'A LOT DONE, more to do' could well be the borrowed catch phrase for Edward Walsh SC and Constance Cassidy SC, new owners of Lissadell House. Just five hectic months after moving into the 1833 mansion, the former ancestral home of the Gore Booths was opened to the public again on 2 June.
Signs of progress in a .5m restoration scheme are everywhere, from the ceilings in the Bow Room, evoked by WB Yeats in the lines: "The light of evening, Lissadell/ Great windows opening to the south", to the restored view from those windows over Sligo Bay.
The couple began as they meant to go on ? with an efficient flourish. The day after the closing of the .3.75m sale of Lissadell on 19 December, they left their Kildare home at 5am with their seven children, Elanor (11), Harry (10), Kate (9), Constance (7), Jane (6), John (5) and little Eddie (18 months).
By 7.30am, they were busy making their new home cosy for Christmas, lighting fires under some of the 48 chimneys. By 4.30pm, the furniture vans rolled up and they were arranging suites of William IV-style furniture sourced at auction and in Germany for the family's private quarters on the first floor of the 35,000sq ft mansion.
In the bustling family kitchen on the first floor ? where angelic little Eddie is napping, Elanor is making pasta with nanny Cindy Combrick and the painters are on their tea break ? Constance and Edward unfold plans and the story of progress to date.
"We made a hugely conscious effort to spend as much time and get as much done here as possible, " said Edward.
The run up to the opening involved 18-hour days and a 36-hour drama to re-hang magnificent Regency gasoliers weighing half a ton in the cathedral-like gallery (Lissadell was the first house in Ireland to be lit by gas, courtesy of its own gas supply).
The bedroom where Yeats stayed in 1894/'95 has been painted the original shade of china blue, furnished in period style and opened to the public.
The couple bought a 49ft scaffolding tower, engaged their own plasterers and painters and became familiar with the painstaking aspects of conservation. Every single detail of the house and estate has had to be photographed for the conservation plan, and over 150 paint samples have been taken, in some cases by drilling through walls to check the number of layers of lime plaster. Like an archaeological dig investigation, they peeled back the layers of history of the house, revealing for instance that the interiors had been painted three times in their 170-year history, most recently in 1907. The ceilings in the Bow Room, diningroom and anteroom alone took three and a half months to clean and conserve.
"The first months were spent cleaning, tidying and cataloguing, but the Section 57 Declaration stipulating what could be done did not come through until May. We wanted to do it right and restore the house to its original glory using original materials but we didn't anticipate such delays even in replicating internal colours, " said Edward.
One of the early visitors to Lissadell had been working on Michael Flatley's restoration of Castle Hyde, where work has been controversially stopped. His advice was to watch out for the local council.
But in fact, says Constance, the general reaction to their new ownership, "has been one of relief that Lissadell will be a family home, that we are Irish and that we are hands on." And the family literally are 'hands on'. Edward, used to doing work in the garden in Kildare and on a farm he owns in Laois said, "I don't believe in employing people for work I can do. I don't play golf; when you don't play golf you have a lot of time." Constance's sister Paula and Elanor have compiled the new brochure for the house and Harry will be giving a hand cutting the grass.
Ideas for the future include having rare-breed cattle grazing the meadows around the house and having some form of equestrian enterprise at Lissadell. In the longer term, there are plans to restore the remarkable alpine garden created by Josslyn Gore Booth.
The intention is not only to restore the house and grounds, but with an eye to the next generation, to evoke once more the centre of enterprise which once flourished under the Gore Booth family.
"With seven children, you never know what kind of careers they are going to choose. It's a wonderful fall back if they didn't go into law or teaching that here is a place that would create any number of employment opportunities, " said Edward.
In its heyday a century ago a whole variety of businesses operated at Lissadell ? from sawmills to furniture making and from linen making to a plant nursery, giving employment to 200 staff.
Set against Dublin property prices, 72-room Lissadell and its 408-acre estate represents the most extraordinary value.
In addition to the threestorey mansion in grey limestone designed by British architect Frances Goodwin for Robert Gore Booth, there is a handsome but dilapidated stable yard ? one of the largest in Ireland ? and nine estate cottages, any one of which might fetch half a million-plus in Dublin. "Most people would think it would be a lifetime project, but with Eddie it will be three to five years with some help from the rest of us, " said Constance.
Key players on the project, in addition to the family, are David Clarke of Maloney O'Beirne, who has drawn up a conservation plan with Paul Arnold, historical consultant, Laurence Minogue, consultant to Sligo County Council, expert David Skinner, who is restoring the wallpapers in the reception rooms by hand and Peter Nicholson, Lord Mountbatten's former butler, who latterly worked with the Gore Booth family. By the time the house opened to 200-plus visitors on 2 June, the 65-ft gallery had been repainted and paintings by Constance Gore Booth and other family members framed and hung.
In addition to the important pieces bought at the auction of contents by the Walsh Cassidys, memorabilia is beginning to flow back to the house, including cuttings saved by the late Charlie Browne of Argue and Phibbs, solicitors to the Gore Booths.
The .6 tour of the house was extended by 15 minutes to include the bedroom used by Yeats, a Yeats' library and parts of the basement.
Bar stabilising flaking walls and repainting and ageing, this downstairs world of servants will be left in its original state:
the kitchen ? still with its original stove ? the bake room, the butler's pantry, the game rooms, still rooms, servants hall, the panel of 27 servant bells, separate cellars for wine, sherry, port and spirits, and the underground passage leading to the service block. It stands as an eloquent testimony of a way of life supported by a score of servants. "As the work progresses in each of the rooms, they get to feel a little more friendly, " said Edward.
And welcoming ? like the sweet-smelling wood fires which are kept burning in the hall and gallery, the bouquets of wild flowers arranged by Constance in each room and the sense that the house has been blessed not only in the ecumenical ceremony for 180 of the local community, held in the gallery, but in its new owners.