissadell House

Lissadell House

Eddie Walsh & Constance Cassidy

Eddie Walsh & Constance Cassidy

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Maggie Armstrong and Constance Cassidy

Constance Cassidy, owner of the historic Sligo house, talks to Maggie Armstrong about family, cooking and Michael Fassbender.

Constance Cassidy arrives at Shells Cafe half-an-hour late and immediately injects the place full of personality and fun. "I'm never late," she says, slipping into our seat by the window of this seaside hangout. "Some ole' ones came down and I had to show them around."

She's talking about Lissadell House, of course, her second home with husband Eddie Walsh and their seven children. The couple, both Senior Council barristers, have re-opened Lissadell to the public. They live there part of the time; the rest they spend in a beautiful 17th-century house near Newbridge, Co Kildare.

Constance does not strike me as the mistress of a big house, with her crop of blond hair, cream jeans, platforms and nautical t-shirt. She has something of the Hollywood actress Catherine Hepburn about her. She has her irreverent wit.

"Airbrush, James, airbrush," she orders, while James Connolly photographs her, not for the first time. Lissadell has attracted so much media attention they are almost old friends.

She chose Shells because it's in Sligo and she waxes lyrical about the town through lunch.

"We could have egg and chips there or something," she exclaimed when I first phoned her (the first of many communications with this bubbly lady). She remembers eating in this spot as a child, though today the cafe is run by the beautiful surfer people of Strandhill. We order beetroot soup, BLTs, and white wine. She tells me she's "not going to sit here drinking on my own".

Constance speaks quickly and urgently, but isn't rushed or stressed. Food is worth discussing, as the owners of Lissadell have replanted the Victorian kitchen garden that had been neglected for 60 years. It is certified organic and supplies restaurants in Sligo now.

She is a "plain cook" who makes roasts, she says. "Good food is important to everyone. Everyone wants nice food, and I think mothers in particular are concerned. Kids want proper, decent, home-cooked food. We wouldn't have an obesity epidemic if people spent proper time around the table eating".

The Walsh-Cassidys have a quirky 180 varieties of potatoes. I ask her about one type of potatoes which I heard was first grown in the 19th Century.

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"Eddie is the spud man." She puts an index finger to the air. "I'll call Eddie on that now." I really don't want her to, but she phones him up. A rich, plummy voice is soon talking in my ear. Constance's husband is describing an arcane potato that was first created at Lissadell, and his love of potatoes.

"For the romanticism my favourite is the Alanah, for the taste it's the Queen British. But my wife has me on the Dukan diet. I'm by and large forbidden by the old bag to eat potatoes, pasta and rice," he chuckles, and says he hopes we can have lunch some time too, he and I.

I'm hopelessly drawn in, fancying myself part of the Lissadell fold for just a moment.

But as we taste our food, I need to find out what is with Constance being called Constance? Does her name uncannily have to do with the very Constance Markievicz, a former Lissadell owner?

Constance says her father, a firm nationalist, brought her up to admire the revolutionary. "One of the first big difficult words I learnt how to spell was her surname, as a child I learned a lot about Constance Markievicz. But I suppose it was a coincidence, that she lived in this house."

Now is as good a time as any to move to the tricky topic of the court saga. The couple bought the 19th-century house in 2003 and undertook its restoration, their battalion of seven children lending a hand.

Those lucky enough to have seen Leonard Cohen murmur lines of Yeats poetry at the concert there in 2008 felt the magic of the place not long before it closed, its gates left covered in barbed wire.

A case over rights of way into the 410-acre estate was fought, and lost to Sligo County Council in the High Court in 2010, but the family finally won in the Supreme Court last November 2013.

The couple spent more than €9m on the estate on top of its purchase price of €3.75m. The case cost them further millions, most of which the County Council have to pay for.

The case dug into old wounds for many people. But every local I meet in Sligo from the taxi driver to the man that approaches "Ms Cassidy" in Shells is full of good things to say about the couple and Lissadell.

