Worth Emulating

Eighteen years ago this week, the contents of Lissadell, County Sligo were sold at auction by Christie’s. The house was once family home to Constance Gore-Booth (otherwise known as Countess Markievicz), a key participants in the Easter Rising, the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament (although she declined to take her seat there), and subsequently the first woman in the world to hold a cabinet position, an intimate of W.B. Yeats and many other notable figures in Ireland’s cultural revolution at the start of the last century. Understandably, therefore, news that both the building and its contents were to be sold met with widespread dismay, and hopes were expressed that the state might intervene to save this part of the national heritage. However, as so often before and since, no such intervention occurred and the sale took place. Thankfully, the new owners of the Lissadell estate succeeded in buying back at least some of the items offered at auction, and they remain in the house, but much was lost, unlikely ever to return. 

Lissadell is a large and somewhat austere building, designed by the architect Francis Goodwin in 1831 for Sir Robert Gore-Booth, whose family had lived in the area since the early 17th century. There had been an earlier residence closer to the Atlantic shoreline, but this was demolished when the new house was built. Lissadell’s pared-back Greek-Revival style reflects not just its owner’s taste, but also his budget: he may well have preferred something more opulent but lacked the necessary funds. When Goodwin published Domestic Architecture (1833-4) he featured Lissadell and noted that the house ‘has been erected for less than the estimate, by a considerable sum.’ In a footnote to the text, he observed how, ‘in altering the original designs, with a view of reducing the expense to a comparatively moderate sum, considering the extent and accommodation of the building, the author has been much indebted to the judicious hints of Sir R. G. Booth himself.’ In other words, the client told his architect to cut back on costs. Of two storeys over basement, Lissadell’s exterior is constructed in crisp Ballysadare limestone, with each side of the house different, although both those facing east and west have projecting bays at either end. What might be described as the garden front has a three-bay full-height bow, topped with a parapet that rises above those on either side, while the entrance front is notable for a towering three bay projection that serves as a porte-cochère. The interior of the building is decorated in what might be described as an early example of minimalism, beginning with the double-height entrance hall with Doric columns on the ground floor and Ionic columns above, accessed via an Imperial staircase in Kilkenny marble. A similarly substantial, apse-ended and top-lit gallery likewise exudes a sense of severe grandiosity,  with Doric pilasters on one side and Ionic columns on the other. Sir Robert’s desire to save money where possible led him to introduce what was then something of a technological innovation: gas lighting. A local report from the 1830s recorded that this saved the house’s owner £60 or £70 annually. Seven of these lacquered brass gasoliers made for Lissadell were almost lost when the 2003 sale took place, but thanks to legal action taken by An Taisce (which argued the items were furniture and fittings integral to the building) they remain in situ, together with the gallery’s George III chamber organ which was also originally due to be auctioned. 

One of the key losses from Lissadell at the time of the November 2003 sale was the collection of furniture specifically commissioned by Sir Robert for his new residence. Dating from the 1830s, these pieces were representative of taste in Ireland at the time and were believed to have been made by the successful Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton. Until the auction, Lissadell was the only house in Ireland to retain its original furniture by this company, so their dispersal was much to be regretted. Their importance can be gauged by the fact that most of the lots exceeded their estimates: a rosewood writing table, for example, which was expected to make €8,000-€10,000, fetched €19,000. In the dining room, a set of 17 mahogany chairs (€12,000-€18,000) fetched €22,000 and the dining table itself (€30,000-€50,000) went for €65,000. Bidding against other potential purchasers, Lissadell’s new owners managed to buy some pieces, such as a pair of handsome mahogany Grecian-style bookcases clearly inspired by the work of Thomas Hope and, again in the dining room, a sturdy mahogany sideboard. But many of the contents, first installed some 170 years earlier, now left for good and not just the Williams & Gibton furniture. There were, for example, a number of fine 17th century Italian baroque paintings, many in spectacular gilt frames, which had been acquired for the rooms by Sir Robert Gore-Booth. And then there were all the miscellaneous objects that build up in any house over generations, from sets of copper jelly moulds to discarded furnishings such as old curtains. These, as much as the more valuable pieces, are what tell the history of a building, and when they are gone, part of that history disappears forever. Thankfully, since acquiring Lissadell, the present owners have undertaken a huge amount of work, not only to restore the house but also to reinstate its distinctive character. They have done so using their own financial resources, and despite setbacks that might have deterred anyone else. In 2008, for example, Sligo County Council embarked on a court case over public rights of way across the estate, a case which the local authority ultimately lost but only after spending millions of euro from the public purse. There is, of course, more to be done but Lissadell today is a model of private enterprise in the field of Ireland’s cultural heritage, one that one must hope some of the country’s more wealthy citizens might care to emulate. 

