Today’s destination was Kylemore Abbey, a castle converted into a Benedictine abbey, located in the Connemara region on the west coast of Ireland. We had a bit of a drive from Castlebar to the Abbey, so we had a chance to enjoy the scenery and learn some history along the way.
As we headed west from our hotel in Castlebar, the geography of the landscape dramatically changed. Up until now, we had mainly traveled in the central plains regions, featuring flat grazing lands for sheep, horses and cattle. As we traveled west, the plains gave way to a rugged mountainous coastline. Grazing land was also less plentiful and more rugged. Hardy sheep foraged for their food and horses and cattle were not to be found. The mountains in this region are made of quartzite and have weathered to smooth, brown cone-shaped peaks. It is early spring and the gorse and daffodils are in bloom, but the mountains are as yet smooth and brown. As we traveled further west and ascended further into the mountains, it became apparent that the boglands were being worked by hand. We could see that the top layer of peat (consisting of decomposed plant material) had been cut into turf bricks to dry to be used as fuel. In the plains region, turf might be harvested by machine, or perhaps other energy sources might be used to protect the peat layer, a non-renewable energy source.
We reached Kylemore Abbey, the current residence of about a dozen nuns of the Benedictine order who are committed to a life of prayer, service to the community, and stewardship of the house and gardens entrusted to their care.
The property is the legacy of Mitchell Henry and his wife Margaret, who visited the Connemara area during their honeymoon and decided that they wanted to relocate there. This became possible when Mitchell Henry’s father died and bequeathed a considerable sum of money to his son. That allowed Henry to leave a thriving medical practice and purchase the 15,000 acre parcel of land upon which to build a castle and a walled Victorian garden. Construction of the castle began in 1867 and was completed by local workers, still suffering from the effects of the potato famine. Henry paid the construction workers a much higher wage than was customary at the time and apparently workers walked for miles for the opportunity to work at Kylemore. Henry was creative and innovative and designed a method of using water power to generate electricity. The walled Victorian garden contained 21 glasshouses (that’s greenhouses on the American side of the pond) that produced tropical fruits. He set up a school on the castle grounds to educate the children of his tenants. He used his position of wealth and prosperity to advocate for the local Irish people and represented Galway in the House of Commons for fourteen years.
Henry and his wife had nine children and had a carefree life at Kylemore where they entertained guests and sponsored musical performances. But tragedy struck when the family went on holiday to Egypt and Margaret contracted dysentery and died at the age of 45. Henry was devastated and arranged for her body to be brought back to Kylemore where her remains are interred in a mausoleum built on the estate. Henry also built a Gothic church in honor of his diseased wife. The church is a “cathedral in miniature” and features columns composed of marble from each of the four provinces of Ireland—Connacht, Munster, Leinster and Ulster.
After Henry’s death, the estate changed hands several times until it was acquired in 1920 by the Benedictine nuns, who were forced to flee their abbey in Ypres, Belgium when it was bombed during World War I. At Kylemore, the nuns established an international boarding school for girls and a day school for the local girls. Declining interest in this type of education led to the closing of the school in June 2010. Today, the nuns welcome visitors, take care of the property, prepare homemade food at the café and produce chocolate, soap and skin care products that can be purchased at the gift shop.
We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit, even though this day, more than any other, gave us a real taste of the changeable Irish weather. We experienced a mix of sun and clouds, rain, wind, and then sun again all in the space of two and a half hours. When traveling in Ireland, it’s best to bring both sunglasses and a raincoat. Our reward of a rainbow at the day’s end make it all worthwhile.