Thursday 21 September 2017

Ballinafad House
Belcarra, Co. Mayo

Ballinafad House, found near Belcara outside Castlebar in Co Mayo, may look to the causal observer like a country house that has seen better days however be advised that in this instance to never judge a book by its cover. The interior is a hive of activity since the arrival of Bede Tannock from Australia who is tackling this challenging restoration. The list of work is awe inspiring while the quantities involved are staggering, 70,000 square feet of floor space, 340 sash windows, 110 rooms and surely a couple of acres of roof. Some people may think that the purchase price of €80,000 is a bargain, for this large house that sits on 8 acres, however it will take many multiples of the purchase price to restore this building and make it pay its way. Ballinafad House was once home to the Blake family but was donated by Llewellyn Blake, to the Society of African Missions in the early 1900's. This generous gift was given in the belief that it would atone for the sins of Blake's ancestors. Llewellyn believed that religious ceremonies conducted in memory of his dead relatives would rescue them from purgatory and admonish them of their past sins. However as you will see from reading the following paragraphs, Llewellyn did not seem to notice the living purgatory that his own tenants endured on his Mayo estate. Llewellyn's endowment of the Society of African Missions in 1916 was the equivalent of a donation in today's terms of nearly €6.5 million. Also the establishment of the Society of African Missions at Ballianfad was not met with universal welcome,  both the tenants of the estate and Llewellyn's relatives were actively hostile to the very idea.

The original Ballinafad House sits between two wings that were added
 to the house in the 1940's & 1950's. From this viewpoint  the claim that
 the house possesses the widest chimney in Ireland appear to be well founded.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Ballinafad House was built in 1827 by Maurice Blake but over the years has been enveloped by the ancillary buildings of the seminary and college it became after being donated in 1908. Ballinafad was the home of the Blakes, who were also connected with the Blakes of nearby Towerhill House but also connected by marriage to the Moores of Moore Hall. The interior of the original section of Ballinafad is important as many surrounding country houses are lying in ruins or no longer exist. When in the drawing room of Ballinafad, one can imagine that possibly it bore some resemblance to the nearby, but lost, interiors of Moore Hall, Towerhill or Clogher House. Prior to it being extended in the 1940's, Ballinafad House was a two storey over part raised basement house with 28 rooms. Sitting atop the roof is an impressive chimney that serves 26 fireplaces and possibly lays claim to being the widest domestic chimney in the country. The structural supports for the chimney dominate the layout of the house, beginning with a series of vaulted ceilings in the basement which support arches on the ground and first floor that in turn support the large chimney above. The support structure for this mammoth chimney essentially divides the house in two halves. The series of rooms to the rear of the house are separated from the main reception rooms at the front of the house by an elongated spine corridor that traverses the centre of the building. The entrance to the house is via a pair of sweeping curved stone steps that lead to an entrance porch, supported on an arch. A decedent of the Blake’s, Maurice Moore,  whose mother was born and raised at Ballinafad, was of the belief that his grandfather, who had added the porch to the house, was inspired by ‘an imperfect memory of one he had seen in Italy.

The entrance porch to Ballinafad with its curved 
sweeping steps was said to have been inspired
by an Italian counterpart 
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
The Moore's of Moore Hall, as I have previously mentioned, were connected with the Blake Family of Ballinafad through marriage. In 1851, George Henry Moore, of nearby Moore Hall married Mary Blake, the 23 year old daughter of Maurice Blake of Ballinafad House. Mary was one of ten children of Maurice and Anne Blake and upon her marriage to Moore was bestowed with a dowry of £4,000 which enriched the Moore Estate (This would be the equivalent of over €5 million in today's terms). Mary would name her second son Maurice after her father with the first born son, and heir of Moore Hall Estate, was given the name George. George Moore, who became a famous literary figure, would later write about Ballinafad describing it as ‘a county house, surrounded by a large park with a little quick running river close by’ and that 'ancestors had lived in Ballinafad for many generations; the obstinate Blakes they were called…’ Based on this statement, it would appear that there was possibly an earlier house on the site, when George Moore speaks of the family living there for generations. In December of 1851, Maurice Blake of Ballinafad died after a long illness and his remains lay in Ballinafad until removed for burial to Cloughballymore in Galway. The reason for Maurice's burial in Galway is that he had married the daughter and heiress of Marcus Lynch. Therefore the large Lynch Estate at Cloughballymore, Co. Galway eventually passed in to the Blake family. As Maurice had made a wise dynastic match with the Lynch family, his daughters would also marry in to other landed families. In 1854, Catherine married into the O'Connors of Elphin, Rosscommon , followed in 1858 when Julia married in to the Browne family and in 1859, when Victoria married in to the ffrench family.

