18,400 sq ft
Uber exclusive and privacy
OUT of crisis comes opportunity, say Des and Lisa McGahan, a couple who’ve travelled the globe, worked in the Far East and Asia rubbing shoulders with the rich, talented and famous, and who even hosted the late singer Michael Jackson and his children in their Irish business, Ballinacurra House.
And, it’s a niche hospitality business and property mix, on the fringes of Kinsale, which they’ve just put up for sale, after about 20 years’ involvement, in the teeth of a global pandemic.
The timing doesn’t faze them too much, funnily enough, nor the asking price of €6.35 million which they’ve attached to their waterside Ballinacurra estate, being marketed internationally by agents Knight Frank, and with active inquiries only stymied so far by travel restriction due to Covid-19.
Having built up their fledgling business, when practically no-on in Ireland knew quite what a private and exclusive estate to rent really meant, and having ridden out a massive worldwide recession and Irish property market crash, they’re sanguine, philosophical and…surprisingly optimistic, even.
News of the planned sale of the McGahan’s Ballincurra Estate broke just after St Patrick’s Day, with the Irish Examiner highlighting the stay of one Michael Jackson here, back in 2007, when the singer (who performed in Cork back in 1988) stayed here for several weeks, keeping a low profile, and reportedly scouting for an Irish estate to buy, and thinking wishfully of perhaps getting a thousands’ of acres hideaway for a Celtic Tiger Times Neverland.
Jackson was led to this far more manageable 25-acre estate by Cork estate agent Dominic Daly who via his links to the Old Head of Kinsale Golf Club knew of Ballinacurra’s privacy ace or trump card, and he arrived with his three children, a manager and a German musician with whom he was collaborating on some song writing.
Jackson stayed first in one wing of the highly adaptable, U-shaped courtyard cluster-like property with a 18th century Georgian country home at its center, and then asked to move over to the other wing with his children, who played with McGahan’s own children in the many acres of private grounds, within a walk of uber-cosmopolitan Kinsale.
News of the late singer’s sojourn in Cork only was confirmed by the McGahans after the musician’s accidental drugs-related death from drugs, and former events organiser Des McGahan went on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne show then to relate the link to Wacko Jacko – though he was too kind and professional to call him that, of course.
After the sale new broke in mid-March, the Irish Examiner got the chance this past week to revisit Ballinacurra House and catch up on its tales and development: this reporter last visited back in 2003, just as it started its business journey after a two-year investment of time and money into the estate, which has continued to evolve ever since.
(Previous owners included John Swete, Cork's High Sherriff in the 1770s, the Bleazby family who had a tanning emire in the city, and more recently the late British artists John Danford (his life is worth a biography) and, for a period, nuns from Ardfoyle Convent in Cork city who were left it by Danford, whose frescoes still adorn some walls here of his former home, Ballinacurra.)
Money for the early 200s rebirth came from the sale of McGahan’s sports and events agency, Prism, in Hong Kong and the Dungannon-born man (one of a family of ten, who’d left a troubled Northern Ireland for England at age 18 years had married Deloitte executive Lisa, who had as much of a globe-trotting routine as he had.
They had the experiences of meeting up in airports while both in transit, and after the business Lisa hit on Kinsale as an ideal place to live and to perhaps retire to while still quite young.
They'd first bought Dromderrig House, a Georgian original on Compass Hill above the town, but then came across Ballincurra, then in a sorry state, but with lots of promise.
Notions of retirement turned entrepreneurial, and with their third child, a son just recently born in Ireland to join two older sisters, they set down roots on this somewhat historic holding, and worked hard.
It’s now a 18,400 sq ft property with 14 themed bedrooms, reception rooms, bar, function room and more, all with a funky visual twist (ie not a neutral, bland international hotel) and integrating lots of quality architectural salvage sourced in the main from Northern Ireland.
If you add in the extra rooms in other, detached houses on the grounds, there are up to 25 bedrooms, all highly individual and decorated with an eye to international and historic interiors, from Tudor to classical Georgian, or African theme, Provencal, or Asiatic, the latter a natural enough choice given the amount of items they had in their possession from Hong Kong and the Far East on arrival.
