For many people the word "estate" means nice culs-de-sac of houses with front lawns where children learn to kick a ball together. However, at Ballinacurra House, just outside Kinsale in Co Cork, estate means 10 hectares (25 acres) of totally private grounds with cottages, a coach house, stables, and a Georgian mansion where you can, quite literally, have a ball.
When Des and Lisa McGahan bought the place in 2000, their dream had been to create a retreat for captains of industry, pop stars, media-shy royalty and premiers to rent privately and come and enjoy themselves away from the world’s gaze. And come they did, after four years of renovations, which went to the very heart of the house.
Taking the roof off, digging down into the floors, turning the old conservatory into a ballroom, and a stable wing into more bedrooms – there are now 14 bedrooms in the main house, all en suite – Des says the couple spent “an eye-watering amount of money”.
"Add," he suggests, "the amount we paid originally, the extra 10 acres we bought, and all the works, and you're probably looking at in the region of €7 million." Today, Knight Frank is seeking €6.35 million for the estate, which is in walk-in condition.
Yes, it’s a lot of money, but here’s a list of the things that money can buy for those who find themselves in the super-rich bracket, or who invest in things that cater to this cohort: space, beauty and privacy. You certainly have the space – the main house runs to about 1,709sq m (18,400sq ft). On the beauty front, the house, gardens and carefully landscaped grounds are glorious.
There's history too. Ballinacurra was originally built by John Swete, the high sheriff of Cork, funded by money inherited from his cousin, the duke of Marlborough. That was back in 1770, when the mansion house was described as a "small hunting lodge" on 300 acres. Our understanding of "small" has clearly changed in the intervening years.
It was subsequently home to the Bleasby family, who made their money in the leather industry, and spent it on building Ballinacurra's ballroom. In the 1950s, John Danford lived there – he was an artist, explorer, and, for a time, ambassador to Nigeria. Some of the items he acquired on his travels are still in the house today. After that, it went to the nuns who had looked after Danford when he was ill, and from there back into private hands, as both a family home and exceptionally salubrious holiday retreat.
And what about privacy? While some of us like to meet people when we travel, others prefer to bring everyone they want with them. The McGahans got the idea for a hospitality estate from Des's time overseas as co-founder of events agency Prism. Working on a golf tournament in Jamaica, Des rented two mansions – belonging to Louis Vuitton and Paul McCartney respectively. Using the houses to accommodate a host of celebrities and executives, he began to wonder whether such a notion would work in Ireland.
Selling Prism gave the couple the means to buy in Kinsale and work on the dream. “We were looking for a slower pace of life,” says Des, adding that it’s not Covid-19 that is causing the current estate sale. “We had a 20-year goal, and we’ve met it. We were always going to stay here until the kids grew up.” Now that the couple’s eldest daughter is a cyber psychologist, and the youngest is attending UCC, that goal has been achieved.
Rent Ballinacurra for a week (for about €40,000) and once within its high walls you are in a world of your own. The estate's reputation for attention to detail in luxurious seclusion is so strong that it has hosted King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Heineken heiress Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, and it was famously already booked out when Kim Kardashian and Kanye West came calling.
On a tour of the house, the bedrooms are picked out in different themes: the two principal ones at the front of the main part of the house are beautifully Georgian, with period detailing, while further back and in the wings, there are southeast Asian themes. “And because I’m Australian, verandas everywhere,” says Lisa proudly.
The house is decorated in a relaxed style – no sitting primly in these louche lounges. As well as the ballroom, there is a garden room, two bars, an outdoor area with an additional bar and pizza oven, and a friendly kitchen (plus a commercial one behind).
Outside, there are three estate cottages, all beautifully restored. There is also a stable block, landscaped walks, water features and a private jetty onto the Bandon river. As the estate owns the land on both sides of the river, you're in no danger of being overlooked. The house where the McGahan family currently live can also be added to the sale – subject to negotiation.
Ballinacurra’s location close to Kinsale, with its reputation as a gourmet capital, its proximity to Cork Airport, plus the famous Old Head golf course nearby, makes the whole thing a heady proposition. Des gets excited as he enumerates the possibilities, talking of the new hybrid future of working which could well call for somewhere just like this for executives to meet in person occasionally. And as a country escape for elusive superstars, industry magnates and expat escapists? It has already been thoroughly road-tested by them all.