Built in 1853, Stella Maris was designed and constructed as a Coast Guard regional headquarters by the British government, which ruled Ireland until 1921. The building was one of several British Admiralty buildings which dotted the coast of Ireland, built on the best land with commanding views overlooking various bodies of water that surround Ireland. Her gun turrets—small holes cut out of hand-carved stone—still guard Bunatrahir Bay from the forces of perceived evil.
In 1914, the Coast Guard fortress was taken over by the Sisters of Mercy, who named the building appropriately Stella Maris, which is Latin for “Star of the Sea.” The Sisters of Mercy used the building as their home while they taught primary school in the town of Ballycastle, less than two miles away, riding back and forth each day on a horse-drawn cart. They would later add a “commercial” school at Stella Maris, where they taught lace making and music.
In 1960, a new national school was built in the village of Ballycastle, much closer to the parish church. Subsequently, the Sisters of Mercy acquired a new convent through the purchase of a former hotel in the town. The church sold Stella Maris to Annie and Frank Whelan, who turned the old Coast Guard bastion cum convent into a small hotel. Thus, the hotel in the village became a convent and the convent down by the pier became a hotel.
Back in the mid-1960s, Stella Maris was the center of community life in this part of rural County Mayo, the monument to all that was important in this ruggedly beautiful area in western Ireland. Stella Maris hosted baptisms, weddings and, yes, funeral gatherings, for countless families within 50 miles of Ballycastle, Co. Mayo. Yet even in grief, Stella Maris brought life and laughter to thousands of people who passed through its impregnable stone walls.
The site of many a local feis (Gaelic for party), Stella Maris provided a mesmerizing view of the Atlantic Ocean, which millions of Irish men and women crossed to find a more fruitful life in the United States. Through the ’60s and ’70s, though, Stella Maris provided a focal point for those locals who were unable or who had no desire to leave the small farming community on the West Coast of Ireland.
For many years, the Whelans operated Stella Maris as a family-run hotel. Countless guests would flock to the quaint hotel to immerse themselves in the peacefulness and beauty surrounding the area. Then, of course, there were the familial gatherings to celebrate life, and the lives of those who had passed. Stella Maris became the part of the region’s folklore, the site of many stories that would be handed down through the generations.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Frank and Annie Whelan’s family were growing and starting their own families. After young Mary Whelan married Frank Finnerty, they turned Stella Maris into a private oceanfront home to raise their own family. In the early ’90s, Mary and Frank decided to sell Stella Maris, retaining a piece of the land on the hill behind the original structure to build their own home.
Frances Kelly was visiting her family during her sister Maureen’s 25th Anniversary as a member of the Sisters of Mercy. Frances was now living in the United States where she emigrated in 1980 to pursue her education. She visited with Mary and Frank Finnerty during her Ballycastle holidays, rekindling the memories of the days when Frances and some of her sisters worked with the Whelan girls at Stella Maris, doing everything necessary to accommodate the ongoing influx of visitors to the hotel.
The following year, Frances returned to Ballycastle with her American husband and learned Stella Maris was for sale. After having spent many summers days and nights at Stella Maris as a young girl, Frances was familiar with the property, though she had not toured the entire building for more than 20 years. Frances and her husband purchased the unique property with the intent of creating a luxurious environment for a choice clientele who would appreciate the solitude and tranquility that North Mayo offers. In June 2000, the renovation to once again breathe life into the hand-picked stone of Stella Maris was begun. Almost two years later, Stella Maris Country House Hotel would reopen her doors to guests on a seasonal basis: May through September each year.