THE OWNERS of Lissadell Estate in Co Sligo have insisted before the High Court that there are no public rights of way in the historic estate, the former home of Countess Constance Markievicz.
If such rights of way exist, it would be “impossible” to run Lissadell as a tourist attraction, Donal O’Donnell SC, for owners Eddie Walsh and Constance Cassidy argued.
An assertion of such rights of way over the 410-acre Lissadell Estate was “bizarre” and “unprecedented in law” as they do not exist, counsel said.
He was opening judicial review proceedings arising from the dispute between the owners of the estate and Sligo County Council. The case is being heard by Mr Justice Bryan McMahon and is expected to last for several weeks.
Ms Cassidy and Mr Walsh, with addresses at Morristown, Lattin, Naas, Co Kildare, and Lissadell, are seeking declarations that the routes in question are not subject to any public rights of way, and an order restraining the council and others from wrongfully asserting the routes are subject to a public right of way.
The council is also facing a claim for damages for alleged slander of title, negligence and intentional and/or unlawful interference with the owners’ economic interests.
The council denies all the claims and, in a counter-claim, is seeking a declaration that the four routes are subject to a right of way in favour of the public.
The proceedings were initiated after the council last December passed a resolution to amend the Sligo County Development Plan to include a provision for the “preservation of the public rights of way” along certain routes at Lissadell.
The council has claimed that no decision to commence the formal process of amending the plan has been made to date. It also says it had assured the owners it had not determined that public rights of way exist over the lands.
As a result of the council’s resolution, the owners closed Lissadell House, former home of the Gore Booth family, to the public last January. The Gore Booth family owned the Lissadell Estate, originally consisting of some 32,000 acres, for more than 400 years.
Yesterday, Mr O’Donnell said the owners would not be able to operate the estate as a tourist amenity if the rights of way existed. One of the four routes at issue went right up to the front of Lissadell House, which was built in 1830, he said. A right of way would mean it was open to all members of the public, be they “joy riders or truck drivers”.
Counsel said the estate was of great benefit to Co Sligo and had in 2008 attracted approximately 50,000 visitors. It offered guided tours and entry to gardens, and contained exhibits related to its association with historical figures such as Countess Markievicz, the poet WB Yeats and the painter Jack Yeats.
Mr O’Donnell said the claims of a public right of way were based “on low grade evidence”, including fragments of maps and memories and recollections of the distant past. It was his clients’ case that this was a misunderstanding, and that the reputed right of way was in fact trespass.
To be satisfied such a right existed, the court must be satisfied a land owner had dedicated a route on his property for public use, counsel said.
There was no evidence from documents, including family papers of the Gore Booths dedicated to the public library in Northern Ireland, ward-of-court papers related to a Gore Booth family heir being a ward of court from 1944 until his death in the 1980s, or from Sligo County Council’s own documents to show such a dedication ever took place.
A historian would give evidence that the inner part of most landed estates were always kept private, counsel added.
Mr O’Donnell told the court his clients had purchased Lissadell from the Gore Booth family in 2003 for approximately €4 million and had since spent more than €9.5 million restoring it. When they bought it, they were never informed by the council of any public rights right of way, he said.