A mansion in Sligo steeped in history lay in ruin, until one couple decided to revitalize this jewel of the western landscape of Ireland.
The old lady held her hands up to the flickering fire as she contemplated the decline of her aristocratic family. All around her, shadows danced on the walls of the drawing room that once hosted celebrated artists and illustrious politicians.
It was cold, but hers was the only room in that mansion of more than 70 rooms to be heated on that winter’s night. The rest of Lissadell House lay in darkness while outside what were once world-renowned gardens grew choked with weeds.
What had reduced the Gore Booth family, which for generations had been at the center of Irish cultural and political life, to this sorry state? What had caused Lissadell House in County Sligo – home to poets, patriots and philanthropists – to become so dilapidated and decayed?
These would have been your thoughts had you visited in the 1990s, but visit today and you’ll witness a revival. The Gore Booths no longer live at Lissadell but their story lives on thanks to the dedication of husband and wife Eddie Walsh and Constance Cassidy.
In the five years since they bought the estate, they have reversed its decline. Lissadell once again houses a family: Eddie, Constance, their seven children and Constance’s sister Isobel. It has also been restored to its former grandeur and opened to the public who are eager to rediscover Lissadell’s rich history.
This is what I decided to do one sunny day in August. Arriving at Lissadell, I was welcomed by Isobel who was unstintingly enthusiastic about her job as manager of the estate.
“It’s become a labor of love,” she said. “Just look at the coach houses where Caroline Gore Booth set up a soup kitchen during the famine. It was damaged by fire but we’ve restored it and it now houses the Countess Markievicz exhibition, the tea rooms and the gift shop. Over there are the newly-restored kitchen gardens where we grow fruit for our jams. Then there are the Alpine gardens…”
Isobel soon realized she was overwhelming me with information and sent me off on a tour of the house. During the next hour, I learned all about the Gore Booth family.
Sir Robert Gore Booth built the house in 1833. A member of the English aristocracy, he commissioned Francis Goodwin, a leading architect of the time, to design the house for his Irish estate, which then totaled more than 30,000 acres.
He spent the modern equivalent of 100 million euros and ended up with an austere Georgian mansion set on an estate that at the time was said to be one of the finest in all of Great Britain and Ireland.
Sir Robert’s great wealth was matched by his compassion. My tour guide recounted how he was known as one of the only landlords in Ireland not to evict tenants during the famine. An older gentleman who joined me on the tour corrected him by saying that Sir Robert practiced “gentle” evictions.
“Ah yes,” said the tour guide. “He had an ‘assisted emigration program.’ He offered tenants who were unable to pay rent the price of a ticket to America along with a ‘landing fee’ – some money to start new lives abroad. A lot of people emigrated thanks to Sir Robert.”
Meanwhile, his wife Caroline ran a soup kitchen from their coach house – often serving up to 200 gallons of soup a day.
This concern for the poor passed down through the generations of the Gore Booth family. Sir Robert’s son Henry inherited Lissadell. He was an Arctic explorer and keen hunter. There are still testaments to his hunting prowess in Lissadell House – a stuffed and snarling bear is just one of them.
Of Henry’s four children, three were remarkable. Constance was the eldest. She was presented to Queen Victoria’s court in 1887, but soon after marrying Ukrainian Count Markievicz, she embarked on a life as a painter and a patriot.
Having studied at Slade in London and at the Académie Julian in Paris, Constance’s artistic work was accomplished. Much of it is on display at Lissadell today.
Art, however, was not her vocation in life: politics was. Politically, she was at odds with her Unionist father. She embraced Irish nationalism and was one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. Later, she became the first female minister in the world, sitting in the first Dáil. She was also a founding member of Fianna Fáil.
Constance’s political stature was recognized at her funeral in 1927. Thousands of people lined the streets of Dublin as her cortege passed by, and Éamon de Valera gave her funeral oration.
She is still remembered fondly in Ireland today. Indeed, Constance Cassidy who now owns Lissadell with her husband Eddie Walsh was christened in her memory. “Her name was a large factor in their decision to buy Lissadell,” said her sister, Isobel.
The original Constance had two sisters, Mabel and Eva. Eva gained recognition as a poet and as an outspoken suffragette.
And finally, there was Constance’s brother Josslyn. He was heir to Lissadell. He did not have his sisters’ political fervor, preferring instead to develop enterprises on his estate.
He set up one of the finest horticultural businesses in Europe, exporting seeds all over the world. Under his stewardship, the estate supported more than 200 people.
However, Josslyn did inherit his family’s compassion. Under the Wyndham Land Act of 1903, he sold 28,000 acres to his tenants on favorable terms.
As they grew up between England and Sligo, these remarkable young people made friendships with prominent Irish personalities who were to become frequent visitors to Lissadell.
Among the 1,000 visitors who dined in the house every year were W.B. Yeats, his artist brother Jack and Maud Gonne.
Yeats, who as a young man had made friends with the Gore Booth sisters, was a frequent visitor and is said to have had his own bedroom on the first-floor landing. He remembered the happy times, when he “wandered by the sands of Lissadell” in the celebrated verse:
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
Their generation was a golden era for the Gore Booths. The next – Josslyn’s four sons and four daughters – were to witness the decline of this grand house and great family. The problems started when Josslyn’s eldest son, Michael, developed mental instability. Josslyn decided that Michael should not inherit the estate outright. Instead, his brother Hugh would help him run it.
