Friday 19 January 2018

Home Truths: It's time to big up the saviours of the Big House

Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

AS the B&B lady owner showed me my room, I asked her about the unusually terraced field behind. "That was once the front garden of the "big house" she told me. But there was no "big house" in this small Western town.

My sean bhean an ti related, not without some relish, how it was torched in 1921 and then the local people took the shell apart, literally stone by stone.

The Romans who salted Carthage had nothing on this lot.

Afterwards I looked up the house that had stood there – an amazing 18th Century three-storey affair, remodelled by the famous architect Richard Morrison with pedimented wings and an ornate Roman Ionic portico. An old reference book described its interiors in one word: "superb".

Today the town is depressed. It was hit in the 1920s by the closure of the landlord's enterprises and again by the closure of sugar production in the 1980s.

Today that missing mansion would be a tourist magnet, bringing buses to "big house" tours, to garden parties, to concerts, national events and festivals. Think Cosbie Hall, think Slane Castle, think Emo, think Powerscourt and of course, since 2003, think Lissadell.

Sligo County Council recently got burned to the tune of €10m fees in a failed legal action for rights of way against the owners if Lissadell – almost as much as it cost to buy and restore the house. The same council would not buy it a decade ago when Sir Josslyn Gore Booth was appealing for public ownership.

In Sligo – a county with 18pc unemployment and the highest percentage of empty business premises in the country – we should reasonably assume that the local authority would fall over itself to welcome and assist a new enterprise worth €13m – what Constance Cassidy and Edward Walsh have spent so far.

Sir Josslyn had struggled to maintain his historic home over many years but had decided enough was enough. Lissadell has 40 fireplaces. In its heyday half of those had to be lit to heat the house and an army of servants and staff tended to its gargantuan needs. No heat means damp and rot.

A documentary recently screened on RTE about today's Irish aristocracy showed families catching water in buckets, sporting quilted coats indoors and in one case holding a dinner party without electricity.

Today, unless they are utilised for commerce, Ireland's "big houses" eat vast amounts of cash – just to stand still.

Sir Josslyn reckoned Lissadell required a "sinking fund" of between €5m and €10m "just to keep it ticking over".

But back in 2003 as the Celtic Tiger raged, the State wouldn't buy it, the council wouldn't buy it and neither would Bono. The Cassidy Walsh's did. When wealthy Irish families were sloshing their dosh on tinted Range Rovers, clutch bags from BT and condos in Dubai, the Cassidy Walsh's were using theirs to save a national treasure, to employ 30 people and transform Lissadell into a revenue engine for Sligo – a generator which will still be running in 50 years.

An elderly Dublin-based taxi man from the locality who returned to visit the new Lissadell for the first time burst with pride as he described it to me.

This is how the "big house" dances for rural Ireland. Think Electric Picnic, Think National Country Fair, think Steam Festival.

And without people like the Cassidy Walsh's, these homes not only generate nothing, they die.

Foreign buyers want "walk in" only and banks won't lend for upgrades that cost €30,000 for an average family home but €6m for a behemoth.

Without the Cassidy Walsh's the nettles would have long ago stolen over Lissadell.

Instead of salting their efforts, Sligo Council should give them a medal and send them on a luxury six-month cruise – all expenses paid. We should all chip in for it.

Irish Independent

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