Celebrity guests have been the norm at Ballinacurra House. It’s no wonder it just picked up an award for Best Wedding Venue, writes Ailin Quinlan
KING of Pop Michael Jackson stayed here, and it’s also hosted royalty, heads of state and fashion industry execs; Kim Kardashian and Kanye West wanted to come, but were turned away.
Over the years, guests at Ballinacurra House in Kinsale have included billionaire Heineken heiress Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.
The background to how a dilapidated mansion located just three minutes from Ireland’s picturesque gourmet capital evolved into one of Ireland’s most sought-after private luxury wedding and corporate venues is a fascinating one.
Its story encompasses everything from a prestigious Hong Kong events management agency to Paul McCartney’s mansion in Montego Bay and some fascinating speculation about a gang of — entirely fictitious — drug barons.
This 18th-century Georgian residence, which sits on 40 acres of breathtaking grounds and walled gardens, has not only carved out a reputation as a sought-after corporate events venue, but also as one of the most beautiful and private wedding locations of choice for couples from Ireland and overseas.
After they purchased it in 2000, Des McGahan and his Australian wife Lisa spent four years — and an eye-watering amount of money — restoring the residence before launching it as a bespoke, beautifully designed private venue for the corporate sector.
The elegant country mansion, which nestles behind 10ft-high walls, security gates and sprawling woodland quickly became one of Ireland’s most sought-after venues for corporate functions of all kinds.
But the journey wasn’t all plain sailing, as Des is the first to acknowledge — there was plenty of stormy water to come.
The story really begins in the late 80s in Montego Bay, Jamaica, where Des, who had established his own highly successful events management agency in Hong King — the largest in Asia at the time — was overseeing preparations for a major golf tournament.
“We rented two beautiful mansions in Montego Bay — one belonged to Paul McCartney, one to Luis Vuitton,” he recalls, adding that each mansion played host to a range of celebrities and business executives in private, beautifully-appointed surroundings.
It was a memorable time in his career, and a few years later, when Des sold his company Prism and returned to Ireland, he decided to recreate that elegance by turning the 25,000sq ft Ballinacurra House into an exclusive-use private estate complete with resident Irish wolfhound, Oscar. His vision was worlds away from the familiar humdrum environment of the traditional Irish hotel.
“It’s completely private, for exclusive use. We don’t do packages. We tailor the event completely to the wishes of the client, specialise in creative solutions to the clients’ needs,” he says, adding that for four years he and Lisa worked extremely hard to turn the 1770’s-era mansion into the vision of glamour, luxury and splendor that it is today.
The couple travelled across the globe sourcing individual items for the culturally-themed rooms and designed every inch of it themselves. Following the launch in 2004, however, Ballinacurra House initially hit a wall. “Starting a sole private events house in Ireland was not easy — people simply didn’t get the concept,” Des recalls now.
“People didn’t understand that this was a private venue for clients and not a traditional hotel for the general public. I was accused of being arrogant and stupid. I was accused of everything — from being a drug lord to a drug baron.
“People laughed at me. There was all sorts of speculation about what I was up to. Here was this beautiful Georgian Irish country estate — and nobody was allowed in.
“It seemed very odd to people at the time and they couldn’t understand the concept, even though this is quite normal overseas.”
However, between 2004 and 2008 Ballinacurra House became steadily more popular as a private corporate entertainment venue. In 2007 came the second bump in the road — the economic downturn.
“We had about 25 bookings going into 2008 and all of them were cancelled as a result of the recession,” says Des. Recognising the writing on the wall, he and Lisa put their heads together and decided to diversify into the high-end private wedding market.
“We extended our garden room to increase our capacity and targeted the international wedding market in the UK, the USA and Asia.”
It took the couple another four years to get things back on an even financial footing, but by 2012 things had steadied and there was a good buzz happening in the overseas wedding market.
After all, as Des points out, if you were to rent a similarly exclusive property in the UK or overseas, the rental alone for two days — not including food, drinks or any of the other wedding essentials — would cost in the region of €40,000.
“We give the same or better quality and style with everything, for about a quarter of the price.”
These days, about 70% of the business of Ballinacurra House comes from overseas clients, though the number of Irish clients is steadily increasing. The venue currently hosts around 60 high-end weddings a year, while its corporate business is back and booming. It won first prize at the recent Weddings Online Awards in February. Ballinacurra House was not only voted Best Exclusive Wedding Venue in Ireland but also won Overall Venue of the year, beating off stiff competition from over 600 finalists from across the country.
These days Des has plenty to smile about. He also smiles about the day in 2014 when he became probably the only man in the world to say ‘no’ to Kim Kardashian. When the celebrity honeymooners indicated their desire to take over the private estate for their much-publicised Irish stay, Des had to tell them that, alas, Ballinacurra House was already booked for a wedding: “I said ‘they Kanye stay’,” he chuckles.
1. Don’t conform. Don’t feel you need to follow wedding rules. If you want to be different, observes Des, be different — but in a way that reflects your personality and individual style.
2. Make best use of your budget. If you want to do something really special, consider reducing the length of your guest list, he suggests. Or split it into two groups — one for the wedding day itself and one for the following day. Focus your resources on the things that are important to you. Ideally this would be a really nice venue in an accessible location and some super food — remember, he quips, your wedding meal doesn’t have to be meat and two veg.
3. Entertainment is a crucial element: “Entertainment equals atmosphere so if you have a lovely venue in a beautiful location with great food and some really well-chosen quality entertainment, you’re there.” Emphasise fun - prioritise the ‘memorability factor’.
4. Choose your venue wisely — don’t fall for the ‘packaged’ approach to weddings. “These often sound reasonable but end up costing you more based on minimum numbers and things included that you may not want — if it looks cheap, it probably is !”
5. Trust your venue — “They should know what they are doing and you should feel like you’re the only one that has ever got married there. Communication is vital and your venue should always be one step ahead of you.”
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