The “Big House” features frequently in Irish literature. The Law Reports also reflect the prominent position of the Big House in the country’s social and historical landscape, recording many disputes, especially in the last two centuries, between the owners on the one hand, and trespassers, poachers and tenants on the other. From the Great Famine through the land wars of the late nineteenth century and more recently, during the rise of nationalism, the position of the Anglo-Irish families occupying these historic houses became more precarious. Local people began to speak of “good landlords” and “bad landlords” depending on their record during the Famine, and the economic viability of these estates in the twentieth century became increasingly precarious, burdened as they were by taxes and estate duties in very difficult economic circumstances. Many of the owners lived abroad, further alienating themselves from the local population. Even those landlords who were not disliked attracted the envy of small farmers who entertained ambitions of adding to their modest holdings when the big estates were taken over and divided up by the Land Commission.
2. Lissadell, the home of the Gore-Booth family since the Elizabethan settlement, was no different from other estates in that it too, for over a century, occupied an ambiguous position in the eyes of the people of Sligo. In 1839, to aggrandise the demesne when the new mansion was built, one hundred and twenty families were evicted from the eastern part of the demesne at Ballygilgan. Their passages were paid to Canada. In contrast, according to the notes of Gabrielle Gore-Booth, who continued to live in Lissadell with her sister Aideen and her shell-shocked brother, Angus, until her death in 1993, the local parish priest in Drumcliffe wrote to Sir Robert in or around 1900, thanking him for feeding his people through five famines. In another letter dated the 16th February, 1847, the parish priest of Carney wrote to Lady Gore-Booth, thanking her for “the most extensive, indiscriminate and unostentatious charities performed by her Ladyship, and trusting that she might be consoled by the fact that “the humble prayers of God's humble creatures are offered every night, and in every house, for the spiritual and temporal welfare of every member of her ladyship’s family." According to the London Times of March 7th, 1881 Sir Robert Gore-Booth was said to have spent £40,000 in feeding the starving populace at that time. By the late 1800s, however, some people coveted the 32,000 acres of Lissadell, and resented the privileged inheritance as the principles of democratic nationalism took hold. The progress of their designs was arrested, however, since at the same time Sir Robert was leading the co-operative movement in Sligo with Sir Horace Plunkett and George Russell.
3. In the history of these households, personal tragedies were common recurring themes, as the young men from these Houses enlisted for the various wars of the shrinking empire, as well as for the Great War and World War II. Lissadell was not immune to these tragedies; two nephews of Constance and Eva Gore-Booth were killed in World War II, their brother, Angus, returned in a shell-shocked condition and another brother, Michael, who succeeded to the estate in 1944, was incapable of administering the estate and remained a ward of court until his death in 1987. These facts modified the antipathy of the local people to the last of the Gore-Booths who stubbornly clung on in penury through the dying days of the millennium.
4. Lissadell was different from the typical Big House in two respects, however. First, the Gore-Booth family continued to live and occupy the estate (though diminished in size) up until its sale in 2003. Moreover, it was a vibrant commercial operation for much of the early half of the twentieth century, employing as many as two hundred people at its height in the early nineteen hundreds. A munitions factory was located there during the First World War, which further complicated local perceptions. Second, Constance Gore-Booth, was in the G.P.O. in 1916 and was condemned to death for her part in the 1916 Rising, avoiding such an end only because of her sex. Her sister, Eva, as well as being a poet, was also a social reformer in Manchester, where in the first decade of the twentieth century she was prominent in the trade union movement, campaigning tirelessly for women’s rights in the workplace and for womens’ suffrage.
5. The present dispute arises out of claims made by members of the public after the last of the Gore-Booths finally sold the Big House to the plaintiffs in 2003. The dispute obliges the Court to ask what the Gore-Booths did or did not or might have done, in the past two centuries at least, in respect of permitting the public in general or local people in particular, to pass and repass over specified ways on their property. For this reason, it should be clear that these general introductory remarks are not made just for the purpose of scene-setting. As will become clear later, the issues for determination require an appreciation of the history and the general mentality of the people who occupied the Big House over the more recent centuries.
6. The plaintiffs bought Lissadell House and 410 acres in December, 2003 and in April, 2004 they locked the gates on the Main Avenue. Some locals were upset; two public meetings were organised and a petition was signed. In June, 2004 these locals went to Sligo County Council, (hereafter “the defendant” or “the council”) and were told that, if they wished to make a case asserting public rights of way in Lissadell, they should gather evidence of historic use. This evidence was not presented to the council until September, 2005. The county manager assigned one of his staff to deal with the matter. The issue was raised by the elected members of the council from time to time over the next couple of years. No resolution was achieved, however, and the gate remained a matter of concern, especially for the local residents. Councillor Joe Leonard, one of the people who was directly effected by the closure, tabled various resolutions on the matter, but did not press the issue as he was informed by the relevant personnel in the council that they were hopeful of meeting with the plaintiffs with a view to reaching “an accommodation”. When this did not materialise, however, Cllr. Leonard, responding to pressure from his constituents, tabled a resolution on the 1st December, 2008, which was passed by the elected members. The plaintiffs took serious offence to this resolution and saw it as an attack on their property. Even though they were reassured by the county manager on the 19th December, 2008, and by the solicitor for the defendant on the 14th January, 2009, that the resolution had no legal effect, they commenced these proceedings by civil bill dated 14th January, 2009.
7. In its counterclaim the defendant asserts rights of way over specified and identified roads on an annexed map, which it claims were dedicated to the public by the plaintiffs’ predecessors in title, and it is further claimed that the public accepted that dedication. Further, or in the alternative, the defendant claims that by reason of long user and enjoyment as of right, the plaintiffs’ lands are subject to local customary rights to pass and repass over the said roads. Alternatively, the defendant claims that the parishioners and inhabitants of named parishes and townlands close to Lissadell have, by virtue of custom, rights to enter on the plaintiffs’ lands for the purpose of recreation at Lissadell beach. Again, these rights are, according to the defendant, to be inferred from “user as of right” throughout the period of living memory. As well as seeking declarations to the contrary, the plaintiffs claim that the defendant’s resolution of the 1st December, 2008, seeking to amend the Sligo county development plan, amounts to a slander on their title to Lissadell and an improper interference with their business interests, or alternatively amounts to an injurious falsehood. The issue of damages, if any, has been postponed until liability has been dealt with fully. These then are the principal issues for determination by the Court.