Ballyfin House - a labour of love
THE CHANGES to Ballyfin are evident from the very entrance of the demesne, where an intercom sits beside the now electronically controlled wrought iron gates.
It is perhaps bittersweet for locals who have long enjoyed the ancient woods, parkland and lake of this 600 acre estate, that the careful renovation of the Georgian mansion has meant the closure of its gates to all but the very privileged.
It's a different world to recession hit Ireland, where guests really can be lord of the manor, with a price tag of E14,000 to take the whole house for a night. For this, groups of 30 will enjoy a 5 star service with breakfast, morning coffee, afternoon tea, drinks and dinner by a top French chef, while every need is attended to by the butler and a myriad of staff.
The privacy of the walled demesne will be an added attraction for stars hoping to escape paparazzi, while the faithful adherance to the original architectural design may prove an attraction for film locations. With the reservation book already filling up, the rebirth of Ballyfin house seems set for success.
The house was built almost two centuries ago, designed by leading architects for owner Sir Charles Coote. The site was previously the ancestral home to the O'Mores, Crosbys and Wellesley-Poles. For most of the 20th century it was been home to the Patrician Brothers' secondary school, with past pupils including politicians David Norris, John Moloney and Portlaoise actor Robert Sheehan.
In September 2001, the Patricians announced their intention to close Ballyfin College. With just four elderly brothers left in the building, it had fallen into severe disrepair, some ceilings had collapsed from water leaks and the conservatory was dangerously rusted among many other problems.
At the time a Chicago businessman and his Kerry-born wife were searching for a project - to turn a significant Irish country house with intact grounds into a luxury small hotel.
Fred Krehbiel spoke to the Leinster Express in the grand library about why they chose Ballyfin.
"My wife Kay and I were always intested in having a small hotel. We had bought a house on Lough Dergh, but it just wasn't right, we realised it wouldn't fulfil the vision we had. When we drove in (to Ballyfin), we looked at it and said, this is it. It's a great building, and it was a great school," he added.
Jim Reynolds, a landscape designer, and now Managing Director, of Ballyfin House, was the driving force behind the renovation, according to Fred. He too, praised the Patricians for the care they took of the house, explaining that when rainwater leaked through the roof despite their best efforts, causing the inlaid parquet flooring to lift, the brothers carefully collected each piece, and handed a boxful over to the bemused new owners, suggesting it might be of use.
"They treasured every little bit of the place," said Jim. He also spoke warmly of Mrs Barry the housekeeper who retired three years ago and who "minded the house like a child".
A team of expert restorers began work while the school was still open, reroofing the building and restoring the Clonaslee sandstone facade, discreetly installing modern services while repairing internal structures. Creating the luxurious en suite rooms was an easy transition, as each bedroom already had a dressing room.
The reception rooms have been carefully restored and furnished with antiques and many of the orginial paintings were traced and bought back to hang once again in the house, including the Coote family portraits.
Their descendants were so impressed with the restoration, they suggested the paintings would be happiest back in their original home.
Renowned furniture expert John Hart, an elderly gent who has worked on some of Europe's most important restorations, spent weeks on his knees painstakingly removing layers of dull varnish from the marquetry flooring, revealing its intricate beauty.
The result of all this toil is a truly grand country house that exudes warmth and comfort through the use of beautiful fabrics and furnishings.
The owners are to be lauded for their use of local workers, sourced by word of mouth. Much of the painting and wallpapering was carried out by Mountmellick's Con Farrell and his team, "the greatest painter in the country" according to Jim Reynolds.
Emerald Stained Glass from Tullamore spent six months in the meticulous reglazing of the beautiful conservatory, and also reproduced some of the stained glass panels in the rotunda dome.
Many staff members too are local, including the head housekeeper, the accountant and gardeners. Manager Aileesh Carew, who has years of international experience, lives in Ballyadams, and is married to former Laois GAA player PJ Dempsey. She relishes the challenge ahead.
"It's a privilege to manage this house, lead this team and develop the hospitality," she comments.
Portarlington's Douglas Benson who worked in the Heritage, Killenard, before taking on his new role as butler, is equally enthusiastic, "This is a labour of love. I can't wait to go live, we will have a really interesting set of guests visiting."
Jim Reynolds has devoted himself to this project, and is justifiably happy with the results.
"It is a huge privilege. I am more proud of this than anything I've ever been involved in, and everybody here will say the same."
Susanne Roe, sales and marketing manager, summed up the importance of the house, "It's such a gift for Ireland, it really is a national treasure."
A beautifully photographed book detailing the story of Ballyfin House will be on sale in Easons shortly for €40. Profits will go to the Georgian Preservation Society.
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