A hub of creativity in East Cork

Greywood Arts in Killeagh is a remarkable combination of residency and workshop space. Jessica Bonenfant tells CHRIS DUNNE how it came about — with a lot of help from Social Impact Ireland
A hub of creativity in East Cork

TRANSFORMATION: Jessica Bonenfant

THE story of Greywood is as fascinating and compelling as any drama you might see on Netflix.

A former dance choreographer and New Yorker, Jessica Bonenfant, and her husband, Hughie Coogan, took a giant leap of faith to pursue their crazy dream to open an artist residency and workshop space at Greywood in Killeagh, a former RIC barracks dating back to 1767.

“We were looking at a convent in Macroom first,” says Jessica.

“But when we saw Greywood it was love at first sight and it was the perfect place to welcome our neighbours, the community and everybody interested in connecting, conversing and swapping ideas.”

Greywood officially opened its doors in June, 2017.

The creative pair, Jessica and Hughie, set about creating a beautiful space with a studio, classroom and event/exhibition centre for the community, and for artists and writers to connect and share their muse.

“We were dreaming of a project where we could turn a place with great history into a site where our skills in the arts and cultural non-profits could intersect,” says Jessica.

Hughie had a big input into breathing new life and creativity into its rooms.

“It involved a lot of dust!” says Hughie. “And a lot of de-cluttering!

“There was a lot of damp. We had to take the plaster off the walls so that we could dry-line them. There was no heating system in place. We spent two years sourcing materials and furniture for the house.”

The couple remained undeterred as they set about making their romantic dream come true.

“We had the vision and we had the passion,” says Jessica.

Greywood, with so much potential, was perfect for community and for artists to come together, enjoying group involvement and to explore the creative process. Neighbourly volunteers got in on the act to make Greywood a creative reality.

“There is so much going on here in East Cork where the arts are so special,” says Jessica.

“The history, the heritage, the language, poetry, dance; all these things are so visible here.”

Three storeys tall, Greywood sits beside the Dissour River and the ivy-coated piney Glenbower Wood is within its sights.

Before Covid hit, Jessica and Hughie, who worked so hard at restoring Greywood where they welcome people, were on course to continue offering artistic residencies and inviting the community inside, getting the creative hub buzzing with people exchanging ideas, and enjoying a wonderful creative experience together. The historical coach house would be the piéce de la resistance of the creative hub.

“We were fortunate to get support from the Leader funding and from Cork County Council,” says Jessica.

“And also from a particular Trust helping us renovate the derelict building.

TRANSFORMATION: Jessica says when she saw Greywood, a former RIC barracks datng back to 1767, it was love at first sight.
TRANSFORMATION: Jessica says when she saw Greywood, a former RIC barracks datng back to 1767, it was love at first sight.

“Renovating the coach house, a historical building, was a big project and with a well-supported Crowd-funding initiative we set up, the renovations are moving forward to making the coach house a fabulous event centre where everyone is welcome to enjoy the variety of programmes and workshops we offer.

“Having a separate work space for artists to study and write is hugely beneficial. That is the thing we are most frequently asked about, especially since the pandemic.”

Their best laid plans went astray when Covid hit.

Jessica, consumed by the project so close to her heart, working all hours in the house and the garden, suffered burn-out.

“I felt completely overwhelmed by all the endless long hours of work,” says Jessica.

“Apart from the physical work, planning, brain-storming and managing finances for the project, all took its toll. It became exhausting.”

She sought out some good advice.

“I saw where Social Impact Ireland were offering support to social entrepreneurs on how best to manage their affairs. I signed up online with a view to hosting a social impact incubator programme for like-minded people starting an enterprise or wishing to get valuable advice on how to move forward.”

Social Impact Ireland, which supports social entrepreneurs across the country, realising a greater need for a stronger support system for entrepreneurs finding it tough in Ireland at the moment, step in with sound advice and suggestions.

“We received a big boost undergoing the ‘Business for Social Impact’ incubator programme,” says Jessica, who hosted six other social entrepreneurs at Greywood interested in the programme that focuses on life/work balance, complimenting the goals of social entrepreneurs.

The ISBC is a new collaboration initiative, set up in the interest of providing a support system for social enterprises across Ireland.

Their aim is to help foster a growing community of viable, robust and socially impactful businesses and individuals.

“Pauline Gannon co-founder of Social Impact Ireland, looked at the clear purpose of our enterprises; what to say yes to, what to prioritise, tying all the pieces together,” says Jessica.

“She showed us how to carve up the important division between working at our enterprises, separating the two, and taking some time out for ourselves.”

The social entrepreneurs saw more clearly going forward.

“The programme offered us a clear model of how to run our business, get it up and running as well as promoting our own personal growth,” says Jessica.

Greywood Arts involved breathing new life into an old building
Greywood Arts involved breathing new life into an old building

“We were exposed to new ideas on how to capitalise on our assets and on how best to move forward.”

Jessica learned that it is important to separate personal life from business life.

“Projects like ours can be all-consuming,” says Jessica. “It never stops.

“It is important to take time out for yourself to get a good work/life-balance.”

Participants from throughout Munster came to Greywood early last year to take part in the social impact incubator programme, showing great resilience in adapting mid-programme to an online delivery due to Covid 19 restrictions.

“The seven Cork enterprises ranged from creativity and wellness in young children, enhancing fitness in older generations, promoting camping in the great outdoors, to our community events and Arts hub centre here and much more,” says Jessica.

Everyone involved benefited from the programme.

“We all got so much from the input offered from Pauline, co-founder of Social Impact Ireland,” says Jessica.

“I’ve participated in other business courses and while they were very good, I felt that as a social enterprise I had an extra piece that didn’t fit into their models.

“With the incubator, I was able to name that piece as ‘impact’ and put it front and centre. With ISBC, impact is the driving force and I was able to get really clear and articulate about why what we do at Greywood Arts matters.”

It mattered that the seven participants connected together and provided an on-going network being available for each other.

“Having support mentors is brilliant,” says Jessica.

Having a lovely home with full time residents, two dogs, two cats, two goats, and five hens is brilliant.

“We all love it here at Greywood,” adds Jessica.

Other people will love it too when they can visit.

“Greywood Arts is like a guesthouse for artists where they can stay in self-catering accommodation and have access to workspace,” says Jessica.

Fun can be had at Greywood too.

“For sure!” says Jessica.

“We plan to fill it with music, dance and song.”

Email: greywood-arts@gmail.com

See: greywoodarts.org.

More information about Social Impact Ireland at hello@socialimpactirealnd.ie

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