Wednesday 18 September 2019

A 110 room mansion that featured on RTE's 'Great House Revival' is up for €2m

Ballinafad House has its own chapel and 40 bedrooms
Ballinafad House has its own chapel and 40 bedrooms
The entrance hall
One of the reception rooms with its marble chimney piece
The restored period staircase
The main 3,225 sq ft hall/ballroom/theatre is restored with its original parquet floor
Bede Tannock with The Great House Revival presenter Hugh Wallace

Gabrielle Monaghan

The cliched midlife crisis of buying a sports car was not for Bede Tannock.

When he found himself staring down the barrel of 40, he wanted to "do something of consequence". So the Australian moved halfway across the world to rescue a decaying 110-room, 60,000 sq ft country estate in Mayo.

Thanks to RTÉ, we saw the dramatic rebirth as it happened on last year's The Great House Revival with Hugh Wallace.

Tannock, whose ancestors had left Tipperary in 1863 for Australia, dreamed of turning Ballinafad House into both a home he could share with his partner Sandra and a wedding and events venue.

The entrance hall
The entrance hall

But this was no meagre doer-upper: the former country seat and, latterly, a seminary and agricultural college outside Belcarra was not only derelict, but so vast it had its own chapel, a handball court, 40 bedrooms and even a chemistry classroom.

For Tannock, the challenge of moving from Perth and restoring Ballinafad House wreaked a heavy toll: his relationship with Sandra broke down during the restoration, which involved replacing 340 smashed windows and measures to accommodate a protected species of bat. Tannock overhauled more than half the property before finally bringing it market today with an asking price of €2m.

"Since 2014, I've been throwing myself at it daily," he says. "But I'm 47 this year and I'm getting tired and I'm having to push people all the time to get things done. And being in another country has taken its toll on my relationship."

The grand house that forms the centrepiece of Ballinafad was built in 1827 for newlyweds Maurice Blake and Ann Lynch, and once formed part of a 1,000-acre estate. In the early 1900s, their last surviving son, Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Blake, donated Ballinafad House to the Society of African Missions to prepare student priests for the missions, and Blake was made a papal count for his trouble.

Ballinafad College went on to become both a junior seminary and a boarding school. As a result, the original Georgian manor house - a five-bay two-storey-over-raised-basement house - became enveloped by ancillary buildings. A new wing was added in 1931, a staff residence, a dormitory and dining facilities were built in 1948, and a classroom block was constructed in 1955, with another addition in 1964.

The introduction of free second-level education in the 1960s and changes to the way priests were trained slashed the need for the boarding school and seminary, and its closure was announced in 1975. Balla Mart bought the building and 470 acres in 1977 and ran it as an agricultural college until a dearth of funding forced it to close in 1989. By 2002, it was reported that a developer planned to buy Ballinafad and turn it into a five-star hotel. But neither the hotel, nor a plan reported by The Mayo News to transform the property into a detention centre, ever materialised.

The restored period staircase
The restored period staircase

Ballinafad lingered on the market throughout the recession and, by 2013, was offered for just €80,000 at auction. Tannock, a qualified architect who had worked on property restorations in Australia, had been hunting for a heritage project in Ireland or Scotland.

"They had been trying to sell it for several years and Ireland's property prices had been taking a hammering," he says. "No one would touch this place because it was a protected structure."

Tannock began work in 2014, spending the first six months doing little else but throwing debris into skips, all the time living in a rented house in Belcarra. He spent €540,000 on the first phase of the restoration, which was completed a year ago. Work on the house, which involved restoring fireplaces, decorative coving, centre roses, and original floors, stalled for 18 months when Tannock's mother became ill.

Many would ask why, on top of all this, would he invite the additional pressure of tv cameras? But the Australian asserts that being part of the Animo TV production eventually proved a good distraction and a "great catalyst" to press on with the revamp.

It has Ireland's widest domestic chimney, serving 26 fireplaces. The main entrance has a pair of curved stone steps leading to a portico supported by an arch. The portico opens on to the first floor, where the reception area features a sweeping restored staircase and leads to four drawing rooms.

Tannock initially concentrated on sections of the house that could generate an income to fund future restoration; on the first floor, he turned a 3,000 sq ft banquet hall overlooking Lough Mask into a function room that could seat 230 wedding guests. The Australian also re-instated the original parquet floor of the 3,225 sq ft theatre.

Bede Tannock with The Great House Revival presenter Hugh Wallace
Bede Tannock with The Great House Revival presenter Hugh Wallace

Over the main stairs, half of the roof had collapsed and had to be repaired. In one of the drawing rooms, moulds were made of the missing elements which had been destroyed by water ingress. The second floor has another 3,000 sq ft function room that hasn't yet been restored, seven bedrooms, and bathrooms, while the third floor of the original house was once home to the servants' quarters.

In the raised basement, there are five meeting rooms, the chemistry room, nine rooms that could be transformed into bedrooms, access to the re-landscaped central courtyard, a preparation kitchen, and a hallway to the 1931 wing (which has yet to be completed).

Tannock renovated the 5,900 sq ft, 12-room east wing that was once the living quarters for resident priests. After discovering the house was home to the world's northernmost colony of lesser horseshoe bats, Tannock worked with a bat ecology expert to design an airlock system that would allow the bats to travel between the priests' house and the manor house. And when he had finished the deconsecrated 1960s-built chapel, he watched friends get married there.

Given the impact the work on Ballinafad House has had on its saviour, Tannock hopes the next chapter of the 19th-century house will see it continue on as a wedding venue.

"My relationship is the reason for selling, but it has become a very successful venue and today, there are wedding planners fighting to get in there," he says.

So for love, he's selling up. Ballinafad House is on the market for €2m. Viewings are by appointment.

Ballinafad House Belcarra, Co Mayo

Asking price: €2 million

Agent: Connaughton (090) 666 3700

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