LLewllyn Blake, son of Maurice Blake
who built Ballinafad in 1827

Initially it did not look as if Maurice's youngest son, Llewellyn Blake, would inherit his fathers estates as he had older brothers who would inherit before him. Llewellyn Blake was born in 1842 and in his lifetime gained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the 6th Battalion of the Connaught Rangers and held the office of High Sheriff of Galway in 1886. He also held the Office of Deputy Lieutenant for Country Mayo together with the Office of the Justice of the Peace for Counties Mayo and Galway. In 1869, Llewellyn was appointed to the Commission for Peace and was recommenced to the Lord Chancellor by the Marquis of Clanricarde. In August 1877 at St. Michael’s Church, Kingstown ( now Dun Laoghaire),  Dublin, Llewellyn Blake married Honoria Mary, the widow of William Murray (who died in 1874) of Northampton House in Country Galway. William Murray was a successful pawnbroker in Galway who moved to Kinvara and built Northampton House. In December 1877, Llewellyn Blake was living at 2 Willow Terrace, Blackrock, Dublin, we know this as he was advertising land for lease in Offaly and Kildare and mentions this as his address.

Further additions were added to the house over the 
years including the 'Priest's House' seen to the right
of the picture. 
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
In November 1891, Llewelyn’s wife, Honoria Mary Blake died aged only 41, strangely her death notice reports in great detail that she died from ‘congestion of the lungs’. She left an estate valued at £15,105 and she died at her home Northampton House, Kinvara, Co. Galway. Northampton House no longer exists, albeit for one wall, as the house was demolished in the 1930’s. Llewellyn and Honoria's marriage produced no children and as result this branch of the Blake family would die out with Llewellyn's death Llewellyn's brother, Mark Blake of Ballinafad died in June 1886 and his estates passed to his brother Joseph Blake. Joseph managed the Moore Hall estate  for his nephew George Moore after the death of his father, George Henry Moore. It was after the death of Joseph ( Gontran) Blake who died at Ballinafad in January 1893 that his estate valued at £12,581 passed to Llewellyn. As a result of these deaths in close succession, Llewellyn had inherited the estates and homes of his wife and brother so he was now a very wealthy man. At the time of the 1901 census, Llewellyn Blake aged 61 is living in Ballinafad House, it is noted that he was born in England and is a widower. Also present in the house is his 64 year old Land Stewart, Michael Cloran, together with two female servants Honoria Glynn aged 50 and Mary Mc Gurrin aged 40. 

The beautiful ceiling rose in the Entrance Hall
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
In January 1906, it was announced that the title of Count was conferred by the Pope on Llewellyn Blake of Cloughballymore, Galway and Ballinafad House, Mayo. This honour was conferred in recognition of Llewellyn's generosity towards the Society of African Missions based in Cork also known as the SMA. Llewellyn had also founded a scholarship at St. Jarlaith’s College in Tuam for the education of priests for the foreign missions. In 1906, it is recorded that Llewellyn held over 1,000 acres of untenanted land in Mayo and it appears that not everyone was happy about Llewelyn Blake’s donation to the African Missionary Society.  A letter to ‘The Western People’ in January 1906,  a tenant of the Blake estate wrote the following ‘ A couple of weeks ago reading on your paper that Colonel L. Blake of Ballinafad got a very high title from the Pope, we, his poor unfortunate tenants in the bogs of Ballinafad were in hopes that something would follow, and that as ‘Charity begins at home’ the gallant Colonel would think of his poor tenants and how to improve their lot. He has about fifty families living on 150 acres of bog.’ The author of the letter points out that he lives on three acres of bog while Llewellyn farms 950 acres of fine farmland. The tenant ends his letter saying that ‘ Many a fine good Irish boy and girl who left Ballinafad for the past twenty years would be glad to return if Shanroy, Lakemount, Cloonflyn, Castlelucan or Ballinafad grazing ranches were only divided up amongst the people at reasonable rents'.

