Lissadell, a stately Anglo-Irish pile on the west coast of Ireland, was built in the 1830s by Robert Gore-Booth, who is still reviled locally for the ruthlessness with which he cleared the estate of his tenants. His great-great-grandson Sir Josslyn is now trying to breathe new life into the house
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Death is confounded in County Sligo on the summit of Knocknarea. The passage-tomb of Maeve, the great warrior queen of Connacht, oversees a sprawling panorama of ocean, mountains, lowlands, forests and lakes in a statement of unconquerable majesty. At closer quarters from Knocknarea - out beyond misty Sligo and west of Drumcliff - the uninterrupted line of a great landed estate can be seen. It sweeps down to, and along, the foreshore. Two hundred years ago this was the cockpit of a private kingdom of 32,000 acres. Today only 400 remain of what is known as Lissadell.

The blood-red cloud of a midwinter dawn hangs over black Ben Bulben in livid corrugations. We crunch along the frost-bound one-mile plus-avenue with a gathering sense of entering another world. At first sight of the massive house we halt the car and get out. The stillness strikes us, the utter stillness framed in a setting of timeless beauty. Lissadell House is the seat of the Gore-Booths, an Anglo-Irish family which descended from an Elizabethan soldier of fortune, Sir Paul Gore. Within these islands, families that stem from this adventurer include the Earls of Arran and the Lords Harlech. Gore Vidal claims relation as well, and if he is, then so too is Al Gore, Vice President of the United States.

When we visit, Lissadell lies empty and silent: the Gore-Booths spend much time in England and nowadays only their land agent lives here permanently. The austerity of the limestone building and the drama of its setting make a masterful contrast: the severe house facing, to the south, Sligo Bay and behind it Knocknarea; to the east, Ben Bulben. You walk around Lissadell and Ben Bulben's bare, friendly head is always peeping at you over the Greek-revival parapets like a pet dinosaur.

Lissadell is renowned for two principle reasons. First, it is inextricably linked with W B Yeats. The poet, who lies buried in nearby Drumcliff, identified more strongly with this part of Ireland - "Yeats Country" - than with any other place. In his lofty lament for the passing of youth and innocence he wrote:

"The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

"Beautiful, one a gazelle."

Yet Yeats only came here twice. He stayed in Lissadell on both occasions during the winter of 1894, but did not write these lines until 1927 following the death of the beautiful gazelle he tenderly remembered from more than 30 years before. Her name was Constance Gore-Booth, later to become Countess Markievicz, and she is the second reason why Lissadell is so celebrated. Constance joined the Easter Rising of 1916 and occupied St Stephen's Green in Dublin, an action for which she was sentenced to the firing squad. Reprieved, she later became the first woman MP (for Sinn Fein) elected to Westminster. Lissadell now markets itself as "The Childhood Home of Countess Markievicz". Yet, at the time, the countess was anything but welcome in Lissadell following her republican activities in Dublin, where she died a pauper in 1927.

Immediately full of such contradictions, Lissadell forces you to focus clearly. On the term "Anglo-Irish", for example. A distinct breed, they are remembered for having "Obsolete bravado, insidious bonhomie, and a way with horses" in a phrase attributed to the Irish poet, Louis MacNeice.

Unlike the merely Protestant Irish - to whom one would never dream of applying the description "Anglo" - the Anglo-Irish represent a rapidly shrinking colonial ascendancy whose singularity has been maintained because of their refusal to integrate. Thus whilst the Irish Protestant middle class has adapted, integrated politically and lost the tag "Anglo", ascendancy families such as the Gore-Booths have remained immutable in both their allegiances and their way of life.

We don't quite know what to expect as we climb a set of moveable iron steps and enter the house by the first floor window of what now serves as the kitchen. Sligo Bay is changing light with every heartbeat. It's impossible not to think of the past generations who woke here every morning and saw what we are seeing - for whom Ben Bulben, the most personal of mountains, was an old friend.

In the first years of the 17th century, Sir Paul Gore began poorly in so far as bonhomie with the natives was concerned. He is primarily remembered for two events: he delivered the last great Irish chieftains, Rory O'Donnell and Donough O'Connor into the fatal custody of Elizabeth I and he massacred the surviving Irish population on Tory Island, off Donegal.

We tiptoe down a corridor and enter the bow-fronted south-facing library windows made famous by Yeats. It's a warm room in this morning's sun. But there's no one here. The wallpaper's peeling and the pelmets of the curtains look as if they will almost certainly disintegrate if they are touched. Turning from the famous windows our breaths catch in our throats. The facing doors are open and the central gallery of Lissadell House is revealed.

This house was built between 1831 and 1833 by Sir Robert Gore-Booth, great-great-grandfather to Sir Josslyn, the present incumbent. Although a century and a half has passed since Sir Robert's heyday, his name is still reviled locally for the ruthlessness with which he cleared his estates of its tenants. Sir Robert's notoriety is said to have been the main force in the lifelong rebellion by his granddaughter Constance, who was against everything that he stood for.

The gallery of Lissadell is like nothing less than the great stateroom of a long sunken ocean liner. Vaulted to nearly 35ft and narrow, it runs two-thirds of the length of the entire house. Faint light is admitted through distant portholes in the roof. Today it is cold beyond exaggeration. Plaster peels in abundance from high walls and remote cornices. The sense of being landed into Hades is compounded by the facing lines of Ionic columns, the thoroughly subterranean dankness and the presence of a churchly organ incorporated into one wall.

The traditional wealth of the ascendancy in Europe depended on rents from the land. Circumstances changed utterly for the Anglo Irish with Gladstone's Land Act of 1882. The reputation of the Anglo-Irish as landlords needing legislation contributed to Gladstone's resolve and is supported by new research which shows that Irish landlords between 1850 and 1900 reinvested only 6 per cent of their rents back into their estates compared with 25 per cent for their counterparts in Britain.