But the words of the taxi driver who took me to Shells are on my mind - "It should never have went to court. Somebody should have taken them by the scruff a' the neck and said sort this out."

Was there an alternative to the litigation that cost them so many years? She gives no quote for the reader on the direct question, but does state that "no person in their right mind would have taken on the battle that we took on. If I had any idea that it was going to go on the way it did, of course I wouldn't have exposed Eddie, or myself, or the children to it."

Are they in a lot of debt? "I think nobody wants to go there. All this country has been through terrible times, every person on this island is conscious of every penny," she says. "And I'm working as hard as I ever did. Taxes are very high."

There is sadness and frustration in her voice. But the determination in her steel blue eyes is incredible. I wouldn't like to meet her in court.

Does she ever wonder how people perceive her, as the owner of such a large house? "I'm like everybody else. Do you worry about what people think of you?" she asks. I do, I tell her. "That's fine so, I don't worry about that. I'm a bit older. At this stage I know who I am," she continues.

"And if people have their own preconceived notions as to how a person who runs a place like Lissadell is or should behave, well that is their notions. The most important thing for me in my life at the moment is being a mother, and trying to do my day job.

"With all the stress and unpleasantness of the court battle behind us, it's great to be back. As a mother you just want to spend as much time with your children as you possibly can."

Talking about her children, aged between 11 and 22 she comes even more alive.

"I'm probably quite an indulgent mother. When they're growing up you have to set the boundaries. You just hope the guidelines are of assistance to them, that they will be able to make the right decisions. Kids really do what they see."

What rules did this mum of seven implement? "I never let them drink coke. Now they drink nothing but Coke," she laughs, and says bedtimes and homework were important.

Constance had early training for all this, growing up in Co Kildare the second of seven children. "Every time a baby was born my father added another room, so it was a bit like the house that Jack built. My parents gave us a very good and happy family life," she says.

Her mother Eileen was a librarian and teacher and her father John became a judge. She followed his footsteps into licensing law.

"He was a wonderful barrister, an instinctual barrister. I just admired him so much and I wanted to do it the way he did it. I think I had to work harder than he had, it came more naturally to him."

In 1995 Constance lost both her parents in a car crash. "We were such a close family. It was really hard. I didn't smile for two years. But I had Eddie and I had three kids," she says.

"Whatever life throws at you, you have to learn how to deal with it in the best way that you can."

As we push away our half-eaten BLTs and she talks of her drive to work hard, having been a "busy little bee" since she was young. After the tragedy, she published a book, now the authoritative text on Irish licensing law and in its third edition. "I did it because my father was the expert on licensing law and it was just a job that had to be done. You know that in your life there are certain things that you have to do?"

She likes big projects. Constance rises at dawn and has been commanding the running of Lissadell as a tourist destination, working in the tea rooms. "We're trying to justify opening the place, to give the people who come to see us and who have supported us through the long hard battle the best experience possible."

The interesting thing is how this woman of action switches off. Constance reads Victorian literature about working-class girls sent to make their way in sprawling country houses.

"It's beautiful and it's spare and it's magnificently structured" she says.

"I love my books. I read anything, everything. I love old fashioned novels. I love my Jane Eyre, I love my Charlotte Bronte. The new Jane Eyre, Michael Fassbender he is fantastic! I used to think Colin Farrell was easy on the eye but my god, Fassbender. Woo. I'll tell you now."

"I'm delighted now with my glass of wine, that will help me sail back nice and easy," she says as we pay the bill.

And she is away, not before bundling me and my bags into the taxi to make sure I make the train. She's suddenly very like my mum.

Spirit of Christmas fair at Lissadell takes place Sunday December 7 www.lissadellhouse.com

 

A life in brief

Name: Constance Cassidy, SC.

Age: "Don't go down that road, I'm not telling you my age."

Married to Edward Walsh (left) and mother of Elanor (22), Harry (20), Kate (19), Constance (17), Jane (16), John (15), Eddie (11).

Favourite novel: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

Favourite food: Bacon and cabbage with parsley sauce.

Favourite place: Anywhere Eddie and the kids are.


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