9 comments on “Worth Emulating

  1. Patrick says:

    I have often commented here on the council planners being a huge impediment to the preservation of our heritage . They seem intent on making life difficult if not impossible for the owners or potential owners of our listed properties , all done under the cover of preserving our heritage.
    Venice would not fear the rising tide as it would most likely already long be in ruins had Irish planners been in charge .
    The Cassidy’s not only saved Lissadell but by their astonishing tenacity and courage they also saved countless other Irish houses and estates .
    Who else would have had the courage to take on the Sligo council planners who had endless financial resources and seemingly and endless hatred and begrudgery towards the Cassidy’s.
    Had the Cassidy’s lost this court case they could possibly have been financially ruined and quite possibly Lissadell would now be derelict .
    This legal action by Sligo Council Planners was a prime example of the inadequacy of out planning system .
    I really hope the Irish Aesthete writes more about this important matter for this illness / virus will continue until we get to the root cause .

  2. Bob F says:

    Apart from their work on preserving Lissadell, the Walsh/Cassidy family did all country property a huge service by taking on the county council. As a result, the legal position on rights of way is now very clear. The root cause of the lack of support for large homes is plain Irish begrudgery, a growing amount of self-entitlement and an absence of ordinary politeness and manners. The result is the ruination by default of large homes, disrespect for private property by littering, running dogs off leads, etc., Then, as now, politicians continue to ignore the ethics/morality of what is happening in favour of garnering populist votes. Sadly, the attitude of Sean Moylan TD, still exists, he who said in a Dáil debate “…. [They] have no artistic value and no historic interest. From my unregenerate point of view, I choose to regard them as tombstones of a departed ascendency and the sooner they go down the better – they are no use.” That is why nobody involved in promoting or supporting the Council’s position lost a seat or job, despite incurring a legal bill of almost €6 million.

  3. Emma Richey says:

    Shocking behaviour by the Council, they should all have been hauled before the courts for misappropriation of funds. As for the comments of the ignorant TD, I am speechless. A huge thank you to the Cassidys for their courage and tenacity in saving this historic house and estate.

    • Matthias Carolan says:

      I visited here many years ago had a chat with the last of the Gore-Booth family ladies this was a disgrace what went on here,those Councils should have been disbanded in Ireland years ago not very democratic ,the owners that purchased Lissadell were the victims in all of this i hope the government compensated them i am glad the folks can come and visit this beautiful old place its been one of the lucky ones.

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  6. Deborah T. Sena says:

    I have commented here about the lack of information on historic houses on their websites when they are accessible to the public (mostly commercially operated hotels, etc.). Not so here, as you can imagine. Clear love, pride and respect for all those that lived here before.

    But have to add that unless the new generations have some of the same respect, other than the ‘fantasy’ of Downtown Abbey or Bridgerton, it can only get worse- you are all shouting into the wind. I own a few 19th century antiques I acquired over the years and it is my decoration focus. I had a young service provider in my house not too long ago who, chattily, told me to ger rid of all the ‘old’ furniture! Be glad that, hopefully, what sold off at least did not end up in the garbage dump.

  7. Stephen Barker says:

    Some of the views of interior reminded me of Belsay Hall in Northumberland. I know nothing of the history of this house but I glad that the striking interiors have been saved from dereliction. Reading the previous comments I get the feeling that the official attitude to such buildings is even worse in Ireland than it is Britain and we have more than enough philistines in local and central government here.

  8. Kevin Sweeney says:

    I remember the state saying that it couldn’t afford to buy Lissadell when it was sold by the Gore-Booths for something like €3m. But then a couple of years later it was able to find €6-€7m to waste on the court case. A complete waste of state resources which would have been better spent on preserving our heritage. And of course no one was fired for that ridiculous waste.

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