Ten years after her father passed away, Helen Carrigan had big plans for the family home and the surrounding lands until her siblings told her that they wanted to sell.
Carrigan's plans may have altered slightly but the family home, Clonacody House, is now open for business.
The Georgian house, sitting between Lisronagh and Fethard in Co Tipperary, originally stood on 100 acres back when it was purpose built by the Kelletts, an English military family, before it was bought by Carrigan's grandfather in 1937.
Before Carrigan’s parents passed away, Clonacody House was a working farm and racing stables from where her father trained racehorses and provided public galloping facilities and jumping grounds for other trainers in the area.
Following his death, the five siblings continued to own the house and land, renting out the stables and facilities privately.
“I came back in 2003 and decided to take over the gallops because they had been leased out to somebody else in the meantime. They needed a bit of tender loving care so I took out a loan to do that. I then met somebody who would invest about a million euro in it, which was in 2006.
“We had a business plan together, we’d approached the banks and we were going to go for a push to have top of the range all-weather gallops and fences again.”
The final issue was to let the rest of the family know.
“When we told the family we were going to do it, two if them said, ‘you know what, Helen, if you are going to do that, we might as well tell you we were thinking of selling and we just want you to be aware that we might sell it in about two years time’.
“Without even thinking, I said if they were going to sell, why not sell now. Within a month, it went on the market.”
The asking price at that time was €7 million and it attracted the interest of several potential purchasers, with one serious offer made. The family decided to decline the offer which was over €2 million more than the asking price – thinking it best to hold out until the house went to auction in the Cashel Palace, hoping they’d get more for it. Not even one finger went up in the auction room.
Carrigan continued to run the show at home until the siblings’ relationship over the business became strained in 2008. Their American uncle Butch stepped into the breach and, after much mediation, Helen came away with the house. The land was given to two of her sisters and her brother.
Left with a Georgian house in the middle of a recession, Carrigan did the only thing she could: she turned it into a business using a nest egg her mother had left her. Alongside her partner, Michael Brennan, they revamped the interior of the house and the gardens. And in July 2010, Clonacody House opened its doors to their first overnight guests.
“We opened as a beautiful house that you can come to and stay overnight and we’ll offer you breakfast in the morning, or you can hire the house and grounds out for a wedding or special occasion.
“You can run a workshop here or a corporate meeting. We can offer silver service or self-catering, Clonacody’s flexible.”
Business didn’t flow in the door at first but it began to trickle. The house’s original owners have played their part in bringing in the visitors.
Sir Henry Kellett had famously captained a ship, HMS Resolute; its timbers were used to make the Resolute Desk used by many presidents in the White House Oval Office. He is buried nearby in Fethard.
Carrigan also credits her neighbours for her success.
“Our neighbours and the people from Fethard, when they heard we were opening, they started asking questions – would you do this and would you do that – and we said ‘yes please just give us details and we’ll put a quote together’ and that’s how it happened.”
It hasn’t been all plain sailing as Carrigan is very quick to point out.
“At times, it was really frustrating, I was at my wits’ end. I owed a total of €53,000 to Bank of Ireland for two loans. I had €11,000 owed to the builder. It all added up to about €90,000 and that was in 2010.
“My favourite time in the day was six o’clock in the evening. I’d hear the bells going in Lisronagh and I’d think, great, thanks be to God at least to a certain degree. The phone calls would stop and people would stop calling in. I mean that’s how bad it was.”
With financial advice, the burden has eased and, although she’s not quite out of the woods yet, the rate at which business is growing has allowed for some breathing room. They are currently preparing to host their first summer concert.
“What we would both love is to have concerts here on a more regular basis, that it gets known for having, like, a jazz weekend , not an Electric Picnic style, nothing near that big. Something small, maybe 500 to 1,000 people.”