Meet the 'accidental event manager' who has called Cork home for the past 20 years

In her monthly Wow! Bites column, KATE RYAN catches up with Bree Allen, Operations Manager of Ballymaloe Grainstore, ahead of the annual May Fair Festival
Meet the 'accidental event manager' who has called Cork home for the past 20 years

Bree Allen in action Ballymaloe May Fair 2022. Picture: Joleen Cronin

BREE Allen is the Operations Manager of Ballymaloe Grainstore, the multi-purpose event space nestled between the grand Big House and the rustic Big Shed on the Ballymaloe estate.

Known widely as a picturesque venue for gigs, weddings, yoga retreats and twice-yearly food and craft fairs, the building pays homage to its original roots as the farm’s actual grain store.

From May 12-14, the Grainstore will be the beating heart of May Fair. Now in it’s second year, and cousin to the long-running November craft fair, the May Fair heralds in summer, drawing people from all over the country to seek out the very best of Irish food, craft and music, alongside informative workshops, interactive spaces and drama.

Ballymaloe May Fair 2022. Picture: Joleen Cronin
Ballymaloe May Fair 2022. Picture: Joleen Cronin

I asked Bree, in our monthly WoW! Bites article, what it takes to get events like May Fair off the ground, what it is about event management that she loves, and how food is at the centre of happenings at the Grainstore.

Hailing originally from Australia, Bree came to Ballymaloe 20 years ago, working roles from front of house, bar and reception all the way to managing the Grainstore, owned by her father-in-law, Rory Allen.

“I ended up running events because I had very strong opinions about how I thought the space should be run, so I thought if I’m going to have strong opinions, I should just do it. So, it started as a favour to my father-in-law, but now it’s all-encompassing.”

Bree attended hospitality college in Australia, but admits that, when it comes to event management she has “no training, and I do everything on instinct.” That instinct is based on a love of curating all things food and craft related.

Back in Australia, Bree ran a shop specialising in restoration of hardware and lighting, sparking her talent for seeking out the unique and unusual where a craftsperson skill is evident.

“When I started going to the fairs as a punter, I realised I had very strong vision of what kind of craft and food stalls should be there. I spend a lot of time curating the fairs and events and that’s really where my passion lies with festivals; making sure that when a guest walks in, everything they see has an Irish connection – made or designed in Ireland by an Irish-owned company.

Ballymaloe Craft Fair 2021
Ballymaloe Craft Fair 2021

“I’m a shopper – I love shopping! If I go into a craft shop anywhere in Ireland and see something I like, I take a photo and contact the maker, or I see them on Instagram, or they get in touch with me. I spend all year looking for different things and getting a feel for different products. I love pottery, I love jewellery and I love food, but I must make sure there’s something for everyone and not just the things that I really love!

“Food is there because someone’s had this amazing idea to make a health tonic or a different kind of jam. There are so many amazing things going on and I can provide a platform and give them a lift. 

"6,000 people come to our festivals, taste a spoonful of that jam and maybe 500 will buy a pot - or even just brand recognition for them; that’s really what we’re trying to help with.”

The vision for the Grainstore was originally as a music venue, reflecting Rory Allen’s “deep love of music,” explains Bree. The renovation of the space completed in 2008, and soon after Bree and her husband, Cullen Allen, were married at the Grainstore.

“We still do gigs, we have lots of weddings, and four yoga retreats a year that are based on an overall experience of wellness with delicious food,” explains Bree, as well as May Fair and the Craft Fair in November.

The famous Ballymaloe food experience is without doubt one of the big draws of the Grainstore: from a traditional wedding breakfast to food that enhances the feeling of wellness on a yoga retreat.

“Food is where we start with our events because that’s where Ballymaloe starts. You can’t have one without the other, and if the food is right, everything else becomes right,” says Bree.

When it comes to the fairs, food is represented by Bree’s carefully curated selection of food and drink producers and hot food vendors.

“The food trucks that sprung up everywhere during the pandemic, they’re amazing to have – if we can get them, because they don’t like leaving their spots! We do rely on them taking a bit of a chance on an unknown; they all know of Ballymaloe but it’s still a big risk for them to take, to leave their plot, where they know they’re going to sell out, to lift everything and come here. But we’ve had really interesting people that have food trucks and are doing really great things.”

