Access to historic homes the key to public support

OPINION: What is to become of Ireland’s big house heritage that is still largely in private hands?

OPINION:What is to become of Ireland's big house heritage that is still largely in private hands?

THE RECENT High Court case involving the owners of Lissadell House in Co Sligo raises fundamental questions about the overall future and purpose of our remaining historic houses.

The case, which ran for 58 days, centred on a dispute between the owners, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, and Sligo County Council over public rights of way through the estate. The couple had purchased the house for €3.5 million in 2003, and invested a further €9.5 million since then restoring and promoting the house.

While Lissadell holds a special place in Irish culture, given its associations with WB Yeats who visited on many occasions, it fell to private owners to put in place a plan for the house to be self-sustaining. “We took on what the State was not prepared to do. We had a vision. That vision is over,” Walsh said after the ruling went against him and his wife, raising doubts over the future of the estate as a tourist attraction.

Lissadell is just one of a number of significant Irish houses that have had a turbulent century, with many of their estates broken up and their financial independence significantly compromised. In 2007, I was involved in a project that meant visiting 30 of Ireland’s great houses, with a particular focus on those remaining in family ownership.

In advance of the project, I expected to be embarking on a tour of aristocratic, well-heeled Ireland. I found some owners still felt an exaggerated sense of historical and material self-entitlement and were unable to break free from the landlord/tenant ideology. A sizeable majority, though, saw themselves less as privileged owners of the “big house on the hill” and more as custodians of sites of cultural and historical significance.

Elderly owners, in particular, worried about how best to unburden the next generation from the financial costs associated with keeping large houses. One woman I met was in the process of removing family portraits from the walls of her crumbling family pile near Dublin. She was hoping to raise enough money from their sale to re-roof and insulate the house and prevent further damage during the winter months.

No longer were there large staffs to run these estates, and in cases where younger generations had left home, the sense of isolation was keenly felt.

One of the possible implications from the fallout of the Lissadell case is that in future the next generation of private owners may be hesitant when purchasing and living in historic houses where public rights of way exist. A balance needs to be struck between ensuring an owner’s right to raise their family in some privacy and locals right to continue to enjoy established rights of way.

Yet what of the houses themselves? In the past decade, there seemed to be some impetus in putting in place a plan to preserve some of Ireland’s most threatened houses.

In 2003, a report by Dr Terence Dooley of NUI Maynooth, entitled A Future for Historic Houses, sought to examine 50 such properties. In his findings, Dooley said: "The main body of this report finds the houses, with very few exceptions, are faced with difficulties which threaten their existence in the future unless immediate steps are taken to avert these threats."

Writing a foreword to the report, then taoiseach Bertie Ahern sought to reclaim the big house for the present generation. He said: “Once considered not to be part of our patrimony, these magnificent 18th and 19th century houses, built by Irish builders, are now increasingly valued for their architectural significance and for the wealth of superb interior decoration created mainly by Irish craftspeople.”

The report led to the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust in 2006, which was tasked and funded by government to assist with saving houses in peril. Yet the optimism that the body would be the solution for properties in danger has not quite materialised. While the Irish Heritage Trust has taken over Fota House in Cork, its funding is now limited and its role reduced.

Kevin Baird, chief executive officer of the Irish Heritage Trust, says that the financial climate in 2006 when it launched is very different to today and that has implications for the role of the trust.

“We received a huge amount of financial support from government when we launched. What we have now found is there are projects that have had to be parked and we are waiting for better times to come. Given the game we are in and the current economic climate, it is very devastating. But we are in a 100-year cycle. It is a very long game to deliver sites that will be here forever. I often say we are making a casserole not a fry.”

The Irish Heritage Trust plans further significant investment in Fota House over the coming six months, including refurbishment works led by architect John O’Connell, and better public access.

Some argue though that the Irish Heritage Trust is not robust nor financially independent enough to provide a solution, and houses such as Aldborough House in Dublin, or Vernon Mount in Cork are exactly the type of properties a well-funded Irish Heritage Trust should be saving, but can’t.

In recent months, a new association for private owners of historic houses has been formed, led by Susan Kellett at Enniscoe House. Entitled the Irish Historic Houses Association, the organisation aims to provide a forum in which current owners may discuss issues and share knowledge in relation to the upkeep and refurbishment of their homes.

Kellett believes the best persons charged with preserving this aspect of our built heritage should be the owners themselves, and not an independent body such as the Irish Heritage Trust. She also believes the houses are unable to remain apart from their local community and owners need to realise this.

“In my case, I cannot operate without the support of the local community. The thing is that if you look around Ireland there are probably between 200 and 300 significant properties . . . So, the most economical way

to keep those houses and make use of them is for original families, or ones who have come in, to be able to live in the properties, to continue to run them.

“The Irish Heritage Trust takes the properties into public ownership and loses the families. You end up with something very expensive to run. Families will work themselves to the bone if they are allowed to. I know the Irish Heritage Trust is looking to mimic the English National Trust but we don’t have the money at the moment.”

Kellett has set up a website,, where members can log on and discuss issues. She says there are real security concerns about opening houses to the public, but that the majority of her members are already engaged with the local community and run an ongoing series of events. Many are not publicised or promoted formally and this needs to change.

Returning to Lissadell, she says the house is a particular case, but lessons can be learned about the fallout from the dispute. “I don’t think any owner should handle something like that. You have to interact with the local community if you want to make a change. I don’t understand the thinking that if you are developing a house as a tourist attraction, why you would then object to people coming through?”

The message to many of the remaining landed class and those living in historic houses should be that public funding costs, and the price to be paid is often public access.

“We do have some members who are elderly and are frightened if they open to visitors every day, some of the visitors will just be casing the joint,” she says. “My message though is that it is a two-way street. There is no free lunch, and owners must give something back in return.”