The recent ruling by the Supreme Court in relation to rights of access to Lissadell House highlights the deep-rooted ambiguity that lies at the heart of attitudes to Anglo-Irish relations/heritage. Lissadell House, former home to Constance Gore-Booth or Constance Markievicz as she later became following her marriage to the Polish Count, Casimir Markievicz, was built in the 1830s and inhabited by the Gore-Booth family until 2003, when the then owner Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth offered the house for sale to the Irish Government for 3M.
The government of the day showed little enthusiasm for the project however – cost of refurbishment being estimated at between 30 and 40M – and though several expressed interest in buying the house initially the interest quickly evaporated and the house eventually was purchased by two Dublin barristers, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy for upwards of 4M. Walsh and Cassidy also offered to purchase the contents of the house but Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth having struggled with the upkeep for so long opted for the contents to be sold by public auction. The auction which took place on 23rd November 2003 raised 2M.
Harry Keaney, writing in the Sligo Champion on the 26th November 2003 gave details of the 636 Lots auctioned off. These included seventeen paintings by Constance Markievicz, paintings by her husband Casimir, her daughter Maeve and her sister Eva Gore-Booth. Other items sold included a famine painting by Danial McDonald which fetched 9,400 Euro, an ancient Irish harp 11,000 Euro and the children’s doll’s house 27,000 Euro, plus toys, lanterns and music that belonged to the children not to mention furniture and fittings from the house which consists of the hall, billiard room, gallery, bow window, sitting-room where Constance’s signature is etched on the window-pane, a downstairs bedroom, drawing-room, ante room, dining-room, bedrooms, the sale of lace and textiles, object d’art, jewellery, wine from the cellars and many rich and rare books from the library at Lissadell.
The Chairman of the Constance Markievicz Memorial Committee wrote a letter in reply to Harry Keaney’s article stating that he (Keaney) had ‘fallen into the journalistic trap of quoting letters out of context’ and described the auction of items from the house as nothing more than ‘the trappings of decadent wealth from a vulgar and oppressive past’ Mr McGowan castigates Josslyn Gore-Booth for selling off items with any connection to Constance Markievicz, her sister Eva and her daughter Maeve saying ‘it almost seems to have been done on purpose’. Ignoring the insult to the Gore-Booth family, Mr McGowan goes on to extend a hearty welcome to the new owners Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, wishing them every success in their new home whilst stating ‘the real villain of the piece in this instance is not the Irish Government but Josslyn Gore-Booth’.
Mr McGowan is wrong. The Supreme Court ruling indicates that if the Irish Government had stepped in and purchased Lissadell House from Sir Josslyn at the time it was offered the present debacle regarding rights of access would not have come about and Sligo County Council would not now be facing a legal bill of 7M Euro – enough, as one commentator stated, to buy two Lissadells.
In 2010 I travelled to Sligo with some other interested friends to visit the newly refurbished Lissadell House. I have to say my feeling at the time was that the new owners had done a marvellous job having spent over 9M on refurbishment. It was a pleasure to go on a walking tour of the house and to visit the converted stables and view the paintings and other memorabilia associated with Constance Markievicz, W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory et al and to wander in the beautifully restored walled gardens and sit in the sun afterwards enjoying a coffee purchased from the newly established cafe/restaurant.
I look back on that visit to Lissadell with a wonderful sense of nostalgia for times gone by and what Anglo-Irish heritage has given to this country and it makes me sad now to think back to that day and to witness the squabbling that is taking place as a result of the court case. I am very glad that the court found in favour of Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy. They are to be congratulated on the way they managed the restoration of Lissadell House and the grounds but I do not agree with their stance when it comes to rights of access. The Irish people have a right to walk the land of Ireland just as they did in generations gone by and no court ruling should be allowed to prohibit this.
Yesterday, Kinsealy, the former home of Charles J. Haughey was sold at auction to someone from outside Ireland for 5.5M Euro. Whatever one thinks of the Haughey era it too is part of our history and it too should be recognized as such. In times to come the failure of the Irish Government to purchase Kinsealy for the nation will be seen as yet another instance of the scant regard it has for heritage in this country – the loss of Lissadell and of Kinsealy and all of the other great houses of Ireland is a grave error on the part of the Irish Government and the failure of Sligo County Council to win rights of access to Lissadell House can only be seen now as a last ditch attempt to hold onto the pot of gold that it so casually threw away.