Cork couple Veronica and Maurice Kelleher saw potential in their farm out-houses and converted them into self-catering accommodations.
Two years after starting their business, in Riverstick, 10 km from Kinsale, the couple have also opened a family farmhouse as a self-catering accommodation.
Despite Veronica’s initial fears that she might not get bookings, she says diversifying has been the best thing she’s ever done for her.
“We wanted to make the farm more commercially viable so we started looking at our options,” she says. “We were under financial pressure, and it took all our problems away.
“The farm was originally a dairy farm and after Maurice took over it continued the dairy business for 15 years. Then in 2007 he dropped out – he found the venture was not as viable as it was and we could not expand because of the location of the farm. ,
Since 2007, Kellehers has focused on bull beef, buying in Friesian bull calves and selling them to Mart within the year. They also raise four good breed horses every year for racing and sale.
By 2018 they were using their three out-houses to raise mares, house cattle and chickens, but seeing the potential for farmhouse housing, they started them from scratch.
“We saw the potential in the farm, it’s always felt like a kind of magical place and we knew there was more to it,” says Veronica.
“When we went for drives on Sundays we would often come across Air B&Bs and self-catering lodges in Kinsale or the surrounding area and wonder if we should offer something like this.
“We wanted something that would give us more cash flow and that we could control.”
The couple decided to keep the structure of the homes, but renovated them completely, adding a mezzanine level with exposed beams and high ceilings. He went straight to the labor route and did all the work himself.
“The houses outside had a plaster finish and when we started to remove the plaster we realized it was stone behind it,” says Veronica.
“The stone was grand and authentic and very traditional so we decided to treat all that natural stone and build it back to maintain the character of the buildings and their traditional feel.
“However, it was a laborious process, and very laborious.”
Veronica and Maurice wanted to include their working farm as much as possible so that they cleared the cattle path through the fields so that guests could use them as walkways.
“We have unique, naturally occurring pathways through the farm and we did a little bit of work to make them accessible,” says Veronica.
“You can walk along the way to see cattle, horses and calves.
“We are next to a Koilte forest and we are just a two-minute walk from the village so people can walk through the farmland and border forestry and into the village, where there are so many lovely little attractions.
“We also bought four alpaca from a girl in Bantry and they are a great added attraction. Guests love to go downstairs to feed and walk.”
After two years of preparation, the Curragh Farm Lodge was ready to open just like the pandemic.
“We ran out of money several times but the lodge ran out in December 2019,” says Veronica. “I needed a back operation in the middle of everything so that we were also delayed.
“I was scared to open up to the public – we didn’t know if it would work.
“We did all the work and the lodges were fantastic, but I was still skeptical whether we’d get bookings. I thought, ‘Who’s going to vacation at Riverstick?’ But I was very wrong.
“We opened the hit week of Covid and were our first guests before the lockdown. We had to close again but once we reopened, we were blocked within a few days, I can’t believe it.
Kelhers also decided to renovate the family farmhouse where Maurice grew up, and also rented it out.
Veronica says, “My father-in-law was staying at the farmhouse and after he passed away in 2014 and 2017 we could not bring ourselves to touch the house.”
“However, it was starting to fall into disrepair, and we knew we had to do something. Since the lodges were running well, we decided to renovate the farmhouse for the same purpose.
“We toyed with the idea of adding an extension, but decided against it because we wanted to keep the house as traditional as possible.
“I think that’s what people like when it comes to farmhouse housing. They love the traditional feel and cozy atmosphere.”
Veronica says she often inquired from families who wanted to come but the lodges aren’t built for young children, so she saw the farmhouse as a way around it.
“It was a four-bedroom house and we moved it to two good-sized bedrooms where people from young families lived,” she says.
“It has a traditional farmhouse kitchen and a living room and surrounds it with gorgeous, exposed beams and window seats. You can see the local pub from the window seat of the kitchen.
“It took longer than expected to complete because we had bought a pub in the village in the middle of it – it stalled things out for money.
“We were having a hard time getting the money to finish it – we needed a loan because we went over budget. I wanted everything high-end like the Lodge and a quartz countertop and high quality furnishings was kept in
“People are paying us to be here so we thought, ‘Why shouldn’t they get a higher end one?’ They are paying us salaries and we appreciate it very much.”
Veronica says it’s important to be there to greet guests and show them around the residence and farm.
“We’ve found that it’s really important to be there to meet the guests,” she says. “People generally like to put a face to housing and they like the personal touch that Irish farming families offer.
“It’s a real family business here. Our son Tom (11) makes a final check with me before the guests arrive and then he brings the guests out to feed the alpaca and walks through the history of the breed.
“Conor (19), the eldest, walks the farm with guests and checks-in frequently if I’m not there.
“Mosie (14) walks the farm, shows people cattle and horses (from behind the fence) and then Tara (7) checks in with me.”
While the road to diversification hasn’t been without its challenges for Kellehers, Veronica says it’s the best thing ever.
“It’s life changing for us and for the farm,” she says. “It has made it viable and family-friendly but it hasn’t been without sacrifices.
“We no longer have summer vacations as it is a busy season for self-catering. The kids might not get that much attention from us at this point in time, but it’s great training for them and we’re showing them that hard work and sacrifice pay off.
“It has revived the farm and made it commercially viable. We have 98pc occupancy since opening. ,
Q&A: ‘We’re on about €400,000, between renovating the lodge and then the farmhouse’
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
In total, we are at around €400,000 between the renovation of the lodge and then the farmhouse. Indulging in self-catering is a big investment and not something to be taken lightly.
How long did it take for the business to be up and running?
The lodge took about two years – when we had the money we stopped and started over.
Then the house also took about two years. Things were getting delayed because we had bought a pub in the village, The Bubbling Brook, in the middle of renovation work.
What are your future plans for the farm and business?
We would like to add a wellness element to the farm. Alternative self-catering accommodation is trending and we want to build on that.
The farm, like most other farms across the country, has so much to offer that we often take it for granted when we are living with it every day.
Is there financial support available to diversify your farm like this?
It can be difficult to get financial aid initially when you are starting out. However, when you are expanding your business or your farm, it becomes easy to achieve.
Is there any grant-in-aid available?
Grants-in-aid is available from LEADER but we were not eligible for it.
Did you find any bodies or state agencies helpful when setting up your business?
Our local enterprise office was really good for support and advice. We got a business mentor who gave us a lot of encouragement and direction.
We have also received a trading online voucher to build our website.
Do you have to register with any body?
We are registered with Failté Ireland
What has been your biggest challenge since diversifying?
Financing was the biggest challenge. We wanted to go for a high-end finish, so we over budgeted – it was difficult to finish everything for what we wanted.
But we got there in the end and I think it’s paying off. We are fully booked from February to summer.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of opening a farm housing?
Do not let the old farm houses go to waste and ruin – they are in great demand.
There is a massive opening up to farm-based housing in general and this is a great agricultural diversification project to undertake.
It adds value and authenticity to any farm and there is something very rewarding about seeing your hard work pay off.
I would say believe in yourself and work hard, and don’t tell too many people what you are planning. Keep it private until you get well into it.
Look at it from an objective point of view: Ask yourself, ‘What does a stranger need if he lives here?’
Don’t be afraid to fail, there is a lot of support out there and this is a great way to add value to your farm.