Lissadell House and Gardens, Sligo, Ireland
SUNDAY TRIBUNE 13th June, 2004
As good as their word
Lissadell House, that sacred crucible of literary history, has undergone an amazing rebirth under its new owners
'A LOT DONE, more to do' could well be the borrowed catch phrase for Edward Walsh SC and Constance Cassidy SC, new owners of Lissadell House. Just five hectic months after moving into the 1833 mansion, the former ancestral home of the Gore Booths was opened to the public again on 2 June.
Signs of progress in a .5m restoration scheme are everywhere, from the ceilings in the Bow Room, evoked by WB Yeats in the lines: "The light of evening, Lissadell/ Great windows opening to the south", to the restored view from those windows over Sligo Bay.
The couple began as they meant to go on with an efficient flourish. The day after the closing of the .3.75m sale of Lissadell on 19 December, they left their Kildare home at 5am with their seven children, Elanor (11), Harry (10), Kate (9), Constance (7), Jane (6), John (5) and little Eddie (18 months).
By 7.30am, they were busy making their new home cosy for Christmas, lighting fires under some of the 48 chimneys. By 4.30pm, the furniture vans rolled up and they were arranging suites of William IV-style furniture sourced at auction and in Germany for the family's private quarters on the first floor of the 35,000sq ft mansion.
In the bustling family kitchen on the first floor where angelic little Eddie is napping, Elanor is making pasta with nanny Cindy Combrick and the painters are on their tea break Constance and Edward unfold plans and the story of progress to date.
"We made a hugely conscious effort to spend as much time and get as much done here as possible, " said Edward.
The run up to the opening involved 18-hour days and a 36-hour drama to re-hang magnificent Regency gasoliers weighing half a ton in the cathedral-like gallery (Lissadell was the first house in Ireland to be lit by gas, courtesy of its own gas supply).
The bedroom where Yeats stayed in 1894/'95 has been painted the original shade of china blue, furnished in period style and opened to the public.
The couple bought a 49ft scaffolding tower, engaged their own plasterers and painters and became familiar with the painstaking aspects of conservation. Every single detail of the house and estate has had to be photographed for the conservation plan, and over 150 paint samples have been taken, in some cases by drilling through walls to check the number of layers of lime plaster. Like an archaeological dig investigation, they peeled back the layers of history of the house, revealing for instance that the interiors had been painted three times in their 170-year history, most recently in 1907. The ceilings in the Bow Room, diningroom and anteroom alone took three and a half months to clean and conserve.
"The first months were spent cleaning, tidying and cataloguing, but the Section 57 Declaration stipulating what could be done did not come through until May. We wanted to do it right and restore the house to its original glory using original materials but we didn't anticipate such delays even in replicating internal colours, " said Edward.
One of the early visitors to Lissadell had been working on Michael Flatley's restoration of Castle Hyde, where work has been controversially stopped. His advice was to watch out for the local council.
But in fact, says Constance, the general reaction to their new ownership, "has been one of relief that Lissadell will be a family home, that we are Irish and that we are hands on." And the family literally are 'hands on'. Edward, used to doing work in the garden in Kildare and on a farm he owns in Laois said, "I don't believe in employing people for work I can do. I don't play golf; when you don't play golf you have a lot of time." Constance's sister Pamela and her daughter Elanor have compiled the new brochure for the house and son Harry will be giving a hand cutting the grass.
Ideas for the future include having rare-breed cattle grazing the meadows around the house and having some form of equestrian enterprise at Lissadell. In the longer term, there are plans to restore the remarkable alpine garden created by Josslyn Gore Booth.
The intention is not only to restore the house and grounds, but with an eye to the next generation, to evoke once more the centre of enterprise which once flourished under the Gore Booth family.
"With seven children, you never know what kind of careers they are going to choose. It's a wonderful fall back if they didn't go into law or teaching that here is a place that would create any number of employment opportunities, " said Edward.
In its heyday a century ago a whole variety of businesses operated at Lissadell ? from sawmills to furniture making and from linen making to a plant nursery, giving employment to 200 staff.
Set against Dublin property prices, 72-room Lissadell and its 408-acre estate represents the most extraordinary value.
In addition to the threestorey mansion in grey limestone designed by British architect Frances Goodwin for Robert Gore Booth, there is a handsome but dilapidated stable yard ? one of the largest in Ireland ? and nine estate cottages, any one of which might fetch half a million-plus in Dublin. "Most people would think it would be a lifetime project, but with Eddie it will be three to five years with some help from the rest of us, " said Constance.
Key players on the project, in addition to the family, are David Clarke of Maloney O'Beirne, who has drawn up a conservation plan with Paul Arnold, historical consultant, Laurence Minogue, consultant to Sligo County Council, expert David Skinner, who is restoring the wallpapers in the reception rooms by hand and Peter Nicholson, Lord Mountbatten's former butler, who latterly worked with the Gore Booth family. By the time the house opened to 200-plus visitors on 2 June, the 65-ft gallery had been repainted and paintings by Constance Gore Booth and other family members framed and hung.
In addition to the important pieces bought at the auction of contents by the Walsh Cassidys, memorabilia is beginning to flow back to the house, including cuttings saved by the late Charlie Browne of Argue and Phibbs, solicitors to the Gore Booths.
