Lissadell House: quiches at dawn

Lissadell is open to the public again. For the Walsh Cassidy family that means a summer of baking, gardening and building, but they wouldn’t have it any other way, writes Kathy Sheridan

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

“You have to imagine what this place was like when we came here”, says Eddie. “All the wonderful, original features which made this place so special, were obliterated under dirt tracks. Things like the fabulous flagstone path and the cobblestone drains that went in during the famine relief works. I studied all the old photos and the archives to get what information or guidance there was that something might exist. You’d have explored and excavated and think there was nothing there, then you’d go down six to seven inches to find the cobblestones. I was on my knees clearing those briars...”

Today his arms are covered in long scratches from clearing the jungle over-running the Sea Cottage. His gardening expertise has been gleaned entirely from books and even to this untutored eye, there are miracles being wrought through the woodland walks and old gardens of Lissadell. Even without the house and its associations, the alpine garden would be a wonder unto itself. “He was told that would take 10 years to restore - he’s done it in two”, says Constance.

We find her darting around the Coach House tearooms in her little runners, a functional t-shirt, skirt and apron, learning how to operate a commercial tea rooms, she says, with daughter Jane looking more than competent behind the salad bar, ordering her mother to put on a white hat. They were up at dawn, learning from consultant Geraldine Reidy, to make (pretty good) quiches and coleslaw, according to Constance. She points proudly to the home-cooked ham and tarragon chicken. “And that vintage cheddar - it’s the best and it’s from Lidl” she says, adding “they’re my client so they’ll be very, very pleased”. She has no experience at this, though she once won the Rookie of the Year aware working as a waitress in Dallas.

She is up by 4.30am and back in bed by 9.30-10 pm. “My father used to say I should get up half an hour before my husband and put on my face...” Eddie intervenes to say he wants her up half an hour before him but only so that she can bring his morning tea. Her father also said that being a barrister was no job for a woman. “He said I should have a large family and should stay at home and rear them”. She followed his lead into licensing law and with the long vacations, she reckons she can combine them all the roles.

But that image of two wealthy lawyers - one covered in scratches, the other learning to make coleslaw at dawn - is too much. Can’t they just employ contractors to implement the drudgery end of the vision ?

“If you were trying to do this with contractors, you couldn’t do it”, Eddie says. It would be too costly. He recalls when there was talk of the State bidding for Lissadell, the government estimated it would cost €30 million to restore it. Constance, he notes, has added 40 to 50 hours of work to her schedule.

This is their choice. “Both of us like working, history, culture, striving to achieve something, not letting life pass us by”, he says.

“Lots of people buy big expensive cars or take big, expensive holidays”, Constance says. “The youngest car we have is 10 years old. We don’t go for big, expensive holidays. We have a place in France and always try to get over in August but we’re only going to get there for seven or eight days this year because we’ve opened Lissadell and want to be down here”.

Doing the job sympathetically, he say, has entailed significant hardship. “It’s had a lot of challenges, not least the legal challenge but it’s also been an enormous joy and enormous satisfaction seeing the place come together bit by bit. Neither of us are into sports or golf or anything like that. Constance’s interest is in the house and the tearooms and the tourism. Mine primarily are the gardens and the grounds and putting together the collections. I’m a hoarder - I won’t throw anything away and will find a use for things that others would see as rubbish. The other great satisfaction has been seeing all the kids taking an interest and involvement. They were instrumental in getting us back here into Lissadell after the case...”