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

Buying Lissadell was Eddie’s idea, not her’s, Constance Cassidy says now. “I said ‘Okay - so we don’t have enough to do, do we not? Okay’”. Back in 2003, after the €3.75 sale to the two lawyers, she seemed up for it, remarking that her father (who was a judge on the Western Circuit) had been in love with Countess Constance Markievicz and that was the first thing that attracted her.

As for Eddie Walsh, he saw the acquisition as a “very, very fine house and [400 acres of] lands, with significant historical interest, which should be minded and protected and preserved. It’s one of the last genuine Irish estates and what shouldn’t happen to it is that it becomes a travesty of a golf course or a B&B”. It could have become all that in the bubble years. Visits from developers like Mick Bailey and an offer to flip it for a million euro failed to move them.

And what about now, 11 years and €9 million later (on top of the purchase price), plus the five-year, €10 million court case that still hangs over this family like a shroud?

The message is can-do. It’s what Constance, barrister, specialist in licensing law and mother of seven, just does.

How do they get the children out of bed at 7 am? Constance: “They don’t have a choice”. Eddie: “ I try to do it by negotiation. Constance does it by direction”.

How did they persuade the children to abandon Morristown Lattin - their rambling fairytale, period house near Naas - their friends and birthdays parties to go to Lissadell every weekend to do stuff like pick stones? Constance: “ I said ‘we’re doing this. We’re going. Move it’.”

Many mothers might sympathise. It was Constance’s task on Friday afternoons to get the seven children into the car and on the road to Sligo, while ahead of them lay this great, 12,000sq foot, money pit of a house. Her sister Pamela - another lawyer, keen photographer, butterfly enthusiast and estate researcher - murmurs that she’s far softer than she pretends.

But why would anyone do it in the first place ? Was it one big vanity project - a modern, fiercely driven Constance putting her stamp on a grand house inextricably linked with that other Constance?

There is a tiny pause. Then she rattles off the detail of her leisure time since Lissadell.

“I’ll tell you what vanity is. I had six kids and a baby. I knew the only way to do this was to get Eddie 100% interested - which he was. And I had to be behind him. I had seven kids at various stages saying we have our birthday parties, we have our friends here, we don’t want to go down there, what are we doing this for ? But I’d pick them up early from school on Fridays - I’m sure the teachers weren’t too happy - to get here early, I had to make sure all the washing and all the towels were done, making everything as comfortable as possible from the family point of view. We have a gorgeous little living room in there. I don’t think we ever put on the telly - did we?”, she pauses briefly to ask Eddie. “I’d have to stop at Lidl on the way to make sure we had dinner organised. Eddie would then arrive and say we need to do this, or do that... and the kids would be out picking stones. I’d be here making sure they were fed. On Saturday, we’d get up at 5 and make lists of every single thing we had to do. The kids would get up at 7. So if you call that being vain - vain maybe to the point that I’d put on foundation to hide the tiredness...

She regrets none of it. “What Eddie did was magnificent. He discovered four or five houses hidden around the estate. I remember freezing cold, wet mornings when I would have made sandwiches and packed them into the car with tea, coffee and soup and driven to where he was working in the alpine garden or the vegetable gardens. Then we would have a big dinner together in the evening and the kids would go off to watch DVDs. And Eddie and I would work out exactly what time we would leave the next day. So we were here all the time. All my weekends for up to five years were gone”.

“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...”

The case. After five frightening, humiliating and potentially ruinous years, it still casts a pall. Eddie went into “deep shock” in 2010, says Constance, after a High Court judgment favoured a claim by Sligo county County to four rights-of-way through the estate.

“I wondered why I had committed myself so much to it”, he says. “I decided I wasn’t going to invest one more minute of time, or money, or effort in Lissadell.”. Or love, interjects Constance. “Never mind love - it was time, money “, he says.

As they attended the case every day, bills were mounting and the children began “dossing and messing”. Several of them were taken out of Newbridge College and sent off to board in Newtown. “They had to grow up a bit quick seeing the stress of a possible €6 million legal bill”, she says. “We were standing on a precipice. They would have known everything was at risk. It was a reality check for them”.

“The subtext for us was, do we survive or not?”, says Eddie, “ but the county council could protract and procrastinate knowing it would be the taxpayer who would pick up the bill. Nobody has asked Hubert Kearns [the former county manager] or [former councillor] Joe Leonard as they ride off into the sunset, whether they would make a contribution?”.

In the absence of legal logic, as they see it, they look for motive. “One is that the council tried to buy this place. In all their submissions, it was never suggested there were public rights of way and it was suggested it would be suited for concerts and events, holiday lodges, caravan parks... So was it a true vanity project for them?”, he wonders.

The Supreme Court appeal went mainly in their favour but “even talking about the case makes me sad”, says Constance. “I didn’t want Eddie to get bitter. There was no jumping up and down at the end - it was just too hard”. They estimate the final legal bill will top €10 million.

It took a long time to get Eddie back to Lissadell. “We were certainly war-weary , certainly disenchanted, certainly apathetic in the way that after all the hard work we had put in in the initial five years, for all that to become such a controversy”, he says. “A lot of time has been lost, a lot of work undone and work that could have been done not done - and revenue not earned”.

He comes across as the huntin’, shootin’ alpha male, but they point out that the poor, mangy stuffed bear in the billiard room “was murdered while running away” by the same Sir Henry whose multiple javelins adorn the mantelpiece.

His vast collection of books include a Wilde first edition and scores of old histories and texts, dating back to the early 1800s. His interest in them is so intense, it must be exhausting. Constance keeps him moving (ahead of a guided tour), explaining her use of Neat’s Foot Oil ( for saddles) on the leather bindings and on the strange, little fireplace made of wood said to have been salvaged from a doomed ship of the Spanish Armada in the 1500s.

Every single item in the house, old and new, appears to have a story - from the paint to the roof slates - not to mention the massive (and massively incongruous) Russian revolution paintings under the stairs, the bust of Lenin (due an outing on the centenary in 2018) and the framed piece of wood carved from the tree that the Duke of Wellington sat beside on his 1816 visit. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and also the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth.

Meanwhile, the three older children are studying law, business and Chinese. Now aged 22 down to 11, they are the reason why their parents keep it going. Elanor - they think - is considering Eminem for their next concert. Changed times and generations in Lissadell.