Turning the Ballymaloe grainstore into an arts venue was an inspired idea, writes Ellie O’Byrne
Rory Allen says “part of the great thing about risk is you never realise what a risk it is until you’ve done it”.
In converting a former barn that stored pig feed into a thriving music-and-arts venue, Allen moved away from his 35-year career running the family farm in Shanagarry, Co Cork, and became, in his late fifties, a venue-and-events manager. He switched shearing and sowing for booking bands and organising festivals, in a rural location 35km east of Cork city.
But it may not be as big a risk as it seems. As a member of the redoubtable Allen dynasty of Ballymaloe, Allen was working a farm that had long been a destination in its own right: his 300 acres surround Ballymaloe House and Cookery school, which was founded by his mother, Myrtle, in the 1960s.
There, fresh produce from his father Ivan’s mixed farm fed into the kitchens of the family restaurant and guest-house, long before farm-to-fork was an on-trend movement.
Allen was a student of classical guitar; the pinnacle of his brief musical career was an appearance on television in 1972, with the RTÉ symphony orchestra backing him. But life got in the way: “You get married, and you have children, and you start farming; you can’t keep up the level of practice required to be a musician.”
Nowadays, at 65, Allen’s performing is limited to a regular Saturday night session at Ballymaloe guesthouse, where he plays folk tunes and encourages guests to join him in a sing-song and storytelling, a ritual he enjoys.
But his love of music and appreciation for the arts led to the idea of developing a venue at Ballymaloe.
“In the middle of the yard was this big, old stone building, just sitting there. We used to store the grain in it for the pigs, but the building had fallen into disrepair. One day, I just got this notion; ‘Wouldn’t it make a fantastic theatre’?”
Since 2009, The Grainstore has hosted art exhibitions under the curatorship of a resident artist, as well as an eclectic array of talks, films, theatrical events and gigs. “It’s been a hard slog, and I needed my other businesses, like the farm and the accommodation, to subsidise it in the beginning, because it wouldn’t have stood on its own, but it gave Ballymaloe a whole new lease of life,” Allen says.
Now, The Grainstore, and the subsequently converted Big Shed, immune to the vagaries of the Irish weather, are home to six annual festivals, including the acclaimed Ballymaloe LitFest, and, this year, for the first time, a Malt and Music weekend, celebrating the happy marriage between music and craft beers.
The line-up includes Dublin rockers, Little Green Cars, Jerry Fish, Cork soul outfit, Shookrah, and the Hank Wedel band. It’s a solid programme, but a little safe, perhaps? Allen says that the pressure to book crowd-pleasers is part and parcel of running an independent venue, without the catch-net of subsidy.
“We need to put on gigs that are popular and that you’re pretty much guaranteed an audience for,” he says. “We have lots of people coming to us wanting to do obscure or experimental things, and it hurts me not to be able to, but they really are more for subsidised venues.
“I don’t qualify for any grants and that doesn’t bother me; it just shows what can be done with something that’s in private hands, if there is a will to make it work. I don’t have to answer to anyone, except the banks,” Allen says.
With his son Darren now managing the farm, Allen has “more than a full-time job” managing The Grainstore and The Big Shed. It’s a welcome change. “I enjoyed feeding pigs and shearing sheep and growing potatoes, when I was doing it, but I’m very happy to have this challenge in life — it fires you up and gets you out of bed,” he says. “It’s extraordinary to have created this thing, and so rewarding to give so many people so much pleasure.”
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