Revisiting the Past

Urban exploration (often shortened to urbex or UE) is the examination of the normally unseen or off-limits parts of urban areas or industrial/derelict facilities. I haven’t shot much urbex, probably because of the lack of abandoned industrial facilities where I live. However, it is a genre that does interest me, and many other photographers I know. So what’s the attraction?

Well, it’s probably something to do with the kid inside us all that loves to go exploring and also the adult that wants to know a little more about the history of these particular places.

I don’t know if Ballinafad House, also known as Ballinafad College comes within the remit of urbex. It isn’t urban but it is abandoned, derelict has history and is certainly worth exploring. Perhaps it is rurex – rural exploration! 🙂
The estate is situated about 25 minutes drive from where I live and back in 2012, I explored it for the first and only time. It was originally a large country house boasting 50 bedrooms and 50 bathrooms. At 60,000 square foot and situated on 7 acres of land, you could spend lots of time exploring it. The surrounding countryside is quite scenic and I would imagine the grounds were very pretty in its heyday.

Ballinafad house, mayo
Shortly after parking up at the entrance to the house, I met the present owner. This wasn’t part of my plan! He was very reluctant to let me enter and photograph the house. However, this was his decision and I had to respect that. I put my camera bag and tripod back in the boot of the car and was ready to drive away.
Then for some unknown reason, he turned around and said, “Ah sure go on then, ya have 30 minutes”.
I ended up spending more than 2 hours in the house!
Ballinafad House was built in 1827. In May 1908 it was sold or gifted to the SMA (Society of African Missions) by Lieutenant Colonel Llewellyn Count Blake of Ballinafad and Cloghballymore.  In September 1908, the Society of African Missions opened the house as a Secondary school and Minor Seminary to accommodate students preparing for the missionary priesthood. It was named The Sacred Heart College.
Thousands of young men from all over Ireland received their secondary schooling there. Over the course of a 70-year period, between 400 and 500 pupils went on to be ordained to the missionary priesthood in the SMA. A number also went on to other seminaries and were ordained priests. In the mid-1970s, it was sold to Balla Mart and became an agricultural college for a few years.

Ballinafad house, mayo
When I arrived to photograph it in March 2012, it had been abandoned for quite a few years then, but most of the structure was still intact and the interior was reasonably dry. There were a few signs of petty vandalism and much of the paintwork had succumbed to the ravages of time. The floors on two of the upper rooms had fallen away and all of the copper piping in the building had been “liberated”.
An eerie wind, let in through some broken windows blew down some of the long corridors.The place smelled warm and musty. But most of all, it reminded me of the Marie Celeste. It was like, one day all of the occupants just got up and left. Personal items, schoolbooks, and copies were stacked on shelves along with very out of date grocery products. Coats hung behind doors and some beds still had blankets on them.
At the time, I reveled in having this wonderful piece of history and this photographic canvas to myself. It was only later on when I looked back through the images that I shot that I realised it was also a strange and unsettling experience. I don’t get creeped easily but I did hesitate before entering some of the darkened rooms on the upper floor. And the chapel, just make sure it’s a nice bright day when you visit that! I shot about 300 images altogether that day. I posted 3 or 4 online back then and promptly forgot about the rest.

Ballinafad house, mayo
A few days ago in a discussion with a fellow photographer, the topic of urbex came up. He also had shot Ballinafad House, in more recent times. He told me that the building has now fallen into a much worse state of repair. The stairways have totally collapsed and therefore the upper floors are no longer accessible. The property would be quite dangerous to explore now.
After that discussion, I went back through my archives and looked at the images that I shot that day in Ballinafad. I decided to post a few more online. I was glad to have photographed the house before it fell into the condition it is in now. If you’d like to see more, I have a Ballinafad House album containing many more photographs on my Facebook page here. Feel free to browse.
I would caution anyone that may be tempted to go and photograph this old place. As I mentioned, the house has become much more dilapidated and therefore would present a considerable health risk. It must also be noted that this is private property and I did receive permission from the owner to shoot it.
However, if you do ever go “urbexing”, please remember the golden rule – ‘Leave no trace, other than footprints’.
That means not taking any ‘souvenirs’ and definitely no breaking and entering!
Thanks for reading this far and as always, feel free to comment or share.

Ballinafad house, mayo

UPDATE: I have recently been contacted by the owner of this property and while they were very understanding of my visit there, they were keen to point out that the property is currently undergoing renovation and advised not to visit without an appointment.
As I said in this article, the property is in a dilapidated state and I would encourage any readers to observe the owners wishes.


  1. Martina says

    Your photography is outstanding indeed, and as always, brings me to a different, better place. And, yes, the childhood in us loves to explore, still. Never lose that fine quality of yours. Thanks very much for sharing.

  2. Eamon says

    Lovely article. Will now check you FB. Ionising a shame that places such as this fall into disrepair and are. Lost forever. Also so much history on our doorsteps. Some we miss.

  3. John JoBo says

    Great Article & Pictures, also a nice tip for when I visit Erin for the 11th time in 2014…
    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  4. Proj3ct M4yh3m says

    Nice work i love that first shot with the picture on the staircase 🙂

  5. Aidan Griffin says

    I was a student there in 1956. My memories of the place are not very pleasant.

  6. Val says

    Brilliant John, is this place easy to find?

  7. Stellaluna says
    1. John says

      At least some of the pews are still there. You can see them in the other shots of the chapel if you follow the link to my Facebook album.

  8. Richard Ricker says

    Great post. I am facing a few of these issues as well..

  9. Reiltin Murphy says

    Dear John,
    Would you happen to have a photo of any figurative stained glass from Ballinafad College? I am researching the work of my late parents who were artists with Murphy Devitt Stained Glass Studios in Dublin and am almost certain that they have work in the college chapel. The Inscription “Behold thy Mother” (which I found elsewhere) is very like their inscriptions. I have found full size cartoons depicting, as far as I can make out, windows showing the life of Christ. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.
    Your photographs are so atmospheric.
    Thank you,

  10. jamescallaghan says

    lovely to see the photos of ballinafad was a student there in 1986

  11. Ger Fleming says

    I left ballinafad in 1975. The year the SMA closed it as a college. Not before time.

  12. Tom says

    Was a student there from 68-72, Sad to see the state of the place now.
    Thanks for the article and pictures.

  13. Paddy O rourke says

    Was a student there from 66/71.. Have to say i really enjoyed looking at the old photo!s. Brought back a lot of old memories, some good and some not so good of my time there…..Still sad to see the state of the old place now…Thanks for the memories….

    1. John Mee says

      Thanks Paddy. You may be interested to know that the new owner is doing the place up. He’s a nice chap too and will gladly let you have a wander around with permission.

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