Kilcornan is a truely special place. The Brothers of Charity owned estate, which is located in the village of Clarinbridge, was for many years home to nearly 150 people with various forms of intellectual disability. However many parts of the facility now lie dormant due to the development of a community based strategy, which means service users have moved out to live in local villages and towns and are integrated into community life. This is now seen as best practice and it has meant a number of the buildings and facilities in Kilcornan are available for potential use by community groups and businesses.
There is a rich history associated with the estate. A church located on the grounds is as old as Westminster Abbey. The lands which include the stately Kilcornan House, were once home to the Norman Burkes and changed hands in 1763 coming into the ownership of the Redington family. The family contributed hugely to the local area, establishing schools and churches as well as developing the village of Clarinbridge.
In 1950 the Brothers of Charity Services purchased the land with the view to providing a care facility for people with intellectual disability from all across Ireland. A state of the art centre was developed and people from as far away as Donegal, Dublin, and Cork have availed of the services in Kilcornan. The Brothers of Charity is the main service provider for people with learning disabilities in Galway, Clare, Limerick, Roscommon, Waterford, and Cork. One thousand people avail of its service in Galway alone.
The Kilcornan Foundation was set up by the BOC in 2014 with the purpose of exploring and developing the grounds in a way that supports community, social, and charitable purposes. The foundation is made up of eight members, a number of whom are involved in local voluntary groups.
Why did the residents leave Kilcornan?
It is a question that is asked by many. When the bungalows at Kilcornan was first developed, it was seen as a huge advancement in services and was described as a state of the art facility for service users. This model of care was viewed as the best way to deliver services for many years and up to 150 people lived in Kilcornan at one point.
However the thinking changed in the 1980s and it was realised that the way forward for people with intellectual difficulties was living independently within a community setting, as opposed to being ‘sectioned off’ from the real world in Kilcornan. Some of the less severe cases began moving out of the centre to places like Boyle, Roscommon, Castlerea, Ballinasloe, and Gort. In the early 1990s, further moves were made to cement this model and Kilcornan is now home to only four inhabitents - who will leave the facility in May.
Brothers of Charity manager and Kilcornan Foundation chairperson Sean Conneally says when Kilcornan was built it was constructed like a village which was very much of its time. “It served its purpose but over time the bungalows became too small because they were initially designed for more able bodied individuals than some of those who ended up using them. As the years went on and people’s needs became more complex we realised there was a better way to look after them.”
Mr Conneally says it has been a hugely successful transition for the service. “All the houses that people have moved into are beautiful new homes, with great space and excellent facilities. It was obviously extremely important for our service users that we got this right. And I have to say we have had a fabulous welcome from all the communities our people have moved into. Lately they have gone to places like Athenry, Oranmore, and Ballinderrin. The feedback from our staff, service users’ families, and neighbours has been really, really, positive.”
So much potential
Now that Kilcornan is very nearly empty of its beloved residents, the question arises as to what is the best way to use this vast space. The total estate comprises about 130 acres and there are about 30 acres available to be explored for a number of different uses.
Brothers of Charity service users will rightfully always have a connection with Kilcornan. There are two day centres which former residents and others use for activities like arts and crafts and cooking and baking. There are also a lot of innovative activities taking place on the grounds. The Alzheimers Association has leased a bungalow for office use, and The Kilcolgan Educate Together school has procured a two year lease on three buildings and will locate there from September 2015. A pre-school will also open at the site in September.
A number of other projects are being piloted which include a keep fit programme and a catering project, while The Tribes beekeeping group has nine hives on the land and the idea is to educate school-children about the art of beekeeping. Indeed in what is a novel idea, two of the hives are perspex to explicitly display how the honey making process comes about.
The swimming pool at Kilcornan is certainly the site’s most utilised asset. It is wonderful for the people of South Galway to have this type of facility on their doorstep. Public pools are too few and far between in rural Ireland and this must be appreciated for the valuable commodity it is.
Many parents and grandparents in the area will have fond memories of bringing children to Kilcornan to learn to swim. And the popularity of water never wanes as between 1,000 and 1,500 schoolchildren still avail of the pool on a weekly basis. The pool is also continuously used by the former Kilcornan residents and other BOC service users while a number of other voluntary groups also avail of this wonderful facility free of charge.
A large hall which is situated beside the pool has many uses. During the day it hosts keep fit classes and local hurlers and camogie players have taken advantage of the space for training purpose. It also transforms into a badminton court and has hosted crowds of up to 500 people for musical productions.
Kilcornan is a place of many wonderful surprises and there is a courtyard and scenic walled garden hidden away at the back of the site. The little-known garden is open to the public from Monday to Friday but it is hoped opening hours will be extended to the weekends in the future. The potential of this space is huge, especially in the summer months when the weather is milder. It is a beautiful, calming spot. One would imagine it would be a fabulous setting for a summer barbecue or indeed an informal wedding. The paths and walkways on the land are extremely popular with locals but it seems a shame that this gem is a relative secret. With a little bit of clever marketing, Kilcornan could really become huge.
Sean Conneally talks a lot about ‘maintaining the social purpose’ of the facility. The idea is to maximise the use of Kilcornan - not to make a profit, but at least to become cost neutral, ie, pay for itself. The plan is that some paying tenants like Educate Together and the planned new pre-school cover the costs associated with providing the free services to those with disabilities. “Firstly we want to honour the people with disability, keeping the facilities like the pool and the hall for them and keeping the day centres here is critical. Those people will always be part of Kilcornan. But now that they are no longer resident on the premises we are keen to explore our options. It is a obviously a very beautiful place with fabulous grounds and we want to look at the best uses possible. Our aim is to have the facilities used by the wider community and be self sustaining economically.”
There is a very passionate, enthusiastic, team behind this initiative who certainly do not lack zeal. Joe Murphy is another member of the Kilcornan Foundation. A softly spoken individual, he is so clearly passionate about what the place has to offer. And he is not wide of the mark by describing it as amazing. “People love the walks and the woods. It is so natural and untouched and we have so much wildlife, yet it is close to the village of Clarinbridge and near the sea. We have so much land there is definite potential to develop a sports pitch for use by the local community. We would love to build a sensory garden and a craft village with a little cafe on site. We have got great support from Galway County Council and some tourism representatives. We are looking at other models like Bunratty Castle and Folk Park, Kylemore, Tullynally Castle and Gardens, Powerscourt, etc, for inspiration. We are now at an ideas stage, nothing will happen overnight, this is all going to be done over a long period of time.”
The Kilcornan Foundation will shortly begin a feasibility study to examine and suggest strategies for the development of the estate. Some of the ideas that have already come forward include the following; tourist services, walking trails, micro industry, a restaurant, coffee shop, craft centre, adventure activities, sports centre, and services for people who are ill, elderly, or have special needs.
As part of the feasibility study Kilcornan Foundation would like to hear from individuals and local organisations about any ideas for the development of the estate.
A public meeting will be held in Kilcornan Hall on Thursday April 23 to provide information on this project. In the meantime, anyone with queries or ideas for how Kilcornan can be developed should send them to Sean Conneally at The Brothers of Charity Services, Kilcornan, Clarinbridge, Co Galway, or e-mail, [email protected].