When Lisa Ferguson fell in love with an old country pile, she had trouble persuading her pilot husband James that they should buy it. Now they’re both passionate about it and its potential as a business
In our teens and early 20s, many of us crave adventure and escape from the little part of the world we were born into. Yet, often those of us lucky enough to get the opportunity to spread our wings end up back in the very corner from which we started, and feeling happy to be there.
Mitchelstown native Lisa Ferguson, the youngest of three, travelled for many years after she left school. Now she’s back in the Cork/Limerick area in Kilbehenny, a few short miles from where she started.
This time though, as well as a lovely husband and three children, she’s armed with a richness of experience that has equipped her to start her own ambitious yet exciting business — the Galtee Escape — where clients can enjoy a weekend getaway in her gorgeous period home, complete with tree-lined avenue, rolling lawns and a swimming pool. Better yet, they can get married there.
Lisa and her husband have restored a cool barn next to the house and decorated it with mirrors, chandeliers and vintage tableware, and here she can cater for 150 guests.
“We’re an alternative venue so we have alternative couples and they all ask for different things,” Lisa explains. “I’m the wedding planner. I love organising it — the band, the flowers, the caterers, the suppliers. It’s hard work but worth it. I love the day of the wedding; I get dressed up, the staff get dressed up, there’s a lot of banter and craic, it’s wonderful.”
Organising events was Lisa’s first choice of career but she also wanted to travel. So after two years studying tourism and travel at Cork College of Commerce, she got a job as cabin crew with Aer Arann and, from there, ended up in other airlines.
“In my lifetime I worked for several companies — Alitalia, Air France, EUJet, Germanwings. I was cabin crew for about 15 years and, with the staff travel, I went everywhere: Thailand, Hawaii, Bali, Australia, New Zealand.”
Being cabin crew is not an easy job, but every day brings something different — it’s certainly not routine. “I’ve had women suffer miscarriages, people with heart attacks, a bomb threat, smoke in the cabin, drunks, violence on board. The first aid training is a higher level, children choking, burns, scalds, you learn for life.
Her last job was with flybe, with whom she was based in Belfast. That gave Lisa enough free time and the opportunity to get involved in event management, and she realised that somehow it would be her next career. She also met her husband James, a pilot, while based there.
“He was over on a trip. We had lots of mutual friends; we were set up and hit it off,” the vivacious blonde explains, adding, “he just happened to be a pilot. It was a very relaxed relationship in the beginning, he was doing things like ultra marathons in Mongolia.”
Lisa continued to travel whenever she could. They had met in 2014 and moved in together, making Belfast their base initially. Then, in 2016, she became pregnant with her eldest child Heidi, now six, and even after she was born, they continued to travel.
“At the time James was with Air Japan and based in Tokyo. I loved Japan, there’s so much to do there. But I didn’t have a resident’s visa and I had to leave regularly, so I’d come home to Ireland or go travelling. I wanted to show Heidi as much as I could. I started flying with her when she was nine days old. She’s better in a plane than a car.”
The couple got married in 2017 — unusually, it was James who organised the wedding. “He’s from England but he loves Scotland and wanted to get married there. I was relaxed about that. It was a small wedding — his parents, my parents, Heidi and his mum Tessa’s dog.”
Around this time, James’s mother got cancer and the couple began to consider basing themselves in Ireland to be near both sets of parents, so they started looking at houses near her family home.
“We were attracted to period properties. We had stayed in Airbnbs that were period houses, and we loved them. This house was for sale and I knew it from when I was growing up but we couldn’t afford it. We put a deposit on a different house but it fell through. Then this was reduced, but we still had no money to buy it. We came to view it and James was like, ‘Why are you looking at a house we can’t afford?’ There was something about it I loved, but James was like, ‘No, no, no’. It was cold and empty, yet I could see a home and an opportunity for me to work. I could see so much potential.”
By this time, Lisa had decided that, while every parent is different, flying as a career didn’t suit her any more as she had a child and was planning to have more.
They returned to Japan, but Lisa couldn’t get the house out of her mind. “I did a lot of manifesting and looked at the finances. When you’re expats, as we were, it’s hard to get banks on board but we found an amazing broker in Cork. I never thought it would go through, but we managed it. James’s mother was very supportive, she loved period properties too. Sadly she passed away before we moved in.”
They moved into the house in February 2019. Their second daughter, Fay, now three, was born five days before they got the keys; they now also have Lewis (17 months). They moved in with very little, just a few heaters and some beds. James had to go back to Japan and Lisa stayed in the house with the two girls and Tessa’s dog, who was grieving. They commuted back and forth, but then came the pandemic, and in the three years since they bought the house they haven’t stopped renovating and building — having been initially negative about the purchase, James then embraced the project.
Set at the foot of the glorious Galtee Mountains, a stone’s throw from Cahir, Cashel and the Mitchelstown Caves, the property — called Loughananna House — is on five acres. It comprises the house; the barn; the swimming pool, which is housed in the former coach house; and a gorgeous little gate lodge that’s now called Tessa’s Gate Lodge as its restoration was funded with money James’s mum left him.
The double-fronted house is over 200 years old and has a lot of history, having once formed part of the enormous Galtee Castle estate. It has a magnificent hall, three spacious reception rooms, a family kitchen and a family dining room.
A sweeping staircase from the hall leads to the upstairs, which has eight bedrooms and six bathrooms, while there are also stairs at the back of the house — presumably originally for servants to use. Also at the back of the house, there is a warren of little rooms — boot rooms, utility rooms.
Over the last three years, they’ve done a huge amount of work, changing the windows in the house, which were single-glazed, and stripping and sanding the floorboards. They painted the walls in period colours from Little Greene and ordered luxurious curtains from Gillian Lucey of Barn Interiors. They’ve also been picking pieces up at local auctions and antique shops.
There are many beloved pieces from James’s late mother. There are also mementoes of his father including a painting of two planes, one of which is being refuelled by the other. “James is the youngest of four boys and his father was also a pilot, Tim Ferguson.
He was considered a bit of a legend in aviation,” explains Lisa. “He was a test pilot with British Airways, He landed a [Jaguar fighter bomber] on the M55 in the UK [demonstrating the aircraft’s ability to take-off and land on unorthodox landing strips] and that plane being refuelled [in the painting] is his.”
They also completely restored the barn, which had been falling down. They added a new roof, which is barrel-shaped, and they had to add one of the walls which had been falling down. James did much of the work.
“James restored all the walls as they needed to be pointed. He did a lot of DIY to keep costs down. We were quoted 36 grand to get the concrete floor polished, but James hired a machine and polished it himself 12 hours a day over three or four days, then he put a resin over it. You wouldn’t normally see the stone in concrete but he managed it. He was brilliant,” Lisa says.
“We started the weddings in lockdown when people could only have small weddings. The first was booked and there was no roof on the barn, but we worked hard. We were hanging chandeliers the night before; I had forgotten to order napkins — there were so many obstacles, but it all worked.
“I said to James, ‘Did you think we wouldn’t pull it off?’ I had faith. It was a powerful day — I really felt we created something special.”
There are so many wonderful aspects to this lovely house, down to the giant Jenga, chess and croquet on the lawns. One thing no house of Lisa’s would be without is a large globe for planning future trips.
Lisa may never give up her love of travel but she will always have the Galtees to escape back to.