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.