Walking the expanded and landscaped grounds after a whirlwind (and, socially distanced) tour of the properties, Des McGahan recalls with a chuckle the cynicism that first greeted the notion of private estate that made it hard for people to even get to: money is the key, by the way, whether corporate or high-end weddings, family get-togethers or hide-out global superstars.
“When we started first, the rumour was I was a drug dealer. After we spent a whole lot more money, I got promoted to being a drug baron,” he quips.
In recent years, it has hosted about 60 ‘events’ a year, and can cater for small gatherings, up to 150 or more, and has rented as an entire at up to €40,000 per week.
The get the money in, they had to put it out: the McGahans reckon they spent north of €7 million in all on their investment, and unlike many others who ploughed millions into hospitality venues in the 2000s and lost most if not all of their investment, they got to adapt their initial corporate model after the economic crash of 2008 wiped out that particular business model for years after.
They veered into weddings especially, usually four or five day block-booked events, and by 2017 had been voted best wedding destination our of 600 other venues in.
Then, just as corporate business returned with a bang, along came last year’s Coronavirus, also knocking this year 2021 for six in the aftermath and hangover period.
So last year, they pivoted to providing bases for Irish families and successfully offered self-catering options, something for which the property can adapt to, as the main house readily divides into two sections.
In fact, says Lisa, the core is still a family home at heart, with a practical family kitchen at its hearth, albeit one with a full-on commercial catering kitchen to the back, and for the past Christmas, their family hunkered down in the main house, some with friends and partners, and it really came into its own, she enthuses.
Their reason for selling now is down to several factors, the McGahans say, pointing out they always saw it as a 20-year career chapter (Des is now 67, and still hands on. After Lisa had recent health worry too, they’ve just decided to drive on and to offer it for sale, pandemic or not, reckoning they have a product that just neatly dovetail with some noted international property trends.
Those trends include the much-remarked upon move by wealthy individuals, families and indeed corporations to decamp to areas away from large crowds and urban congestion.
Privacy married to exclusivity is the bedrock for these property hunters, and it’s notable in Ireland and especially Munster and coastal spots since the pandemic’s first outbreak and ensuing lockdowns.
It’s even more pronounced in the UK, with a flight from London to places like Devon and Cornwall, and consequent impact on prices due to shortages of suitable country piles and places for inter-generational family compound living.
In the US, it’s seen in the push and rush for bolt-holes in spots like the Hamtpons near New York, or LA, where values can rise into the tens of millions of dollars.
Whether or not the impetus continues beyond whatever stability mass vaccinations of populations is question yet to play out, but the likelihood is that even if there’s a wholesale return to the office, or the city, a more hybrid work/life balance will endure and ensue after so many of us (and especially the super-wealthy) have realised that there’s more to life than the 40-hour, five days a week desk grind and longer commutes.
In the month or so since Ballinacurra went to the market, interest has been shown by a curious mix, the McGahans, reveals, including an international financial services entity with an Irish presence that would work it for corporate hybrid uses, from entertainment to group think-ins and brainstorming, possibly even hot-desking from pods which could be sited in the woods.
It might revert to wholly private estate use, they say, and there’s already examples elsewhere in Cork of sales such as Horse Island (in Roaringwater Bay) for €5.5 million, or Glengarriff Castle for over €2 million as a renovation project.
The Liss Ard estate, with two very fine period homes on 165 acres near Skibbereen, recently changed hands to US-based buyers for c €3.5m, and will be upgraded and kept as a niche hospitality business.
Is Ballinacurra work nearly €3m more?
There’s also links to the Old Head of Kinsale Golf Course (and there’s some renewed talk of a second high calibre golf course on another headland) and then Lisa lists off all theother amenite well within a their 5km radius, from schools to sports facilities, beaches to marinas, and a host of restaurants, with good hospitals and third level colleges up the road in the city.
Talking the talk, and having walked the walk in having lived in many global hotspots and being at easy with wealthy and demanding clients for whom price isn’t always everything, they optimistically say of Ballinacurra and its ‘optimistic’ guide price, “this is what people want, and while it might seem dear for Ireland, it’s very cheap by international stadards for all tha tit offers.”
Size: 18,400 sq ft
Land: 25 acres, inc water frontage
Best Feature: Uber-exclusive, and private