It is surely the quintessential Irish story of romance, divided family loyalties, declining wealth and fierce litigation. Over Lissadell it has extended through the painful transition from the Anglo-Irish to the meritocratic blow-ins of today who so often try to ape the style of the ould dacency. And still struggle continues, with the successors every bit as determined to hold on to what they have, as ever were the old gentry. The latest battle of the new era of Lissadell has resulted in expensive defeat for Sligo County Council and victory for the clever new lawyer owners. But If they are trying to capture the romance of the past through insistence on their full rights of ownership they are surely doomed to failure.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion,
Mix pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle
Two girls Constance and Eva Gore Booth, Constance later Markievicz being the black sheep of a family of colonial governors and officials, most recently as head of the British Foreign Office ( Constance’s nephew) and another as High Commissioner to India in the 1990s. Both were characters as well as diplomats. Nephew Paul for instance was a Sherlock Holmes freak who acted out Holmes’ great struggle with Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. WB Yeats whose grandfather was rector of the church up the road at Drumcliffe inflicted one of his crushes on Constance. In Easter 1916 he recorded her evolution to revolutionary in human terms which surely would be thought sexist today:
“That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will.
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful
She rode to harriers?”
However it was her gender that saved her from execution after she cried for her life at the court martial. Although elected as a Sinn Fein abstentionist to the new Dail in 1918, she couldn’t resist sneaking a visit to Westminster to inspect her coat peg as the first woman to be elected an MP.
After independence the struggle was endless between the state and the Gore-Booths over debts and land management, with the State taking over most of the land right up to Lissadell’s splendid porte cochere. Was it just about economics or was there a hint of persecution? Probably more the former but it didn’t look good.
In the early 1980s you could still call at the house as I did a couple of times . Miss Aideen made us tea in the crumbling kitchen and showed us round the dusty rooms. She remarked on a set of curtains in a reception room . “Dickie gave us those, “ she said sadly, “ Dickie” being Earl Mountbatten from down the Sligo road at Classiebawn castle Mullaghmore, assassinated in the harbour a couple of years before. Classiebawn was the Irish ancestral home of his wife, and the Irish seat of the most imperial of Victorian British prime ministers Lord Palmerston. Aideen’s sister Gabrielle had been Mountbatten’s land agent.
A terrible grandeur has vanished. I see the Gore Booth family papers are in PRONI, well worth a browse.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London