Monday 19 February 2018

A protracted, painful intervention

Recently I watched what has turned out to be a very topical documentary called The Raj in the Rain. It concentrated on three Irish Ascendancy families, including a loquacious Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth at the time of the Lissadell country house auction.

Amongst the heaving crowds filmed at the Lissadell auction there is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of my mother and me with hot drinks in polystyrene cups to ward off the bitter cold that day.

And when I dug out my Christie's catalogue I found it was Tuesday, 25th November 2003: ten years ago this month.

The scribbles made on the spot in my catalogue say 'A Pair of Irish Early Victorian Mahogany Open Armchairs' went for €18,000; 'A Pair of Napoleon lll Bronze Torchere Gasolier Figures', €26,000; 'A Pair of Irish William lV Mahogany Bookcases', €45,000; 'An Explorer's Boot', €200.

It was the Celtic Tiger at its most rapacious and the prices, like every bit of heat in the old house, went through the roof.

Yet my poor mother was determined to bring home a souvenir so we ended up bidding, appropriately enough, on lot 472: 'A Quantity of Fragments'. And for €10 we sailed away like 'The Irish Rover' with a bag 'of the best Sligo rags'.

It was sad to see a Big House of such historic importance to Sligo stripped so bare.

But as it turned out the new owners, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, had secured a large amount of original items essential to the house.

And over time the house and estate were reborn as a commercial enterprise in private ownership with Big House tours, organic and walled gardens, a tearoom, gift shop and galleries. The enthusiasm and commitment to the restoration was exceptional and Lissadell became a truly lovely and rewarding place to visit.

One murky December especially I remember being down in the dumps in the winter cold and dark. On impulse I swung by Lissadell and found rows of glowing braziers burning in the courtyard; the smell of wood smoke mixed with the seasonal aroma of mince pies while Santy entertained the children.

It was like a Charles Dickens story come to life. And I had to ring my wife Carmel and say, "Stop whatever you're at. Christmas is here".

On top of that memory, however, is a later twilight walk we took along a flooded and potholed disputed right of way surrounded by Private Property signs saying Keep Out, while Lissadell itself resembled Loughan House detention centre behind a brutal screen of security fencing.

A passing hailstorm forced us to take shelter under a tree. As we stood there an estate jeep went past and we ended up having to climb over locked gates to get out.

And it wasn't as if we hadn't been noticed, for on our next visit the same tree was fenced off so no one could take shelter there in future.

The Supreme Court judgement over the disputed public rights of way is finally decided.

In a unanimous verdict the five judges found in favour of the appeal by the Lissadell estate owners in their action against Sligo County Council over the disputed rights of way.

The awarding of legal costs anywhere in the region €6-12 million will follow.

All told, it has been a protracted, expensive and humanly painful intervention, though proof perhaps of the dictum that if two wrongs don't make a right, try a third.

Sligo Champion

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