One of the restored stained glass windows
in the chapel of Ballinafad, that commemorates
the work of the Society of African Missons.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
In January 1908, the Pope approved the establishment of a college for the education of priests for the African Mission at Ballinafad. The announcement indicated that the African Missionary Society, who had a college in Cork were about to take over Ballinafad House and demesne. Rev. Zimmerman from the Cork College had visited Ballinafad in early 1908 and was shown over the estate by Count Blake.  The dining room of Ballinafad was readied for Mass to celebrate a new beginning for the house.  The tenants on the estate reacted angrily to this news and they believed the donation to be part of a ploy to cheat them out the opportunity to buy their own land. While the tenants had no objection to the college being established, it was their belief that they were entitled to first consideration if any land of the estate was being disposed of.  When Father Zimmerman from the SMA, Count Blake and a land surveyor visited a nearby land holding, they were met by tenants who ‘booted them off the farm’.  It was the tenants hope that legislation would be introduced to ‘come to their aid in their struggle with the Count, who, in his zeal for the Africans sees fit to ignore the claims to simple justice which cry at his very door;’ The tenants protestations had the desired effect as it was announced in May of 1908 that all the tenanted land of the demesne had been offered for sale to the Estates Commission.

 The restored plaster work in one of the vaulted areas

found on either side of the main staircase.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

While his tenants were not impressed with the actions of the Count, his relatives were even less enamored. George Moore of nearby Moore Hall who was a nephew of Llewellyn made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the arrangements made for his mother’s former home. In fact George Moore could always be relied upon to present a less saintly representation of the Blake family. When describing his illustrious uncle, he said the following ‘ Llewelyn is a tall as his brother Mark, two or three inches over six feet, large in proportion, with sloping shoulders, snapping his words out and then relapsing into silence'. George also said that his uncle had ‘become uneasy about his soul. He was warned of its disease by me years ago, but he paid no heed to my warnings, and convinced of its continued existence, and that priests can help him to save it, he has founded a monastery.’ In 1914, George Moore wrote about his uncle Llewellyn whom he said ‘is my uncle and my mother’s youngest brother and he came into the property of Ballinafad on the death of Joe Blake……His brother, Mark, from whom he inherited Ballinafad, was a fine old country rake, leaving samples of his voice and demeanour and appearance in every village and then going to Dublin to repent of his sins….' It would appear according to George Moore that both Mark and Joe had indeed fathered children outside the confines of marriage as it is also recorded that they both died 'without lawful issue'. Was it these actions of his brothers that prayed on the mind of Llewellyn?, was his donation of all his property to religious orders, an act to ensure that his deceased brothers were rescued from purgatory?

The ceiling and cornicing of the Drawing Room in Ballinafad
Picture ( above and below)  Copyright ICHC

