The wedding venue that turned away Kim and Kanye

Celebrity guests have been the norm at Bal­li­nacurra House. It’s no won­der it just picked up an award for Best Wedding Venue, writes Ailin Quin­lan

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Feature -

KING of Pop Michael Jackson stayed here, and it’s also hosted roy­alty, heads of state and fash­ion in­dus­try ex­ecs; Kim Kar­dashian and Kanye West wanted to come, but were turned away. Over the years, guests at Bal­li­nacurra House in Kin­sale have in­cluded bil­lion­aire Heineken heiress Char­lene de Car­valho-Heineken and King Willem-Alexan­der of the Nether­lands. The background to how a di­lap­i­dated man­sion lo­cated just three min­utes from Ire­land’s pic­turesque gourmet cap­i­tal evolved into one of Ire­land’s most sought-af­ter pri­vate lux­ury wedding and cor­po­rate venues is a fas­ci­nat­ing one.

Its story en­com­passes ev­ery­thing from a pres­ti­gious Hong Kong events man­age­ment agency to Paul McCart­ney’s man­sion in Mon­tego Bay and some fas­ci­nat­ing spec­u­la­tion about a gang of — en­tirely fic­ti­tious — drug barons.

This 18th-cen­tury Ge­or­gian res­i­dence, which sits on 40 acres of breath­tak­ing grounds and walled gar­dens, has not only carved out a rep­u­ta­tion as a sought-af­ter cor­po­rate events venue, but also as one of the most beau­ti­ful and pri­vate wedding lo­ca­tions of choice for cou­ples from Ire­land and over­seas. Af­ter they pur­chased it in 2000, Des McGa­han and his Aus­tralian wife Lisa spent four years — and an eye-wa­ter­ing amount of money — restor­ing the res­i­dence be­fore launch­ing it as a be­spoke, beau­ti­fully de­signed pri­vate venue for the cor­po­rate sec­tor. The ele­gant coun­try man­sion, which nes­tles be­hind 10fthigh walls, se­cu­rity gates and sprawl­ing wood­land quickly be­came one of Ire­land’s most sought-af­ter venues for cor­po­rate func­tions of all kinds. But the jour­ney wasn’t all plain sail­ing, as Des is the first to ac­knowl­edge — there was plenty of stormy wa­ter to come.

The story re­ally be­gins in the late 80s in Mon­tego Bay, Ja­maica, where Des, who had es­tab­lished his own highly suc­cess­ful events man­age­ment agency in Hong King — the largest in Asia at the time — was over­see­ing prepa­ra­tions for a ma­jor golf tour­na­ment.

“We rented two beau­ti­ful man­sions in Mon­tego Bay — one be­longed to Paul McCart­ney, one to Luis Vuit­ton,” he re­calls, adding that each man­sion played host to a range of celebri­ties and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives in pri­vate, beau­ti­fully-ap­pointed sur­round­ings.

It was a mem­o­rable time in his ca­reer, and a few years later, when Des sold his com­pany Prism and re­turned to Ire­land, he de­cided to recre­ate that ele­gance by turn­ing the 25,000sq ft Bal­li­nacurra House into an ex­clu­sive-use pri­vate es­tate com­plete with res­i­dent Irish wolfhound, Os­car. His vi­sion was worlds away from the fa­mil­iar hum­drum en­vi­ron­ment of the tra­di­tional Irish ho­tel.

“It’s com­pletely pri­vate, for ex­clu­sive use. We don’t do pack­ages. We tai­lor the event com­pletely to the wishes of the client, spe­cialise in creative so­lu­tions to the clients’ needs,” he says, adding that for four years he and Lisa worked ex­tremely hard to turn the 1770’s-era man­sion into the vi­sion of glam­our, lux­ury and splen­dor that it is to­day.

The cou­ple trav­elled across the globe sourc­ing in­di­vid­ual items for the cul­tur­ally-themed rooms and de­signed ev­ery inch of it them­selves. Fol­low­ing the launch in 2004, how­ever, Bal­li­nacurra House ini­tially hit a wall. “Start­ing a sole pri­vate events house in Ire­land was not easy — peo­ple sim­ply didn’t get the con­cept,” Des re­calls now.

“Peo­ple didn’t un­der­stand that this was a pri­vate venue for clients and not a tra­di­tional ho­tel for the gen­eral pub­lic. I was ac­cused of be­ing ar­ro­gant and stupid. I was ac­cused of ev­ery­thing — from be­ing a drug lord to a drug baron.

