'They don't do subtlety do they?'

‘Keep Out’ signs now adorn the grounds of Lissadell in Co Sligo, the latest development in a long-running disagreement over rights…

'Keep Out' signs now adorn the grounds of Lissadell in Co Sligo, the latest development in a long-running disagreement over rights of way. Many locals applaud the owners' restoration of the property, but most are angry and bemused by their approach to the dispute, writes ROSITA BOLAND

IT IS A month now since the High Court found on December 20th that public rights of way during daylight hours did indeed exist at the Lissadell estate in Co Sligo. Mr Justice Bryan McMahon had considered the evidence after 58 days in court, where the owners of Lissadell, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, claimed that Sligo County Council had wrongfully asserted rights of way over their estate.

The couple, whose primary residence is at Morristown Lattin in Co Kildare, bought the house in 2003 for €3.75 million, and started to develop the estate soon after. They restored the house, gardens, and the former coach house, which was turned into an exhibition centre. They opened a tearoom, held two high-profile Leonard Cohen concerts there last summer, and spent an estimated €9.5 million in the process.

They also gradually closed off certain access points to the estate, locking gates and restricting use of various routes through the 410 acre estate. In December 2008, Sligo County Council voted to amend the county’s development plan to include “the preservation of public rights of way” along the four roads that run through Lissadell. The dispute ended up in court, and the house and gardens were closed for much of the intervening time.

Since the judgment, the gates to Lissadell have re-opened, but the house, gardens, exhibition centre and tearoom remain shut. In addition, an extensive amount of fencing, signs, barbed wire and boulders have gone up all over the estate. Last week I counted 22 large red and white “Keep Out, Private Property” signs alone, which stand on the avenue borders. Boulders and rubble now block what were passing out places on the avenue, thus preventing cars from parking there, or from easily passing oncoming traffic. Fences, and lines of new fencing stakes awaiting wire, march along the perimeter of every field. Barbed wire is wrapped around stanchions lying on the ground near the house. Everywhere you look, there is either a “Keep Out” sign or a new fence clearly visible. You would not describe Lissadell today as a visually welcoming place to any visitor.

JOE LEONARD IS THE current chairman of Sligo County Council and the councillor who originally tabled the motion about rights of way at the estate. He has been at Lissadell since the fencing went up. What does he think of it?

“Well now. Well now. What to say about that? They don’t do subtlety, do they?” he says frankly, in the Co Council offices overlooking the Garavogue. “I hope it’s not a physical manifestation of what they think of their neighbours. A barbed wire solution is not the way of the future. It was never necessary before to erect fortifications at Lissadell. What I want to see is Lissadell preserved for future generations, and in my opinion, that is best achieved through co-operation with the local community.”

Leonard admits to relief that Sligo County Council won the case, not only because of re-establishing public rights of way, but also as the case came at a time when local authority funding is scarcer than ever. There will be a hearing early next month at which costs will be decided: it has been estimated they will be in the region of €3 million-plus. “It has to be welcomed that the place is no longer privatised.”

He is anxious to point out that “it is abundantly clear that the wider community in Sligo welcomes the restoration and work done at Lissadell”. So why does he think the fencing has gone up? What message is it sending to the community? There’s silence. Then he shrugs his shoulders, and looks genuinely baffled. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

One of the many people living close to Lissadell who appeared in court to recount their memories of the public use of the estate is Jim Meehan, a business consultant of Urlar, Drumcliffe. “It is good we can freely express opinions now that the court case is over,” he says quietly. “I feel for the owners,” Meehan says. “They’ve done good work with the estate. But I think they could have been more prudent, and talked to people. Negotiation was the surest and easiest way through this. If they had built relationships locally, I can’t see any of this having happened. I don’t want to be going to court with my neighbours on any issue.”

Speaking of the fencing, he says: “It doesn’t seem to make any sense to local people, and it doesn’t do anything for the situation. In all the times I’ve been at Lissadell, I’ve never seen anyone misuse those paths. There are maybe a couple of hundred people who consistently use those roads through Lissadell, walking and cycling and driving. You could think of them as an unpaid community security service with their eyes and ears watching out.