By the time of the 1911 census, Ballinafad House was now being used as Ballinafad College where a Rev. William Butler is listed as the head of the household and the owners of the property recorded as the South African Mission, Rev. Butler aged 30 from Kilkenny is a Professor of Latin and English, also present were John Corcoran aged 27, a Professor of Latin, History, French and Mathematics, William Cotter also aged 27, a Professor of Latin, Music, French and Mathematics together with Bartholomew Ronayre a Professor of Latin, English and Mathematics.  Johanna Cummins aged 63, from Tipperary, is listed as the Matron and Manageress while there are also two female servants, Mary Mc Gurrin and Bridget Joyce. Llewellyn at this time is living in Cloughballymore in Galway, the 4,000 acre estate and 19 room house which had been inherited from his mother's side of the family. On the night of the 1911 census he has two female visitors,  Mary and Kate Regan and also present in the house are three servants. Count Llewellyn Blake died on the 8th September 1916 at his Galway home Cloughballymore in Kilcolgan. His remains were removed from his residence to Ballinderreen Parish Church. His death certificate indicates that his death was sudden but that he suffered from heart disease. The certificate is witnessed by his house keeper, Norah Hughes who was with him when he died. The funeral mass involved nine clergy after which the remains were brought to Ardrahan train station and were conveyed to Cork for burial. At Wilton Church in Cork, High Mass was again celebrated and interment took place in the church grounds. In his will dated December 1907, he appointed as executors, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Tuam and the Bishop of Cork together with the Rev. Joseph Zimmermann of the SMA.  Llewellyn left £1,500 to have Mass celebrated in churches and chapels in Ireland for the souls of his wife, mother, father, brothers and sisters. He left £50 to his Parish Priest in Galway to have additional masses said for deceased members of his family and £50 to help the local poor. He left £500 to the sisters of Charity in Dublin to assist in their foreign missions for the propagation of the Roman Catholic religion. After these deductions were made, the residue of his estate was to be divided in fifteen equal parts. Six fifteenths of his estate were to go to the new College of the Sacred Heart, founded by the Apostolic College for Foreign Missions in Ireland located at Ballinafad House. Two fifteenths were apportioned to the Roman Catholic Ecclesiastical Seminary in Limerick. Two fifteenths were allocated to All Hallows College, in Dublin, St. Joseph’s College in Wilton, Cork and St. Jarlaiths College, Tuam ,Galway.  Another condition of the will stipulated that each college should use the monies to enable poor students to train for the Priesthood, who could not afford to pay for their own education. One final fifteenth was to assist in the publication of Annals of the Propagation of the Roman Catholic Faith.

Details of the Drawing Room Ceiling.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 

Llewellyn left an estate with a value of £61,502.00 (of which £11,225 was in England), this would be roughly €6.5 million in today's money. The probate of his estate was granted to the Most Reverend John Healy, Archbishop of Tuam and the Most Reverend Daniel Coholan, Bishop of Cork. He left nothing to his relatives, so Maurice Moore and his sister Nina Kilkelly (Llewellyn's niece and nephew) made a petition to the Pope for a portion of their late uncle’s estate. The Pope agreed to release a donation of £2,000 to Mrs. Kilkelly and £1,000 to Maurice Moore which was paid in 1919. Maurice Moore had wanted to join with other members of the Blake Family to over turn his uncle’s will. He was annoyed that Ballinafad, his mother’s childhood home, was now passing out of the family to become a religious institution. His brother George on the other hand took offence at the way he felt his wealthy uncle had been pursued by members of the religious order. George believed that they had prayed on Llewellyn’s concern for the souls of his deceased ancestors and convinced him that by donating his wealth he could redeem them from purgatory. However George would not join with Maurice or support his petition for the overturning of the will, using Maurice's respect for his Catholic faith against him. This would not be the only time that Maurice would be disappointed by the last will and testament of a relative. When his brother, George Moore died in 1933, he left no provision for Maurice or his sons. At this stage Moore Hall had been burnt down a decade earlier and lay in ruins. Maurice had hoped to restore the house but his brother's will had prevented that. While Maurice had purchased the ruin of Moore Hall, he had no funds to implement a restoration. Perhaps if his Uncle Llewellyn had made provision in his will for his nephew, who bore the name of his father, Maurice may have been able to resurrect the home of the Moore’s on Muckloon Hill after its destruction.

One of the restored sash windows and shutters
in an area of the house that had been obliterated
by damp.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Llewellyn's nephews, George and Maurice Moore visited Ballinafad after the order had taken over. George walked around the drawing room and recalled the musical renditions performed here by his mother, her sisters and her brother. He noted at this time that ‘remembered pictures’ were still hanging on the walls. One wonders what became of the contents of the house as they appear to have been donated to the Order that took over Ballinafad. Also Llewellyn's other house, Cloughballymore in Galway, which also donated,  contained a number of family portraits still hanging on the walls years after the order acquired it. During his visit to Ballinafad, George spoke with one of the priests based there, who informed him that the first group of priests , dispatched on the missions from Ballinafad,  had found the African climate intolerable and that ‘large amount’ of these men had died. Whether George was being melodramatic or not, we do not know however the Priest did inform him that another group was leaving shortly for Africa and that he ' hoped not to lose so many’. However in a letter from George Moore to his brother Maurice dated August 1912, he says the following ‘I enclose some papers that I received this morning, and I think they will distress you. Apparently Llewelyn is going to settle an ecclesiastical establishment in Ballinafad unless he can be stopped. Will you please let me hear from you on the subject. Miss Gough says it is to be sold…’ This was followed by another letter dated September 1912 ‘I have heard no more from Tom Rutledge about the sale of the Property, Llewelyn Blake and Ballinafad, Has everything come to a standstill?’.