The .6 tour of the house was extended by 15 minutes to include the bedroom used by Yeats, a Yeats' library and parts of the basement.
Bar stabilising flaking walls and repainting and ageing, this downstairs world of servants will be left in its original state:
the kitchen still with its original stove the bake room, the butler's pantry, the game rooms, still rooms, servants hall, the panel of 27 servant bells, separate cellars for wine, sherry, port and spirits, and the underground passage leading to the service block. It stands as an eloquent testimony of a way of life supported by a score of servants. "As the work progresses in each of the rooms, they get to feel a little more friendly, " said Edward.
And welcoming like the sweet-smelling wood fires which are kept burning in the hall and gallery, the bouquets of wild flowers arranged by Constance in each room and the sense that the house has been blessed not only in the ecumenical ceremony for 180 of the local community, held in the gallery, but in its new owners.
June 13, 2004
London Review of Books: Vol 26, No. 19, 7 October 2004
DIARY: Tom Paulin
We cross the invisible border at Strabane, 12 miles from Derry, and head west for about 40 kilometres into the Gaeltacht: we’re to have lunch with an old friend, Andrew, in the Beehive Bar near the coast. He’s there in the car-park having a smoke. I manage to refuse his offer of a Sweet Afton, and as I do so he notices my copy of Dean Godson’s biography of David Trimble, Himself Alone, lying in the back seat with David McDuff’s new translation of The Idiot and some other holiday books.
When I say I want to write about Himself Alone, he exclaims: ‘A thick brick like that! I thought you were on your holyers!’ We sit and contemplate the high domed peak of Errigal, its white quartzy screes making it look snowy, beautiful, impossible. Two days later, Giti and I drive back to Errigal and climb it: a hard, steep climb over shaly paths, but it’s a warm, sunny day and we sit on the peak and look out over the country, cloud-shadows hanging still on the green bogs and fields. Below us is the isolated Altan Lough, then two other mountains, Aghla More and Muckish, the last named for the Irish for ‘pig’, muck (it looks like a pig’s back). We stare out along the coast to Tory Island, the home of the great naive painter, James Dixon. Below us Donegal is green, still, silent and peaceful.
I’m too tired that evening to open either Himself Alone or The Idiot, and in any case I want to a make a start on a new book, a collection of short essays on single poems. I wish I’d packed a copy of my discussion of Yeats’s ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, which I used to introduce a review in the LRB of Helen Vendler’s seminal study of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I get up at six the next morning, and rewrite it from memory, trying to draw out the pattern of ‘o’ sounds, the plosives, the guttural ‘k’ sounds and those liquid ‘l’s, which culminate in the final line: ‘Bid me strike a match and blow.’ That afternoon I call on James – he’s my age and has just had a triple bypass operation. It’s a harrowing story, the first I’ve heard from one of our generation. ‘I’m gunked listening to you,’ I tell him, and then Ciara hands me an envelope. ‘I meant to send you it,’ she says, ‘I found it in a drawer of photographs from way back.’ ....
I spend the evening – or part of it – with Himself Alone, and then we all head out for Iggy’s bar; there’s a lock-in after hours, and we’re not home till three that morning. The phone goes early. It’s Michael Keohane, ringing from Sligo, where he’s president of the Yeats Society. We talk, more about the Middle East than Yeats, and he invites us to the opening of the Yeats Summer School in Sligo that Sunday, and to the party afterwards in Lissadell House.
‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’ is set in Lissadell House. It begins:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
I want to see those great windows again; it’s 25 years since I was last there: a dingy neoclassical mansion with two elderly Gore-Booth sisters and a slightly dotty and antique brother showing visitors around.
The grounds of Lissadell when we get there are full of people; there is white wine and Guinness and dozens of oysters lying in open shells on expanses of damp seaweed. I take a drink and wander into the house, where I find the drawing-room. Helen Vendler is standing by the great windows flooded with evening light, the Atlantic beyond. We greet each other and start talking about poetry. Other friends appear, there are speeches, short ones, and an endless supply of food and drink. Fires burn in the handsome fireplaces, and talk and laughter beat at the high ceilings.
The house and gardens seem part of Yeats’s epic life and imagination, though apparently he stayed there only twice. In the poem he resurrects the country-house poem that began with Jonson’s ‘To Penshurst’ and ends with Pope’s ‘Epistle to Burlington’, which mocked the pretentious, soulless houses and gardens of parvenu Whig aristocrats, and effectively extinguished the genre. Yeats tries to revive it in his sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, but his theme – the decay of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy – and his too muscle-bound style always remind me of Stormont. It’s Protestant arrogance with a touch of Mussolini (or ‘Missolonghi’, as Yeats called him). But he gets it right in ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, and it was that Turgenevian poem I was celebrating.
Going back onto the lawn I bump into a friend who works in the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. Knowing that he was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement, I mention Trimble to him. He speaks well of him – ‘though we’ve had many fights.’ I tell him that I think the Unionists got hung up on decommissioning because they lost their way after signing the Agreement and then failing to sell it. He agrees that they failed to sell it, and says that neither government thought decommissioning would be an issue: it was the North-South bodies they worried about.