Friday 9 January 2009

Historic house to be closed over rights of way dispute

LISSADELL HOUSE, the childhood home of 1916 leader Countess Markievicz, will be closed to the public from next Monday amid an ongoing row about public rights of way through the estate.

Barristers Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, who bought the historic Co Sligo estate in 2003, said yesterday the decision had been forced on them by the actions of Sligo County Council.

Last month the council unanimously passed a motion that the county development plan be amended to make provision for the preservation of public rights of way through the estate.

Eleven of the 24 Lissadell staff have been let go. The family said yesterday all existing commitments would be met and necessary ongoing maintenance would be undertaken but no further projects would be embarked on.

“For this year, we will work towards achieving a limited summer opening in order to facilitate the commitments already made,” they said.

While the issue of public rights of way through the estate has been described as a “festering sore” by local Fine Gael councillor Joe Leonard, who proposed the motion last month, the family has persistently refuted that any such rights exist.

When the estate was sold by the Gore Booth family in 2003, there was some criticism of the Government for its failure to purchase it for the State.

In a statement yesterday, the owners said they purchased Lissadell as private property and that at the time the vendor, Sir Josslyn Gore Booth, had given a sworn declaration confirming that no public rights of way existed over the property. Sligo County Council had also stated the roads through the estate were not in the charge of the council, they said.

Mr Leonard said local families had enjoyed a right of way through the estate for generations.

A strongly worded statement from Mr Walsh and Ms Cassidy said Sligo County Council had made it impossible to operate Lissadell either as a historic house or as a private home “for reasons of public health and safety, insurance and, not least, the simple matter of security both for our family and the thousands of visitors to Lissadell, a large proportion of whom are children and the elderly”.

They added: “No property whatsoever, let alone a large tourist facility, could be operated on the basis of unregulated, uncontrolled and unfettered access.”

A spokesman for Sligo County Council declined to comment.

The couple said they had received no public funding to help with the restoration project but had increased visitor numbers from 4,000 a year to over 40,000.

They said the house and grounds were almost derelict when they bought it but five years on, having “poured enormous amounts of time, effort, energy and money” into the project, they had made Lissadell a focal point of tourism in the northwest.

The owners said it was simply not viable to continue to invest further significant sums “where Sligo County Council has seen fit to embark upon such a serious challenge, creating fundamental uncertainty about the future of Lissadell”.

In 2006 the couple declined a €1.1 million State grant towards the restoration of the gardens, saying there were so many conditions attached that it was “rendered impractical”.

Irish Times

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