A beautifully restored window on the half
landing of the main staircase
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Ballinafad was initially a seminary after the SMA took over but then adopted the duel function of being a secondary boarding school. In 1948, a new staff residence, dormitory and dining facilities were built followed in 1955 by another block of classrooms and an assembly hall. It is noted that Ballinafad ‘never grew popular as a local school’ however up until the 1960’s in Ireland, secondary level education was for the favoured few. By 1960, Ballinafad had produced 400 priests and it was hoped by the time of the centenary of the establishment of the SMA at Ballinafad in 2016, they would have produced over 1,000 priests. In the 1960’s, the SMA built an Oratory together with basketball courts, tennis courts and handball alleys at Ballinafad. In 1966, the Vatican Council introduced changes in the approach for the training of priests and this coupled with the introduction of free education led to a decline in the fortunes of Ballinafad. As the population of the area was too small, the outlay for providing facilities for boarders hadn’t been a success and the order could no longer meet the running costs. In 1975, it was announced that the Sacred Heart College established at Ballinafad would close. For a time a skeleton staff were kept on to maintain the place as no Government Department was interested in finding an alternative use for Ballinafad. The College was still in possession of a 470 acre farm around the main campus and it was local contention that the land should be divided amoung local farmers upon its closure. However the complex was sold to Balla Mart who ran it as an Agricultural College for a number of years before it too closed. In the year 2000, Ballinafad House appeared on the market with a price tag of £2.5 million for the house with 400 acres, however a price of £500,000 could buy Ballinafad standing on 8 acres. In December 2002, at the height of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger it was reported that Ballinafad had been sold to Preston Homes who intended turning into a 5 star hotel however its appears that the recession killed this pipe dream. By 2010, Ballinafad was back on the market with a price of €499,000 for the college buildings but at this stage Ireland was in the midst of a recession so there were no takers.

The Dining Room of  Ballinafad which shows
the condition in which the new owner found most
of the house after he purchased it. This room will be
subject of the next phase of works.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
The buildings saviour came in the form of a young Australian, Bede Tannock,  who first viewed the building in 2012. He later purchased the house on 8 acres for €80,000 however but after decades of being abandoned, the phrase ‘ in need of renovation’ did not do justice to the mammoth task that lay ahead at Ballinafad. Work began in 2014 and initially consisted of removing years of debris compounded by two decades of abandonment. Luckily despite the neglect, the new owner found that the main block of the house, the original Ballinafad House, still retained a wealth of original details such as plaster work, door and window cases which had survived. Currently the entrance porch has its diamond pattern windows removed for restoration but the beauty of the fanlight of the original front door to Ballinafad can be appreciated. Once inside you are greeted by a wonderfully restored elaborate ceiling rose and from here, you can access one of the most impressive areas of the house, a large double height hall where the staircase is contained. Illuminated by a large window, this space retains beautiful vaulted spaces that contain delicate plaster work. It is from these vaulted spaces that one gains access to the two large reception rooms at the front of the house. The original drawing room to the front of the house is luckily one of the most intact rooms to survive, and here a ceiling depicting musical instruments and foliage awaits redecoration, replacing the strong garish colours of its previous colour scheme from possibly 40 years ago. One wonders if the choice of the musical instruments illustrated on this ceiling was to reflect the musical nature of the Blake Family that George Moore spoke about. The dining room on the opposite side of the entrance front has not fared as well. Here the ceiling with its central plaster ceiling rose of fruit is largely damaged however a hopefully Bede directs my attention to a carefully collected and stacked pile of fragments on the floor that will be reinstated. This room is thought to be the dining room due to the choice of ceiling decoration and its proximity to the servants staircase, which is located directly across the vaulted hall, provided direct access to the kitchen in the basement. The dining room is not the only room to be damaged during the years of neglect, a leaky roof caused the corroded water tanks to collapse which completely destroyed rooms in one back corner of the house. 

