IMPOSING Ballinafad House, outside the village of Belcarra. Only some scaffolding gives a clue to the huge restoration work underway. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
FROM the outside looking in, there doesn’t seem to be much taking place at Ballinafad House.
With the exception of some scaffolding erected roof high at the front, it has all the signs of a well weathered, historic building that has lain idle since its doors closed as an agricultural college in the summer of 1975.
But never judge a book by a cover, as we soon discovered on a recent trip out to the old, dilapidated-looking Georgian style house.
These days, Ballinafad House – or Ballinafad College, as it’s also known – is in its third year of a grand restoration.
All going to plan, by the middle of next year its doors will be open as a venue capable of catering for weddings and other similar events.
Next April, the restoration will feature in a six-part RTÉ documentary hosted by ‘Home of the Year’ presenter, Hugh Wallace.
But it’s only when you climb the stone steps, go through the large front door into what will be the reception area, brightened by the light shining through the large window overlooking the restored staircase onto the preserved picture of Jesus Christ hanging from the wall, that you get a real idea of the huge-scale operation that is currently being undertaken, masterminded by Australian, Bede Tannock.
Built in 1827 from the marriage of Anne Lynch and Maurice Blake of Ballinafad, it was once part of an estate of over 1,000 acres. The 70,000 square foot building is set on seven acres of land in beautiful countryside just outside the small village of Belcarra.
In 1908, it was donated to the Society of African Missions (SMA) by Maurice and Anne Blake’s son, Lieutenant Colonel Count Llewellyn Joseph Blake of Ballinafad and Cloghballymore (Kilcolgan, Galway).
In 1907 the SMA opened its doors as a secondary school and minor seminary to facilitate students preparing for the missionary priesthood, where up to 500 priests were ordained before its closure in 1957.
It was purchased by Balla Mart over a decade later and spent five years as a post primary agricultural college before a lack of funding lead to its ultimate demise in the mid 1970s, forcing 200 students (80 boarders and 120 day students) to continue their education elsewhere.
Between then and now, this newspaper reported plans of it becoming a possible ‘detention centre’ and a ‘multi-million euro sports complex’, but neither came to fruition.
Because of that, the building fell into a rapid state of decline, liberated through the years of anything of value, and leaving the surrounding community yearning for something to fulfill its potential.
The saving grace
When Bede (pronounced Beed) first became aware of the building in 2012, while on the search for a heritage project in Ireland or Scotland, he spotted the potential of the house instantly.
With a background in architecture and a career in property development, he was well placed to undertake such an ambitious plan. After the property dropped in price significantly, and after undertaking a four day structure inspection, he purchased the building for €80,000 and set about his plans. “We began work in March of 2014 and because it had been abandoned for virtually 20 years with no power or water, the first six months were just filling skips and clearing it out, documenting the building,” he told The Mayo News. “We are trying to restore the original building as faithfully as we can … There has been a few things to juggle … But everything has worked out.”
Walking through the building, you turn into the extended right wing of the house and enter into the main reception area. A glorious open room painted all white, with 13 large windows and 12 sparkly chandeliers hanging from the restored, concrete waffle slab ceiling.
It has the capacity to hold between 200 and 250 guests comfortably.
As you delve deeper into the building towards the theatre you walk across the original SMA badge still lining the floor. When Bede purchased the house, he revealed that the theatre roof was completely removed and grassland had protruded up through the parquet floor, resulting in them having to relay 15,000 pieces that took almost two months.
The chapel is up next, and it has been restored way beyond its original beauty. Very recently, Bede and his wife, Sandra, held a private function to celebrate the wedding of their friends, a gay couple called Thomas and John.
The church has been deconsecrated and there has already been huge interest from couples wanting to get married in a church setting, but not necessarily under church law.
Sixteen of their closest friends travelled from Australia to attend the function, staying on site in the old Priesthouse, which has been finished to a standard you wouldn’t find in most hotels.
The modern, bright and luxurious finish temporarily makes you forget that you are standing in a 19th century building.
Bede is not the only habitant currently living in the house either. A walk through the garden area, past the local plasterers, painters, construction workers and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) workers, introduces you to a family of the northern most colony of lesser horseshoe bat in Ireland, accommodated by Bede through work with a bat ecologist so they are left unharmed.
It was clear early on the potential that a building like this has with the right mind behind the steering wheel.
An estimated €500,000 is being spent on the initial phase of the restoration, which includes ten rooms. Phase two will include eight more.
“You don’t buy a building like this to make money, if you are going to do that you are mad,” Mr Tannock laughed. “But a building like this does need to generate some kind of sustainable income for its long term future and it lends itself very well to what we want to do.
“For me, this is a passion to save this building. Something like this has so much potential for a community, to see it abandoned is crazy to me.”
Paper really doesn’t do it justice.