Whatever day of the week you decide to visit Billy’s Tea Rooms in Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny, you will not only find a warm welcome and an all-day Irish breakfast, but also probably some of the players from prolific GAA club Shamrocks – which is just across the road.

Although a scenic, cultural and historic area that attracts lots of tourists, there was visible decline in the village. To combat this, and the loneliness being felt with no central hub in which to gather and chat with neighbours and locals about life on and off the pitch, a committee was formed.

Village decline

The recession and the nearby motorway development resulted in a significant drop in business, footfall and traffic through the village. Younger people were also leaving to work in the cities. With all this, the village was beginning to feel like a ghost town. Yet, there was still pride of place in Ballyhale and a need for those that called it home to connect.

Aside from shelving, everything was donated, every cup, every painting, mirrors, clocks, everything.

Getting the project off the ground took effort and money. But the committee that formed knew there was interest when they called a meeting and 100 people turned up to hear about the possibility of the “Billy Project”.

Originally shares were sold as part of the fundraising initiatives for the KBK Community Shop Co-operative Society (KBK stands for Knockmoylan, Ballyhale and Knocktopher) but the community did every type of fundraiser imaginable. They also accessed grant funding and support from Kilkenny Leader and the local council, from whom the co-op secured a 99-year lease for one euro a month. Community Finance Ireland provided a social finance loan that helped them complete the building upgrade and pay the electricians, carpenters and engineers. The overall investment across the blended sources was approximately €200k.

Volunteer spirit

“Inside, aside from shelving, everything was donated, every cup, every painting, mirrors, clocks, everything and when the co-operative was initially formed there were 30-35 volunteers,” committee secretary David Murphy, tells me.

Billy's Tea Rooms is a community hub based in the small village of Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny. The café is the result of a determined committee and local volunteers who came together to address the visible decline of their village and the loneliness being felt with no central hub in which to gather, chat and hear from neighbours and locals about life on and off the pitch.

“Some would come in 11am to two or others one to three - that sort of way. If we were really, really struggling - and it was hectically busy at the beginning - there was a WhatsApp group set up. A request would be put out for anyone free and invariably you’d get somebody.”

As with other similar initiatives, overtime, it did decrease and people dropped off. But David says, “COVID really killed it off altogether. With the profile of the volunteer, you could not be asking them to come back.”

Opening right through COVID in a takeaway capacity was a major change, but the council once again supported the initiative.

“The council came to us and said, there’s money available if you want to build an outside area. They gave us a grant for an area compliant with COVID-19 guidelines [at that time] which seats 22 bringing the total capacity to 64 people,” says David.

However, the physical structure was not the only change that COVID brought. Adapting to the pandemic also resulted in financial benefits and independence from the volunteering model. This has been beneficial to Billy’s in that it has made the co-op stand on its own two feet, a progression vital for the long-term feasibility of such enterprises. The business plan had provided for a number of staff and full-time employees were in place towards the end of 2018.

India and Raine McKeever enjoyed looking around the myriad of cups, saucers, pictures and mirrors in Billy's Tea Rooms. There is a lovely playground just around the corner.

“Billy’s had grown and we realised that we couldn’t manage anymore with just volunteers,” David says of this development.

“Just before COVID, the wonderful Siobhan O’Grady, who had just come home from Australia, started managing the place. She’d been involved in events marketing, a fully qualified chef and lives out the road. The place was transformed, the menus she could come up with and the food options. Billy’s turned the corner financially. She took over the running of it, the committee was not running it. We would get a monthly report.”

When Billy’s was ready to reopen properly following the pandemic, Siobhan was ready to bring it to the next level. Unsurprisingly, David says, Siobhan was offered a new role, which was a fantastic opportunity for her and she moved on. But her mother Jane, who also worked in the catering trade for over 20 years in England, took over as manager and is still there today.

“Billy’s has become the social centre of the village and that makes us all very proud of what we have achieved. Today we can just as easily welcome people from Australia as we can from nearby Thomastown.” David happily notes.

Now while the word “committee” might strike fear into the hearts of many, Billy’s café stands proudly in the middle of Ballyhale village as a result of a determined committee and the local volunteers that stepped in to make it happen.

Motorway driving is very boring; why not take the scenic route and take in Billy’s tea rooms? My girls recommend the crepes.

India McKeever enjoying the crepes at Billy's Tea Rooms in Ballyhale

What is social finance?

Social finance offers an alternative to traditional lending routes for organisations seeking to make a difference in their local community. Community Finance Ireland delivers social finance solutions that support local communities and drives social impact through sports, community projects, faith-based groups, and social enterprises. www.communityfinanceireland.com

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