“Everyone knows everyone else walking those roads. I would see these people as an asset on the estate, not as a security threat.”

“Frankly, I was surprised at the outcome of the case,” admits Stella Mew, chief executive of the Yeats Society, whose students used to regularly visit Lissadell House. “I don’t think it makes the slightest bit of difference to the community. They’re delighted that they won, but it seems to be a Pyrrhic victory. I can’t see that the locals were terribly deprived of anything prior to the case – what did they want? I don’t want to express criticism of locals, but there is a difference between access and trespass.”

Mew has not been back to Lissadell since the gates reopened, but she – in common with everyone in Sligo I spoke to – was fully aware of the new security precautions.

“I think the barriers send a message of huge disappointment by the owners. It’s a great pity. At the end of the day, there are huge bills now to be paid, and there has been no good outcome. I can’t see who has benefited from this case.”

“I think the community in general would like to see the house and estate open, and the Walsh-Cassidys did sterling work on the gardens,” says artist Michael Wann, who lives close to the estate and was a vocal supporter of local rights of way.

“I’d like to see the house back on the Yeats trail, and I can’t see why they can’t run the place as a viable tourist amenity. I would hope the Walsh-Cassidys accept the judge’s decision and don’t appeal. I certainly hope they won’t appeal but we have never really understood their way of thinking.”

ALTHOUGH PEOPLE ON the streets of Sligo initially stopped politely when approached, most of them immediately walked away when they heard Lissadell mentioned. “I’m sick of it all,” was a typical response, as was “I don’t live in that part of Sligo, so it has nothing to do with me” and “I have no interest in talking about Lissadell”.

Many of those who did talk made it clear that they were not just angry, but also highly insulted by the erection of fencing and other measures taken at the estate.

“The barricades are a pure disgrace,” said a woman coming out of Tesco, who did not want to give her name. “And I don’t see why the place should ever have been closed at all. The owners should have known that there were rights of way before they purchased it. There’s nothing stopping them from opening the house, and it should be open. It’s not right to deprive the people of Sligo, and tourists to the area, the opportunity to visit the estate.”

“It should never have gone to court,” offers Aquinas Gallagher, shopping in Johnston’s Court mall. “The owners should have had the right to say when people should come and go from their land, is what I think. I do have sympathy with the owners. It’s a terrible pity the house is closed, because it was a very good place for tourists to go.”

“The owners should have compromised with the council about the paths. They should have sat down together and talked about the road going round the house, but they didn’t. They were very adamant they wanted to go to court and they made it very clear they thought they were going to win,” said Margaret from Easkey.

“I feel sorry for them because they paid so much for the place without knowing all the details of access,” Annette Brett of Tubbercurry declared. “We haven’t that many places to go on Sundays in Sligo, and the gardens and tearoom were lovely places to go, and to bring people. It’s a loss. You’d wonder was it all about stubbornness on both parts at the end of the day.”

WHEN CONTACTED AND asked if they were considering an appeal, why the fences had gone up at the estate, and where they saw the future developments at Lissadell going, the Walsh-Cassidys had no comment.

Until a few days ago, their website lissadellhouse.com carried this statement: “Because of the judgment, Lissadell is incapable of operation as a family home or tourist facility for reasons of security, insurance and maintenance.”

The site now says: “Our vision was to transform the estate into a flagship for tourism in Sligo and the North West, whilst providing a secure environment for our children and for our visitors. We did not wish to exploit Lissadell commercially but to restore the house and gardens to their former glory, make Lissadell self-sustaining and protect this crucible of Ireland’s historic and literary heritage. This was our vision for Lissadell. Our vision is now at an end.”

The rocky road to Lissadell closure

August 2003– Barristers Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy buy Lissadell for €3.75 million.

December 2008– Sligo County Council pass a proposal that the county development plan be amended to protect rights of way at Lissadell, in response to various routes at the estate being closed off by the owners.

January 2009– The house is closed to the public.

October 2009– Proceedings begin between Sligo County Council and the owners of Lissadell, who refute the assertion of rights of way.

June 2010
– The hearings end, after 58 days in court

December 2010
– The High Court finds that rights of way exist at Lissadell