It’s important that the food vendors selected represent many of the core food values held by Ballymaloe as a whole: local, seasonal, scratch made food using good quality ingredients.

Ballymaloe Craft Fair 2021.
Ballymaloe Craft Fair 2021.

“That’s very important to me,” says Bree, “and that we don’t just have hamburgers and chips, or if we do, they’re the best hamburger and chips you’re going to get from a food truck. We had Sinead Doran [formerly head chef of Crawford Art Gallery café] with her food truck, Orbit, at the Craft Fair last year, turning out the most amazingly delicious steak sandwiches.”

Bree sees curating the food side of fairs as equal to her passion for curating the crafts.

“I do love food, it’s an extension of my shopping, really. There’s also a lot of word of mouth, and when you’re constantly surrounded by food and people talking about food, you do hear about different vendors and people suggesting who to go and try because their food is good.”

Bree says her favourite events at the Grainstore are the yoga retreats, three- and four-day escapes that pack in lots of gentle yoga practice, suitable for beginners as well as more experienced yoga enthusiasts, with time for personal wellness and lots of delicious food.

“I love yoga, and I love sitting with the guests at lunch and really getting to know them. Sharing a meal with people gives you a huge insight into them, but also how you can improve yourself. They put their trust in us to come and spend a weekend because time is precious.”

At the other end of the scale, Bree loves the energy and buzz of her two big craft fairs.

“I love the buzz, the music, the stalls; I love seeing thousands of people coming for something I and my team have put our hearts and souls into, and then heading away with these amazing things made in Ireland, bellies full of delicious food, smiling and kids running around. It’s lovely to see the place come alive like that.”

This year’s May Fair takes place May 12 to 14 and Bree and her team have packed as much as possible into what will be a magical weekend of food, craft, music and even an evening performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the romantic surrounds of the old Walled Garden.

“For May Fair, we have cooking demonstrations, a pop-up dinner with a guest chef in Ballymaloe House, and the Walled Garden will be turned into a wellness area with yoga and capoeira demonstrations.

“Cully & Sully are sponsoring Cool Food School and Deirdre Doyle will be doing children’s cooking demos all weekend.” But that’s not all.

Ballymaloe May Fair 2022. Picture: Joleen Cronin
Ballymaloe May Fair 2022. Picture: Joleen Cronin

“There will be natural wine tasting with Colm McCan, and a Forgotten Skills area where we have people demonstrating arious crafts with Tadhg Walsh-Peelo from West Cork making spoons, Patrick from 9 Irons blacksmithing; Stephen Costello bog oak carving all weekend, Katharina Treml doing pottery, and more besides.”

Drop-in one-hour Lego workshops, and arts and crafts workshops for kids led by Seek & Bloom Learning will be ideal for little ones while the adults grab a bit of free time to roam the festival.

And food and drink producers and hot food vendors will keep everyone fed and happy.

“Volcano Pizza, Spice Genie, Gidi’s Great on the Grill, Little Catch with their delicious doorstep prawn toasts, The Captain’s Catch, Tok-Yo Sushi and Koko Kinsale are just some of our vendors at the May Fair this year,” says Bree.

With so much going on at any one time, Bree says the most challenging part of the role is juggling work and home.

The most enjoyable part is watching everything come together into one big weekend of fun.

“It’s that weekend buzz of a festival, seeing the place busy, the stallholders happy because they’re selling and talking to people about what they do and what they like. That’s a huge plus.”

Bree says she became an event manager by accident, without any formal training but keenly follows her instinct. Her advice to someone interested in event management is to choose events you love: “Organising an event you don’t love is hard work. Trust your instincts, and if you don’t think something is going to work, it’s not going to work. I always have a vision, and if something doesn’t fit into that, or my instinct is that something isn’t going to work, the chances are it won’t. Trust yourself.”

Tickets for May Fair from Weekend tickets, €25; one-day tickets, €10, including entry for Friday evening’s performance of A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.

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