Tragically, Hugh and another brother, Adrian, were killed in WWII. Josslyn died of grief shortly afterwards. With Michael unable to manage the estate, Lissadell passed into the hands of the Office of the Wards of Court.
Three siblings – Gabrielle, Aideen and Angus – remained in the house. They tried to collaborate with the government officials and to continue with the various horticultural businesses being run from Lissadell.
However, the relationship between the Gore Booths and the officials grew strained. It eventually deteriorated to the point where the enterprises were closed and the estate fell into disarray.
The elegant avenue leading to the house filled with potholes. Weeds strangled plants in the gardens. And with no significant source of income, the Gore Booths retreated to three small bedrooms and a cramped kitchen in the mansion.
So it continued until plans were proposed to sell the estate in the late 1990s. Hopes were high that the Irish government would purchase it, but this never materialized. Instead, in 2003, two Dublin barristers undertook the challenge of a lifetime.
“They wanted to restore Lissadell’s authentic character,” explained Isobel. “They wanted to return the house to being a family home and to its former self – a house with history and with gardens that work as enterprises and as an amenity for the local community.”
Thanks to their hard work, Lissadell House has come back to life. Surrounded by woodland, with Ben Bulben rising majestically behind it and the sandy beaches of Sligo Bay running alongside it, the 400-acre estate is once again humming with activity.
The house itself is a marvel. I started my tour in the Billiards Room, a room full of photos and memorabilia of bygone times. There are pictures of Sir Henry and Constance hunting in the nearby hills and first editions of works by the likes of George Russell lining the bookshelves.
The gallery, a formal oval-shaped room with a grand piano and organ, evokes the memories of many musical performances. The Bow Room was one of W.B. Yeats’ favorite rooms. With its bay windows, open fire and comfortable window seats, it’s not difficult to understand why.
The dining room is decorated with portraits by Count Markievicz, Constance’s husband. He painted them during a long winter spent at Lissadell and they feature some of the many characters who inhabited the estate, including the game keeper, the woodsman and even Sir Henry’s dog, Flip.
Downstairs, the servants’ quarters tells the story of the 40 members of staff who ran this house in its heyday. The kitchen still has its long pine table, some parts worn away by over-arduous application of elbow grease. There are dumb waiters linking the kitchen to the upstairs dining room and a bell system for summoning the staff.
There’s the servants’ hall where they held a weekly dance. There are the pantries, the wine cellars and the sleeping quarters – all the different aspects that made up the life of a servant.
But there are signs of new life at Lissadell too. Color photographs of Constance and Eddie’s children are displayed alongside the valuable books, and as our guide shows us around, a teenager with an iPod plugged into his ears runs up the grand staircase to the floor where his family now live.
Works of art decorate the walls throughout the house. Some are by Jack Yeats; others are by Constance and Eva Booth. Sill more are by other artists from the Gore Booth family’s time, and even more are by contemporary artists.
“Eddie collects art,” explained Isobel. “He wants to maintain a living link with the local community, artistic and otherwise, just as the Gore Booth family did when they lived here.”
The community have responded in kind. Many remember a time when the Gore Booths would open the estate to the public or have heard stories of the family’s many characters. They have come to visit, bringing personal stories and photographs to add to the growing exhibitions.
When they come, they see that it’s not only the house that has been restored: the entire estate has been transformed. The kitchen garden is bursting with vegetables, salads, herbs and soft summer fruits. These supply restaurants in Sligo town and are also used to make Lissadell’s own-brand jams and chutneys.
The Alpine garden is no longer overgrown. Its rose gardens, stepped ponds and rockeries would make Josslyn proud.
Then, there are the coach houses. They are now home to tea houses, a Countess Markievicz exhibition and an impressive gift shop. “We’ve got other plans too,” said Isobel. “By this time next year, we’ll have an art gallery showing work by local artists, a Yeats museum and a garden museum. We’ll also open up more public walks through the woods and fields. We’ll start a pet farm and we’ll renovate the gardener’s house.”
The aim is to make Lissadell as self- sufficient as it once was and to do so in a way that allows it to retain its unique character. Having already spent more than 8 million euros on purchasing and restoring the house and grounds, Eddie and Constance still have a way to go in making it self-sufficient. However, with 30 employees, a growing range of homemade produce and plans to introduce more museums and exhibition spaces, that time can’t be too far off.
In the meantime, they can be proud of what they have done to restore its character. Their children, who range in age from 4 to 15, can often be seen helping out on the estate. Locals frequently come to visit, walking on the grounds or catching up with the latest conservation project, just as involved with Lissadell as they were in the past. “We see ourselves as custodians or caretakers,” explained Isobel. Having reversed the decline of the past 70 years, Eddie Walsh and Constance and Isobel Cassidy have restored one of Ireland’s cultural gems to its rightful glory. Lissadell lives on.
Note: At the time of writing, Lissadell House has entered yet another unexpected chapter in its already rich history. Following a disagreement with Sligo County Council, the owners of Lissadell have decided to close their home to the public.
This follows a decision by Sligo County Council to preserve public rights of way along routes through the estate. Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy maintain that there are no public rights of way over the property. They claim to have verified this prior to purchasing Lissadell in 2003.
They have also stated that it would be impossible to continue to operate the house as a tourist destination or as a private home if such public access were to be allowed.
“No property whatsoever, let alone a large tourist facility, could be operated on the basis of unregulated, uncontrolled and unfettered access,” they said. Sligo County Council has agreed to enter into discussions with Edward, Constance and local people in an effort to have the matter resolved as soon as possible. We will keep readers updated on all developments in upcoming issues.