The accidental hoteliers
With no previous experience in the hospitality sector, Michael Garvey and his partner Ann O’Sullivan have turned Ballinterry House in Co Cork, the former home of Hollywood actor Hurd Hatfield, into a luxury guesthouse in the rebel county
Ann O’Sullivan and partner Michael Garvey, owners of Ballinterry House. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
When Michael Garvey and his partner Ann O’Sullivan bought the period property Ballinterry House in Rathcormac, Co Cork, in 2007, it was to be another restoration project for the couple who intended the Queen Anne-style house to be their new family home.
It took them three years to fully restore the property, built in the 1600s, to country house grandeur. It was during the renovations that its potential to accommodate guests became apparent.
“It wasn’t our intention to, but, as we did the renovations we realised it lent itself to accommodation, so we began paying more attention to detail with that in mind as the works progressed,” Ann explains.
All the more remarkable then, with no experience in the hospitality sector, that just two years later Ballinterry House was listed in John and Sally McKennas’ 100 Best Places to Stay in Ireland.
The story of how Michael, a Galway native and Ann, born in London of Irish parents, found themselves just outside the village of Rathcormac in north county Cork is a convoluted one. Ann was employed as a PA and secretary in London while Michael, a former carpenter, is a trained psychotherapist.
When they decided to move back to Ireland in 2002 with their two-year-old twins Ruairi and Niamh, a compromise was needed between Galway as their resettlement location and west Cork, where Ann’s mother now lives.
They had bought and converted an old schoolhouse in Timoleague, west Cork, in 1997 to use as a holiday home while they were still living in London and were already regular visitors, so it was a compromise Michael was happy with.
When they moved back to Ireland full-time in 2002 they settled in Cork city where they lived for five years, buying and renovating a couple of different properties. They enjoyed the challenge and so decided to seek something bigger to get their teeth into.
Michael was away on business and Ann was on the lookout for older properties with a bit of land when she came across Ballinterry House in 2007.
“I’ve found this beautiful house,” she told Michael. He was equally enthralled. They purchased it from Maggie Williams, who had inherited it from the American actor Hurd Hatfield who’d bought it back in the 1970s.
The actor, who won widespread acclaim for his role as the ageless anti-hero in The Picture of Dorian Gray, his second film, went on to star in a string of Hollywood movies and later worked in television. He was introduced to Ireland by his friend, the actress Angela Lansbury, who had a house nearby.
Hatfield, a flamboyant figure in rural north Cork, was a keen art and antique collector. He referred to Ballinterry House as a painting which he would never quite finish. He died there, peacefully in his sleep, aged 81 on December 26th 1998, having enjoyed Christmas dinner with friends.
Maggie Williams maintained the historic Irish country home as it was at the time of his death. Following the sale, the “Hurd Hatfield Collection” was sold at an auction on the premises.
Michael and Ann spent three years taking up rotting floors, dismantling partitions, uncovering windows and other original features, and taking the house “back to the future” by renovating and modernising it in a way which was wholly sympathetic to its origins.
In December 2007, without power and with no floorboards, the couple had no choice but to decamp with their young children to a cottage in outbuildings on the property. They moved back in during the spring of 2009.
Michael and Ann were bound by strict conditions in restoring the house. Michael’s previous experience in working on old properties of historical and cultural interest stood him in good stead.
They managed to complete the work with the help of a conservation architect and the encouragement and blessing of Cork County Council’s conservation officer, Mona Hallinan. The Georgian Society declared it one of the most sympathetic restorations they’ve seen.
Ann credits Michael’s unerring eye for detail and his capacity for hard work in bringing everything together to make Ballinterry House what it is today – a splendid country house with a truly authentic feel.
They opened for business midway through the season in 2010, Ann having equipped herself with a culinary skills course from Fáilte Ireland. “It gave me the confidence I needed to go ahead with it,” she says.
They were pleasantly surprised with the reaction to their fledgling business. “We have been lucky with our guests, they’ve been lovely and we’ve had some great reviews and comments,” Ann says. As word has spread they’ve received much favourable comment on Trip Advisor.
They’ve catered mainly for weddings up to now and have received strong support from nearby Ballyvolane House, who recommend Ballinterry’s accommodation to augment their own.
Offering B&B in three sumptuous double rooms, they also provide evening dining on request. Catering for private dining for groups is something they also plan to offer in the coming months.
As the house isn’t licensed diners can bring along their own wine, enjoy pre and postprandial drinks in the lovely drawing room and dine in the well appointed dining room.
With the restoration complete, the couple are turning their attention to the gardens. They’ve started a vegetable plot in their walled garden. Walks will be cleared through the wood on their two hectares of land. They want to capitalise on the views afforded of the Galtee and Knockmealdown mountains.
The property is the site of an Anglo-Norman castle and was later a fortified house. The house itself is one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in Ireland.
The refurbishment of Ballinterry House has restored a jewel to the crown of fine country houses in north Cork.
Ballinterry House, 025-87835, ballinterry house.com