“Peo­ple laughed at me. There was all sorts of spec­u­la­tion about what I was up to. Here was this beau­ti­ful Ge­or­gian Irish coun­try es­tate — and no­body was al­lowed in.

“It seemed very odd to peo­ple at the time and they couldn’t un­der­stand the con­cept, even though this is quite nor­mal over­seas.”

How­ever, be­tween 2004 and 2008 Bal­li­nacurra House be­came steadily more pop­u­lar as a pri­vate cor­po­rate en­ter­tain­ment venue. In 2007 came the sec­ond bump in the road — the eco­nomic down­turn.

“We had about 25 book­ings go­ing into 2008 and all of them were can­celled as a re­sult of the re­ces­sion,” says Des. Recog­nis­ing the writ­ing on the wall, he and Lisa put their heads to­gether and de­cided to diver­sify into the high-end pri­vate wedding mar­ket.

“We ex­tended our garden room to increase our ca­pac­ity and tar­geted the in­ter­na­tional wedding mar­ket in the UK, the USA and Asia.”

It took the cou­ple an­other four years to get things back on an even fi­nan­cial foot­ing, but by 2012 things had stead­ied and there was a good buzz hap­pen­ing in the over­seas wedding mar­ket.

Af­ter all, as Des points out, if you were to rent a sim­i­larly ex­clu­sive prop­erty in the UK or over­seas, the rental alone for two days — not in­clud­ing food, drinks or any of the other wedding es­sen­tials — would cost in the re­gion of €40,000.

“We give the same or bet­ter qual­ity and style with ev­ery­thing, for about a quar­ter of the price.”

These days, about 70% of the busi­ness of Bal­li­nacurra House comes from over­seas clients, though the num­ber of Irish clients is steadily in­creas­ing. The venue cur­rently hosts around 60 high­end wed­dings a year, while its cor­po­rate busi­ness is back and boom­ing. It won first prize at the re­cent Wed­dings On­line Awards in Fe­bru­ary. Bal­li­nacurra House was not only voted Best Ex­clu­sive Wedding Venue in Ire­land but also won Over­all Venue of the year, beat­ing off stiff com­pe­ti­tion from over 600 fi­nal­ists from across the coun­try.

These days Des has plenty to smile about. He also smiles about the day in 2014 when he be­came prob­a­bly the only man in the world to say ‘no’ to Kim Kar­dashian. When the celebrity hon­ey­moon­ers in­di­cated their de­sire to take over the pri­vate es­tate for their much-pub­li­cised Irish stay, Des had to tell them that, alas, Bal­li­nacurra House was al­ready booked for a wedding: “I said ‘they Kanye stay’,” he chuck­les.



1. Don’t con­form. Don’t feel you need to fol­low wedding rules. If you want to be dif­fer­ent, ob­serves Des, be dif­fer­ent — but in a way that re­flects your personality and in­di­vid­ual style.

2. Make best use of your bud­get. If you want to do some­thing re­ally spe­cial, con­sider re­duc­ing the length of your guest list, he sug­gests. Or split it into two groups — one for the wedding day it­self and one for the fol­low­ing day. Fo­cus your re­sources on the things that are im­por­tant to you. Ideally this would be a re­ally nice venue in an ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion and some su­per food — re­mem­ber, he quips, your wedding meal doesn’t have to be meat and two veg.

3. En­ter­tain­ment is a cru­cial el­e­ment: “En­ter­tain­ment equals at­mos­phere so if you have a lovely venue in a beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tion with great food and some re­ally well­cho­sen qual­ity en­ter­tain­ment, you’re there.” Em­pha­sise fun pri­ori­tise the ‘mem­o­ra­bil­ity fac­tor’.

4. Choose your venue wisely — don’t fall for the ‘pack­aged’ ap­proach to wed­dings. “These of­ten sound rea­son­able but end up cost­ing you more based on min­i­mum num­bers and things in­cluded that you may not want — if it looks cheap, it prob­a­bly is !”

5. Trust your venue — “They should know what they are do­ing and you should feel like you’re the only one that has ever got mar­ried there. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is vi­tal and your venue should al­ways be one step ahead of you.”

Picture: Larry Cummins

Des McGa­han at Bal­li­nacurra House, Kin­sale, Co Cork where Michael Jackson was once a guest. The man­sion won the Over­all Venue of the Year at the Wed­dings On­line awards in Fe­bru­ary.

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