Ballinafad, County Mayo is a house in three parts, each with its own story. The first of these concerns the Blake family, one of the Tribes of Galway. In 1618/19 Marcus Blake, a younger son of a branch settled at Ballyglunin, County Galway, received grants of land in this part of the country. During the upheavals of the mid-17th century, possession of this property appeared uncertain, but in 1681 Marcus Blake’s grandson was re-granted the land by patent by Charles II, and it would thereafter remain with his descendants for more than 200 years. As attested by a date plaque on the rear of the building, the core of the present house was only constructed in 1827, but there may have been an earlier residence here. The same plaque carries the initials of both Maurice Blake and his wife Anne, an heiress whose money no doubt helped cover the costs of construction. The property was of two storeys over raised and rusticated basement, with five bays and, above the roof parapet, all the chimneys grouped into one stack, thought to be the longest of any such house in Ireland. The most striking feature of the facade is the entrance porch, flanked by flights of steps. Maurice Blake’s grandson, Colonel Maurice Moore (brother of the writer George Moore), whose mother had grown up at Ballinafad, wrote that the porch owed its inspiration to ‘an imperfect memory of one he had seen in Italy.’ Like the Moores, the Blakes were Roman Catholic, and this helps to explain why, in 1908, the youngest son of Maurice and Anne Blake, Llewellyn Blake – who had been made a Papal Count two years earlier – presented the house and estate to the Society of African Missions: seemingly, he believed that such a gesture would ensure the atonement of earlier generations of his family for whatever sins they may have committed. Of course, in the eyes of some Blake relations – not least his nephew George Moore – handing over such a valuable property to a religious order (instead of bequeathing it to them) was a kind of sin.
When Llewellyn Blake died in 1916, he left £1,500 to have services held in churches for the salvation of the souls of his late wife, mother, father, brothers and sisters. £500 was bequeathed to the Sisters of Charity to assist in their foreign missions for the propagation of the Roman Catholic faith, after which the rest of his estate – valued at some £61,500 – was divided into no less than 15 partes, six of which were to go to the College of the Sacred Heart, as Ballinafad was now known: the rest was split between sundry other religious houses and organisations. Members of the extended family, including the Moore brothers, made efforts to have their claims to the estate recognised but with little success. At Ballinafad, the house served as a seminary for the Society of African Missions but then also became a secondary boarding school for boys. This meant the building had to be enlarged, with a new three-bay wing added to one side of the house in 1931, and another on the other side in 1948. On the exterior, both these are of similar style to the original residence and therefore do not disrupt but merely extend the facade (the interiors, on the other hand, reflect the era of their construction, not least because they were intended for uses such as refectory and dormitory). Further expansion to the rear in the mid-1950s and early 1960s was more overtly utilitarian and reflects the expectations of the mid-20th century that the Roman Catholic church would remain a dominant force in Ireland. However, such notions soon proved illusory and in 1975 the African Missionaries announced their intention to close the school and offer the place for sale. Ballinafad, along with 470 acres, was then bought by a livestock business called Balla Mart which ran an agricultural college here until 1989. The house then sat empty until 2000 when offered for sale with 400 acres for £2.5 million, or £500,000 for the buildings alone. A couple of years later, when Ireland appeared awash with money and development schemes rampant, it was announced that Ballinafad was to be turned into a five-star hotel, but the economic crash occurred before such a scheme was realised. Accordingly, in 2010 the buildings at Ballinafad were once more offered for sale, with a price tag of €499,000, but there were no takers and the property continued to deteriorate.
Eight years ago, in 2014 a young Australian called Bede Tannock bought Ballinafad, standing on eight acres for €80,000. Compared with earlier prices sought, the sum seems small but the task faced by the property’s new owner was enormous. By this time, Ballinafad ran to 70,000 square feet of floor space with 110 rooms and 340 windows, all of which was in perilous condition, with widespread water ingress and evidence of considerable vandalism. The interiors were largely uninhabitable and even today, parts of the house await attention but the quantity – and quality – of restoration work undertaken since 2014 is remarkable, especially given the owner’s limited funds. Parts of the building have been used for weddings and corporate events, and for providing guest accommodation. Work continues even though a couple of years ago, Ballinafad was placed on the market. It can only be a matter of time before the fourth chapter in its story begins to be written with, one hopes, the same spirit of optimism and courage that has pervaded the place for the past eight years.
I was there studying for the SMA 1963, 1964