The daunting gallery leads on to the hall, a place of limestone piers, stairs made of Kilkenny marble and cast-iron balustrades decorated with gilded eagles. In the grudging light of a midwinter morning, the atmosphere is sombre and we allow ourselves a moment of self-congratulation for having come in ski-gear. Right of the hall is the billiard room, essentially a museum to the peripatetic Sir Henry, the present baronet's great-grandfather, who was to be found in the Arctic as often as in Lissadell. Harpoons festoon the chimney breast. We browse over the boot of a friend rescued by Sir Henry from Franz Josef Land, a disintegrating bear, cases of mounted gulls, shelves of fossils, a fish.

It's so hard to make any meaning of this place. There's a state of decay and disrepair that is immediately precedent to dissolution. Yet, here is also deep loss. On a pane of window glass in the anteroom, Constance scratched her name with a diamond more than 100 years ago but it's still as clear and fresh as if it had been done yesterday. Young men in military uniforms are framed on side-tables. The dining room is adorned with life- sized murals by Casimir Markievicz, the most famous of which is of Kilgallon, Sir Henry Gore-Booth's legendary butler whose service to his master included accompanying him on Arctic expeditions and once saving Sir Henry's life by shooting a polar bear.

Services in Lissadell House came from the basement into which servants entered and left and food and fuel were brought by means of a long tunnel beginning more than 160 yards away from the house. A sheep was once killed daily to feed Lissadell and a bullock every two weeks. Down here worked a French chef, a pastry cook, kitchen and scullery maids, stillroom maids, bakers, housekeepers, housemaids and kitchen boys. There was a house steward, a groom of chambers, an under-butler and footmen, all of whom wore livery. Extra help was hired in as and when needed.

The kitchen with its deep black stoves and central wooden table stands as if awaiting the return from Sligo of Friburg, the tippling French chef who once presided. This dungeon was rat-infested in the good old days, and to while away the wee hours when the staff had retired, the young bloods of the house used to gather here and bet gold sovereigns on who could decapitate the greatest number of rodents. The cold-room ceiling still retains its hooks where meat carcasses were hung; on trestle-tables along one wall of a clammy cavern stand the thick cold slates on which the fresh butter used to be put out. Off the kitchen is an area stacked with the household props of another era: wicker prams, saddles, harnesses and infant-sized tin baths. The bakery houses a deep, brick-made, eye-level oven. How many years since these bricks retained enough heat to brown dough? Behind the bakery, to capture its warmth lies the linen room. No more poignant symbol of loss exists in Lissadell than here: here, awaiting the careful hands of a housekeeper, lie the now damp linen pillow cases that knew many a fond head. Carefully ironed and folded, their eyelets are painstakingly embroidered and their buttons are sewn over in cloth.

Today the basement has all but been abandoned. In keeping with the rest of the house the cold is of the Franz Josef Land variety; but in Kilgallon's bedroom, currently in use as the workroom for a craftsman repairing Lissa- dell's windows, a peat fire burns which, with dust motes twirling in the shafts of sunlight, conjures up something on the outskirts of cosiness.

Abandoned but intact. This makes Lissadell unique. It's as if 50 years ago they walked out, locked the front door and have never come back since. And although this is not literally true, it is almost true, for with the death in 1944 of the 6th baronet, also Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth, the estate passed, by virtue of the incapacity of Sir Josslyn's heir Sir Michael, into the control of the Irish courts. Sir Michael lived until 1987. During its 40-year management of the estate for the family, the Irish government attracted widespread criticism for its handling and disposal of the woodlands on Lissadell. It also sold 2,600 out of the 3,000 acres for pounds 77,000 (or less than pounds 30 an acre) to the Irish Land Commission - a body then charged with redistributing land.

There's a photograph of Sir Angus Gore-Booth, father to the present baronet, as a boy in knee-socks smiling shyly at the camera. Beside him the indispensable Kilgallon - who was then in old age - stands to attention. Angus lived through the Irish court stewardship of Lissadell with his older sisters, Gabrielle and Aideen, in a tiny corner of the house. He died here, alone, aged 75, in January 1996.

We walk quietly out along the back avenue. It's impossible not to see this place as a metaphor for a breed on the lip of extinction. But how futile to condemn past generations. If you must, you can wander through the basement of Lissadell and rankle on behalf of the poor girls who raked ashes here. But is it not better to remember them in a quiet prayer? As it is to remember in this way too Sir Angus, whose only fault was to be a youngest son and so to endure with, to the end, nothing but bewildering memories?

Midwinter evening light lacquers Ben Bulben. There's a Christmas frosting along the foreshore. And here, perhaps, in this setting of almost too much history, in this place of many symbols, lies yet another symbol to grasp and with which to try and make sense of what we have seen. Sir Josslyn, the 9th baronet, has lived his life in England but he spends as much time as he can at Lissadell. He loves his Irish inheritance. Faced with the Herculean task of pulling Lissadell back from the brink he has, among other projects, rented his rights to the foreshore and to an old farmyard near it to a go-ahead bunch of Irish marine biologists. If they prosper - and last year their turnover was just short of pounds 1 million - then all the better for Lissadell. Their business? Clams. But to hatch them in Lissadell these entrepreneurs first need to make algae. Plankton. The most primal form of existence. Pre-everything. The condition from which mankind itself evolved. The seemingly inevitable may also be confounded down here in Lissadell by regeneration from the most primitive of all forms of life.

Lissadell House, Drumcliff, County Sligo is open to the public from 1 June to mid-September. Monday to Saturday 10.30am to 4.15pm closed on Sundays. Admission: adults pounds 2; children 50p.