Luxury by the Lough – Kylemore Abbey

Thick clouds soften the sun and throw a silver blanket across Galway bay. Few hearty souls line the shore for a morning dip and daring youth jumps off a platform into the October Atlantic.

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Further along the seafront the dark silhouettes of the Aran Islands rise on the horizon. Driver Paul turns the wheel inland onto the N59, out of Recess and along Lough Inagh where glacier polished rock knuckles stand out in the fog. Approaching a narrow stone bridge he slows down and stops in the middle.

Off to my right, beyond the lightly rippled Lough Pollaacapull the magnificent Kylemore castle rise out of a slope of green topped by drizzly skies. Soon we pull in for a face to face.

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Looking closer
The history of today’s Kylemore begin in the aftermath of what us non-Irish oft refers to as the “potato famine” but if Irish “an Gorta Mór” (“the Great Famine”) which decimated the population in the mid-19th century. The disaster starved a million to death and forced the emigration of another quarter of the Irish population. It should not all be blamed on a decease affecting the South American import as religious oppression and politics played a key roll. Ireland under the rule of the Norman/English/British since the 12th century was by 1844 as Benjamin Disraeli put it, "a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, an alien established Protestant church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world."

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Enter Mitchell Henry a prominent pathologist and eye surgeon, the son of a wealthy Manchester family with Irish roots. In 1852 shortly after “an Gorta Mór” Mitchell takes Margaret his new wife for a honeymoon to a hunting lodge in the Kylemore valley where he sees a future and a need for change. Upon his father’s death in 1862 he leaves medicine behind and takes over the running of the successful cotton business. As one of the wealthiest young men in England he rekindles his Irish roots and gets into politics. He also buys the land at Kylemore to build a ‘nesting place’ for his wife and family.

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Lady of the house

Margaret to whom the castle will be dedicated lays the cornerstone on September 4th, 1867. Once completed the ‘nest’ is equipped with 33 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiard room, library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room and various offices and domestic staff residences. Above the entrance a chiselled angel holds Margaret’s family’s coat of arms. The spacious and bright rooms on the ground floor built for entertainment by Irish and Italian craftsmen are today the time capsules telling the history of Kylemore.

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The Henry’s imported a lavish London lifestyle to Kylemore which included modernities made possible by 19th century industrialism. Ice house, a Turkish bath and a beer and wine cellar was all part of the plan. A photo darkroom and “powder room” a bunker like building to manufacture shotgun cartridges was later added to satisfy two of the sons past times. To build and maintain the estate the Henry’s hired staff and laborers locally. His goal was to reinvigorate the local economy and he embarked on a program to recover boglands into estate soil. He brought his political leanings to London where he championed the Irish Home Rule movement as an MP for Galway.

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Farm to table

What was in the day a short horseback or buggy ride is today a five minute shuttle bus ride to the brick walls of the Victorian garden. There gardener Billy lead between meticulous flower beds and wall growing pears whilst telling the history. The shallow valley was selected as it provides natural protection and additional sun exposure. On the hill the brick foundations of what once were heated greenhouses allowing for the growth of exotic fruits like grapes, nectarines and even bananas, something few Irish had seen to date. With 40 gardeners the garden was so well tended as to be compared with the Kew Gardens in London. This did not last and after falling into neglect a drastic renovation was undertaken from 1995-2000 to restore its former glory. Success was confirmed with winning the prestigious Europa Nostra Cultural heritage award only a year after reopening.

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As we cross a small stream and skip through a hedge we are in the utilitarian vegetable, native fruit and herb garden. Kylemore was genuinely “farm to table” as what was consumed was also produced locally. Wild salmon caught in the lake or stream were wrapped in cabbage leaves and shipped alongside garden grown vegetables to the Henry’s elaborate London dinner parties.

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Rain forest

In the opposite direction Victorian imports of Rhododendron and still blooming fuchsia grow along the lake side paths. Water drip off green leaves, thick green moss cover tree trunks and rocks. Water runs in streams off the mountain side making for a lush invigorating rain forest experience.

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Life for the nine children Henry family was good and experiences extended far beyond Connemara and Ireland. It was during a trip to Egypt in 1874 that Margaret at 45 contracted dysentery to which she tragically succumbed two weeks later. Her body was embalmed and back home interred in a modest mausoleum deep under cover of the lush canopy.

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Wishing and waiting

Further down the path on the left a tall triangular shaped stone appear somewhat out of place. The folklore surrounding the flatiron shaped rock holds that it was thrown by one giant at another, missed and landed here. To be granted a wish one must stand with the back to the rock and throw pebbles over one’s own shoulder and the rock. I got a pebble well clear of the stone, however did not hear that three was needed and still hold a wish in waiting.

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To honour Margaret, Mitchell cleared a patch of forest and in 1878 built a neo-Gothic mini-Cathedral however her remains were never interred in the crypt. The small adjacent cemetery hold a few stones marking the graves of deceased nuns. One cross marks the grave of a young girls who’s parents never claimed her body. After Margaret’s passing Mitchell spent less time on the estate. He arranged for one sure return however, as he put it up for sale in 1902. It was sold with the caveat that his ashes would be interred next to his beloved Margaret. It so happened in 1910 when he passed away with only 700 pounds in the bank.

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Shortlived changes

The buyer an American oil-baron from Cincinnatti gifted the estate to his daughter when she wed the Duke of Manchester. The rumours had it that the apparently not so good Duke gambled it all away. However it may not be true as his wife the “dollar princess” had run out of money by 1913 after her dad’s death dried out the well.

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Nun sense

Kylemore was again sold in 1920 to the current owners, the Benedictine “Irish Dames of Ypres”. In 1665 they had escaped the reformation and left for Flanders, Belgium where they educated other exiled girls. As WW I broke out in 1914 a shell landed on their Ypres Abbey prompting them to return to Ireland. From 1923-2010 the nun’s operated a highly reputable all girl’s boarding school. Since, there is a joint programs with the Indiana based Notre Dame University.

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Today Kylemore Abbey and Walled Victorian Garden welcomes 350 000 annual visitors. Even on a rainy October morning it is easy to understand why. After traversing the estate for hours lunch beckons at the simple and hearty cafeteria style Mitchell’s restaurant. A wall lined with the fruits of the nun’s labours in the form of jams, chutneys and other products calls for a purchase of a jar of rhubarb and ginger preserve.

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With tray in hand I venture outside as the rain is taking a break. The terrace serves up a peaceful view over the waterway that drains boglands to lake. Having finished the soup and getting ready for the sandwich a Robin swoops in and lands across the table. My Kylemore visit ends over a lunch date with a pretty bird.

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This visit was arranged by Failte Ireland. Transport by Kerry Coaches and lunch by Mitchells. Experiences and pictures by WonderingViking.