What a milestone year 2023 was for Niav Riley.

She turned 50, returned to college; oh, and for good measure, she also bought a former credit union in her adopted village of Ballinakill, Co Laois, which she has lovingly converted as a shop, gallery and creative space for locals and artists alike.

“Basically, it’s forming a little community in the heart of a community,” Niav says of Market SQ Studios, which opened last November after a six-month renovation project that did not come without its set-backs.

Originally from Portumna, Co Galway, Niav is well-known for her work as a milliner, with wins including ‘Best Hat’ at the Galway Races in 2005, cementing her success from the earliest days of her career.

In more recent years, she has pivoted towards teaching millinery classes as well as supplying specialist equipment for other designers, graduating from working from home to renting a shared workshop space in nearby Abbeyleix with friend and soap maker, Danielle Doody.

“We were just out the other side of the COVID-19 lockdowns and our rent really went up,” she explains. “We just couldn’t handle that at the time. So, we had to leave and decided that we would look everywhere to find somewhere to move to.”

Leap of faith

Buying a building was certainly not on the agenda. But as the search for a suitable rental dragged on, one day in 2022, Niav noticed that the former credit union in Ballinakill was being cleared out. With its prime position and rich history in village life, it was exactly the type of space she was looking for.

“It had been sitting empty for five years or something and I asked them would it be possible to rent it and they said, ‘No, we’re putting it up for sale’. So I kind of thought, ‘Huh, that’s the end of that,’” recalls Niav.

She did, however, happen to mention it to her father, John, who had experience in renovating old buildings. Six months later, when it eventually came on the market, he went along to take a look while Niav was away on holidays.

“He contacted me and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ So that was actually really scary!” says Niav, laughing.

The father-daughter team made an offer under the asking price of €175,000, which was accepted, and received the keys in February 2023. Renovations on the 200-year-old property began in earnest, with John taking a lead role; but unfortunately, just three months into the project, disaster struck when a simple fall on site led to severe consequences.

“He just missed his footing – he fell really awkwardly – but he actually broke his neck, and was airlifted to hospital, so it was all very traumatic at the time,” says Niav.

Fortunately, John has gone on to make a good recovery; but the accident did mean that Niav had to project-manage the renovation by herself: a steep learning curve.

“There was a lot of pressure,” she reflects, “it was time for the big girl pants.”

Fortunately, Niav had the support of her husband Ronan, as well as the team of tradespeople they had assembled. Having done as much of the work as they could themselves – and upcycling materials where possible – she estimates that the renovation cost around €70,000 to open the doors in November 2023.

While the majority of this was self-funded, she was able to avail of some support, such as the ‘New Business Incentive Scheme’. This provides a grant on commercial rates for a new business when it occupies a building that has been vacant for a long time e.g. a grant for 75% for rates in year one, 50% in year two and 25% in year three.

Creative vision

Originally, Niav had just been searching for a new studio space, but as the project evolved, so did her vision.

She returned to college to complete a post-graduate certificate in creative and cultural entrepreneurship, which was being run by Trinity College Dublin in conjunction with the Design and Crafts Council Ireland in Kilkenny.

Meeting like-minded people on her course, it soon became clear that many other creatives were struggling to find a suitable work space, as well as an easily accessible market place.

Niav Riley (right) pictured with her friend Danielle Doody, who co-runs the charming shop and gallery. \ Claire Nash

This in turn inspired her to open the first floor of the building as a gift shop and gallery, showcasing Irish craft and design, with over 20 makers now in stock ranging from jewellery and ceramics to art and woodturning. Work is taken on a ‘sale or return’ basis to keep the risk low for both parties, with the shop taking a small commission on sales, and a three-month period offered to trial new suppliers.

“The shop is all about giving a voice and supporting artists who might feel like they’re not the people you will see in the galleries in the cities, but they’re all producing beautiful art,” says Niav. “So, we can give them that shop window and encourage them.”

Similarly inspired by her course, Niav also decided to develop studios/offices for rent. While she originally thought this space would appeal to other makers, however, it has proven popular with people offering services such as art therapy and podiatry.

That said, they share much in common.

“Most therapists are women… they’re all trying to work around family and part-time hours and they need a rent that makes sense – that they can manage to pay and make a reasonable living,” says Niav. “That’s all any of us want.”

Finally, Niav decided to add a hospitality element to the enterprise, selling locally roasted Craic Coffee, along with home-baked treats made by her teenage daughter, Sive. While there is currently limited seating inside, this aspect has nonetheless proven popular with everybody from people working remotely from home who need a caffeine kick, to ramblers walking in the nearby Heywood Gardens.

Boost to community

The fact that Ballinakill has seen services such as its post office and garda station close in recent years emphasises the importance of having such a meeting space.

“I think it’s given a nice boost of confidence to the village,” says Niav, who co-runs the shop and gallery with her friend Danielle, but otherwise oversees the management of the property, from book-keeping to paperwork.

It’s been a big change for the milliner; but one she is relishing.

Market SQ Studios occupies a prime spot in Ballinakill, Co Laois. \ Claire Nash

“All of the things that happened over the last year, you start to become aware of maybe your own abilities and strengths,” reflects Niav, who hopes to inspire others with her story.

“Nobody is saying you can’t do something new mid-life and change your career and a lot of people do around that age. It’s a realisation maybe for a lot of people when they get there and kind of go, ‘Oh gosh, suddenly it could be 15 years, 17 years to retirement.

“‘So, if I really want to do what I’ve always wanted to do, I better get moving!’”

• Market SQ Studios is currently open Friday-Sunday from 9am-3pm, with extended hours planned for summer. Follow on Facebook or Instagram @marketsqstudios

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