Twenty years ago this week, the contents of Lissadell, County Sligo were offered for sale at auction. The importance of accumulated house contents is insufficiently appreciated in this country. Often spanning hundreds of years of occupation by the same family, they represent changes in taste, and in affluence, not just of a particular property’s owners, but of the entire country. They inform our knowledge of Ireland’s history through both good times and bad, and provide enlightenment about how our forebears, of whatever status, lived. Accordingly, their dispersal represents the dissipation of knowledge, leaving us all less well-informed and thereby poorer. In the case of Lissadell, the house, and its predecessor, had been home to generations of the same family, among whom was the revolutionary politician Constance Markievicz. Her association with the building, along with that of many other distinguished figures in Irish history, led to a widespread public campaign for the property and surrounding estate to be bought by the state. As has been so often the case, before and since, this did not happen, and accordingly Lissadell’s contents were auctioned. One of the key losses from this event was a collection of furniture specifically commissioned by an earlier owner, Sir Robert Gore-Booth, for the house. Dating from the 1830s, these pieces were representative of taste in Ireland at the time and were believed to have been made by the Dublin firm of Williams & Gibton. Until the auction, Lissadell was the only house in Ireland to retain its original furniture by this company, so the dispersal was much to be regretted. The items’ 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. Forced to bid against other potential purchasers, Lissadell’s new private owners managed to acquire 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 inform the history of a building, and when they are gone, part of that history disappears forever.
In Ireland, it has long been apparent that if the remaining number of historic houses and contents are to survive, then a coherent strategy to secure their future needs to be considered. The first attempt to devise such a strategy occurred back in 1985 when a body called the Irish Historic Properties Commission, established three years earlier, produced a report written by the late Kevin B Nolan and Lewis Clohessy and called Safeguarding Historic Houses. This clearly stated that ‘our heritage historic properties cannot be preserved without the active and consistent support of the Irish Government.’ Eight years later, in 1993 the Irish Georgian Society and another body since gone, Irish Heritage Properties, held a conference on the future of the Irish country house, subsequently publishing a report on its proceedings. This makes for melancholy reading, since so many of the problems then highlighted remain to the present day, not least the want of sufficient support from central and local government. Ten years later again, Professor Terence Dooley of Maynooth University, at the request of the Irish Georgian Society and the Dept of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, produced a report, A Future for Irish Historic Houses? A Study of Fifty Houses. A year later, the same government department invited Indecon International Consultants to produce an Examination of the Issue of Trust-type Organisations to Manage Heritage Properties in Ireland. Most recently, in 2015 the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in collaboration with Irish Historic Houses Association after extensive consultation with a wide variety of interested parties and stakeholders, issued an Action Plan for the Sustainable Future of the Irish Historic House in Private Ownership, a document which was duly approved by the Irish cabinet and appeared in 2016. In other words, no one can complain that the challenges facing the Irish country house and the retention of its contents have been insufficiently examined and analysed. Produced over a period of almost 40 years, these and other documents have constantly made the same point: that houses in private ownership, if they are to have a viable future and hold onto their original furnishings, need assistance from central and local government, the kind of assistance that is available in other European countries but has consistently failed to materialise to any adequate extent in Ireland.
Outside observers often note with surprise that in Ireland there is no equivalent of the National Trust which operates on the other side of the Irish Sea and in Northern Ireland. An attempt was made to create such an equivalent with the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust in 2006. The IHT was largely the brainchild of the Irish Georgian Society’s current president Sir David Davies. The original purpose of this organisation was that it would, like the National Trust, acquire for public access significant heritage properties deemed to be at risk and for which the State did not want to assume direct responsibility. This would ensure that the houses and their contents would remain intact and preserved for future generations. At the time of its establishment and in recognition of the potential significance of IHT’s work, the government of the time earmarked €35 million for the organisation over the duration of the National Development Plan 2007-2013. Accordingly the IHT entered into discussions with the owners of a number of properties judged to be most suitable for such an arrangement. At all times the relevant government department – for Environment, Heritage and Local Government as well as the Department of Finance – was briefed on developments at Anne’s Grove and in 2008 all relevant parties agreed the IHT would assume responsibility for its first estate thanks to an endowment fund of €5 million (drawn from its National Development Plan funding) and associated tax credits. Then in December 2008, the department’s minister wrote to the IHT advising that due to changing circumstances it would not be possible to provide the necessary support. The IHT has since successfully reinvented itself, but the fact remains that there is still no equivalent of the National Trust in Ireland, and historic properties, along with their contents, continue to be lost because of want of state support for their survival. Today’s photographs show the empty interiors of Howth Castle, sold in 2019 after being occupied for more than 800 years by the same family. The house’s remaining contents were dispersed at public auction two years ago in September 2021. Unless there is a change in state policy towards these properties, and towards the histories they contain, more such sales will occur in the years ahead. And we will continue to be the poorer.