The shows will go on at East Cork venue... in late autumn

Rory Allen, the man behind the Ballymaloe Grainstore in East Cork, tells CHRIS DUNNE about the impact of shutting the venue’s doors, and when he hopes to be back in business
The shows will go on at East Cork venue... in late autumn

Rory Allen at the Grainstore at Ballymaloe, which is currently closed because of the pandemic. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

IT’S been 72 days since the Ballymaloe Grainstore last staged an event — a ‘Remembering Joe Dolan’ tribute concert.

“It went down a bomb,” reflects Rory Allen, manager of the East Cork venue, of that March 8 gig.

There is no show like a Joe show.

“That is true,” says Rory. “Ray Dolan and the band were brilliant.”

Soon after that, all entertainment venues closed with the arrival of Covid-19.

“It is disappointing that the Grainstore had to close,” says Rory. 

“But then it is the same story throughout the country with concerts, gigs and events all postponed or cancelled.”

When does he hope to be open again for business?

“We’d be hoping towards the end of the year,” says Rory. 

“The Craft Fair in the third week of November is always very popular with people near and far, with crafters from all over the country setting up their stalls, as well as local food and drink producers.

“It would be great to be able to hold the Craft Fair this year.”

Some stellar stars were destined to appear in Ballymaloe this summer.

“Yes, we were looking forward to Des Bishop, Paul Brady, Sean Keane and Eddie Reader,” says Rory.

“The shows are now earmarked for late autumn, all going well and depending on the status of the pandemic.

Will Rory be hoping for a packed house?

“I’d say social distancing will still be in place even at the end of the year,” he says. 

“We can arrange seating for that in the Grainstore. But with half the crowd attending, I can only pay the artist half the fee!

“There is a big fall-out from the coronavirus financially,” admits Rory. “The Grainstore is my business. Obviously, farming still goes on, but my biggest business is the Grainstore.”

But it’s a closed shop for now.

“Now the whole business is completely gone,” says Rory.

The Grainstore hasn’t been idle in 10 years.

“That’s right,” says Rory. “It is a bit sad.”

Both music and farming are in his blood.

“Yes, I love music and singing,” says Rory, 68, who studied classical guitar. “I enjoy the entertainment side very much. Sometimes, work and family life takes over and you don’t get to practice or indulge in music as much as you’d like to over the years.”

Opening the Grainstore as a music and entertainment venue 10 years ago helped indulge that love of music.

The Grainstore, a well-known event and music venue, was always a feature at Ballymaloe — albeit in a different guise before.

“We used to store grain for pigs there and the building had fallen into disrepair,” says Rory, recalling the when day he got a brain-wave. “One day, it struck me; wouldn’t that building make a fabulous theatre?”

Like his trail-blazing mother Myrtle, who opened her home to diners in 1964, Rory saw a perfect opportunity for the public to rock up to his ancestral home in the tranquillity of Ballymaloe estate.

“Obviously, my job was always farming here on the 300 acre family farm in Shanagarry. My father, Ivan, worked a mixed farm and my mother used the fresh produce for her restaurant, the Yeats Rooms.”

Ballymaloe House and farm was a family affair.

“In my twenties and thirties I ran 1,000 sheep, sowed 100 acres of spuds and milked hundreds of cows,” says Rory. “It was a great life.”

He loved working in the great outdoors. “Farming was in my blood. Just like writing or painting; it has to be in you.”

Over the years, the venue has played host to the late Gay Byrne, Phil Coulter, comedians Tommy Tiernan and John Bishop. The former shed that housed pig feed has also hosted many weddings, exhibitions and events. President Bill Clinton dined there like a king when he visited Castlemartyr in 2012 as the guest of an Irish-American philanthropy group.

The subsequent renovation of ‘The Big Shed’ providing food and shelter in winter and summer, also feeds literary minds during the annual acclaimed Ballymaloe LitFest. “It just shows what can be done with a will to make it work,” says Rory.

“Music, like the land, has always been a passion of my mine.

“During lockdown, I went back to my classical musical roots practising playing Boccherini’s minuet on the mandolin. I’ve almost perfected it.”

So can we look forward to hearing a rendition of the minuet in the Grainstore later this year?

“I’ve only ever played in the Grainstore a couple of times, by invitation from the guest artists,” says Rory. 

“The acoustics are amazing. My usual haunt is in the drawing room, entertaining guests who enjoy a sing-song after dinner on Saturday nights at Ballymaloe House, or enjoying a session at the weekend in the local pub.”

But he did play with the RTÉ symphony orchestra once, didn’t he?

“I did. That’s my claim to fame!”

Rory saw an opening when the Grainstore became idle.

“Years ago, we reared loads of pigs on the farm,” he says. 

“When Ballymaloe House started up the novelty began to wear off. We discovered guests and pigs are not compatible!”

But surely the guests at Ballymaloe House relished feasting on the home-cured organic bacon and pork?

“Yes, they did,” says Rory. “But there are two ends to a pig!

“We began to change the farming system on the Ballymaloe farm.

“The glasshouses were erected where we grew mushrooms and tomatoes and seasonal vegetables. And we got out of rearing pigs.”

The big old shed that stored grain became redundant, like the pigs.

“That’s right,” says Rory. “The Grainstore is a big old ancient building, so old that in some parts of the original back walls you can still see the gun slots inserted in the wall. Three sides of the Grainstore were extended. It was in terrible bad repair.”

But the ancient building had potential.

“It was a big open space and had two levels front and back. There was potential for a gallery where people could sit enjoying a concert while mingling and having a drink.

“I got advice from a friend about re-roofing the Grainstore. He drew up the plans, and we decided to keep the walls in place as an original feature.”

Rory has architecture in his blood too. “My mother’s people, the Hills, were well-known Cork architects,” he says.

“The AIB building on the South Mall and Brown Thomas are two of the iconic buildings in Cork that the Hills were involved in.”

The ambitious project required a lot of financial input before the fortress-like building could be transformed into an entertainment venue with a capacity to hold 300 people.

“The new roof proved very expensive,” says Rory. “Because of the financial input needed to renovate the Grainstore, it sat there for four or five years.”

Then another member of the Allen family saw the perfect opportunity to have a day in the Grainstore.

“My youngest daughter, Roisín, decided she’d like to get married in the Grainstore,” says Rory.

He and a team of helpers got their act together to make the wedding day a memorable one.

“There was a big drive to get the Grainstore open and ready for Roisin’s wedding,” says Rory. 

“It was a fantastic occasion. I was on my way to becoming an events manager!”

And his son was primed to take over farming duties on Ballymaloe farm. “Darren took over the farm, working the land now growing crops,” says Rory. “It happened organically really.

“There wasn’t an enormous work-load, now there were no animals to feed or look after. Farming is hard-work and there is a limit to farm income. It is hard to make money.”

Rory worked hard for the money.

“I enjoyed rearing and feeding pigs, looking after herds of sheep and shearing them,” say Rory. 

“I enjoyed growing potatoes when I was doing that. It is good to have a challenge in life. I think if you have a passion in life you should harness it and try to follow it. It’s not always about making money. My mother had a passion for cooking with fresh produce. She found that so rewarding. Money didn’t come into it.”

Did Rory inherit his mother’s love of cooking?

“I cook when I’m hungry!” he says.

Rory laments that Covid 19 forced a lot of music venues to be closed and events to be cancelled.

He has an appetite to get back on the band wagon and welcome artists and music fans to the Grainstore when the pandemic is over.

“I’m really happy to have this challenge in life.

“The Grainstore got a new lease of life — and it is great people can get enjoyment out of it.”

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