A large room in the wing of the house that dates from 
the 1950's,  will be used as a space for events such as weddings.
Picture ( above and below)  Copyright ICHC 

This damaged area where these rooms once occupied was open from the ground floor to what remained of the roof, the ceiling and floor in between were obliterated and therefore necessitated a complete rebuilt. Today walking though these reinstated rooms, details such as the cornicing, window shutters and high skirting boards look pristine, not giving any hint of the scene of destruction that originally confronted Bede. The SMA had extended Ballinafad House substantially over the years, adjoining wings built in the 1940's and 1950's were added to either side of the original house, together with an auditorium and a chapel. Today the beauty of the chapel's stained class windows that commemorate the work of the SMA can be appreciated having been recently restored. The 1950's wing and the auditorium have had substantial restoration work carried out and work in the original house is progressing at a steady pace. The 1940's wing will be a later project, but stabilisation work has been carried out including work to the work to the roof, any further deterioration in this wing has been arrested. As a result of the additions carried out by the SMA, the house is now easily adaptable for the new venture proposed by its current owner as Ballinafad House will open next year as an event venue. Here events such as weddings can be held in the Ballinafad's recently restored large reception room with 13 restored sash windows and chandeliers. 

The interior of the Priests House which has been converted
in a beautiful home, as I said at the beginning of this piece, 
to never judge this house by its exterior.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 
Bede is currently working against the clock, Ballinafad will feature in a RTE programme about the restoration of the house to be screened in 2018. For this programme, a number of rooms will be completed and the main facade of the house will boast newly restored windows. The people of Mayo are lucky that Bede is carrying out such a sensitive restoration and is so committed to the project. Ballinafad could have languished for years on the market before it was either vandalised further or eventually collapsed from neglect. Therefore I wish Bede well and I look forward to making a return visit as Ballinafad House to see the fruits of his efforts in reversing the fortunes of this country house. One of the things I noticed at Ballinafad is a religious painting that is hanging over the staircase, it is distressed from the time the house was abandoned and open to the elements. This painting has hung here since the time of the SMA and despite its condition I think Bede has made the correct choice to keep it. Once Ballinafad is complete, this painting will remind people of the changing fortunes of the house, the level of dereliction that it descended to and the herculean task involved in revitalising this surviving home of the Blakes.

A religious painting that has stood guard over
the main staircase, possibly since 1908, has
presided over the changing fortunes of the mansion.
This painting endured while the house was abandoned 
in the 1970's and water ran down the walls on which it hung. 
So it is fitting that the new owner has decided to
retain it in situ as Ballinafad looks to a brighter future.
Picture ( above)  Copyright ICHC 


  1. Absolutely fascinating. I lived in Northampton, Kinvara for several years and never saw the wall that you say remains of Northampton House. In fact, I could never find any trace of the house, so I imagine it must be on someone's land and well out of sight. Thank you.

  2. My next book has for focus student life in Ballinafad (the Fad, junior seminary cum secondary college) in the early 1960s. Launching at Flukies Belcarra on 7th December at 9pm, proceeds to Belcarra Community Playground Facilities. All welcome.

  3. Went to school there from sept.1958 to my leaving cert in june 1963. Visited the old college on Sun 16th of December 2018. My 1st time there in 55yrs. Great to see it being renovated. Holds many stories especially by the SMA students !!!

  4. I Viewed a TV documentary some time ago, describing the restoration by Bede Tannock and his partner. I was seriously impressed by Bedes work rate and his skill level. I can't recall the precise expenditure on restoration but it was astronomically low considering the amount of work involved. Given the size and scale of some of these properties, they can only survive financially if they are suitable for the Events Business.

  5. I visited the house a few years ago and took lots of photos. Later on Bede contacted me to see if he could see the photos as he was restoring the house. He used some of them as reference as the house had become more damaged in the intervening years. You can see the photos here -