Standing strong and stout against a tree-covered mountain, its reflection shimmering on the surface of Pollacappul Lake, is Kylemore Abbey. Located in an area of western Ireland know as Connemara, Kylemore Abbey looks like something straight out of Harry Potter. The air was heavy with a misty rain the day I was there, which added to the mystique. The castle was built by Mitchell Henry – an English doctor and politician who brought innovative ideas to this rugged and remote landscape, while helping the local people in the process.
The creation of the castle was born out of a romantic notion. Mitchell Henry and his bride, Margaret Vaughan, first visited Connemara during their honeymoon in 1850. The area captured Margaret’s heart, so Mr. Henry purchased a 15,000 acre estate there as a gift to his new wife. Construction of the Kylemore Castle began in 1867 (a hunting lodge originally stood in the castle’s location) and took four years to complete. The estate became home to 125 tenants and employed over 300 people – all who were treated quite well by the Englishman. Henry set up a school for his tenants’ children on the estate, reduced their rents in hard times, and paid his employees a good wage – so good that laborers walked for miles to work at Kylemore.
Henry also developed on the grounds the first model farm in the west of Ireland, as well as the largest Victorian walled garden in Ireland – containing 21 glass houses heated by an extensive network of water pipes. He also generated his own electricity in 1893 by using the water pressure from Lough Touther on top of the mountain overlooking the castle – a feat that reduced the annual cost of power for the castle from £400 using gas to a mere £10. Today this hydroelectric plant is undergoing renovation with the hopes to once again power the estate with energy generated from the lake.
The Henrys had nine children and lived quite happily – until tragedy struck. Margaret, on a family holiday to Egypt in 1874, fell ill with dysentery and died at the age of 45. Her body was brought back to Kylemore and buried in a mausoleum on the estate. Mitchell, as one last tribute to his wife, built a Neo-Gothic chapel on the lake shore in her honor in 1877. The interior of this chapel features columns made of colored marble from each of the four provinces of Ireland – green from Connemara (Connacht), rose from Cork (Munster), black from Kilkenny (Leinster) and grey from Armagh (Ulster). The snarling gargoyles common in Gothic churches are replaced with smiling angels and flowers carved out of the sandstone surrounding the windows give a feminine touch.
Mitchell didn’t spend much time at Kylemore after his beloved Margaret died, though he did keep the estate going. The castle and grounds were then sold in 1903 for £63,000 to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, family friends of the Henrys. The Duke was quite the gambler – and not a good one apparently – because he found himself bankrupt at age 23. He solved this little financial hiccup by marrying a wealthy American heiress, Helena Zimmerman, whose father was an oil baron. It was Eugene Zimmerman, the father, who financed the purchase of Kylemore.
The new Duchess of Manchester decided to remodel the Castle by ripping out much of the interior – removing the Gothic features of the mansion and tearing out marble arches. (To be frank, I wasn’t too impressed with the interior – it didn’t have nearly the same magical quality as the exterior. I would have loved to have seen what it looked like before).
Meanwhile, Mitchell Henry had returned to England and, at age 84, died in November 1910. His ashes were brought back to Kylemore and placed next to Margaret’s remains in the mausoleum.
Once again, the estate changed hands. Eugene Zimmerman died in 1914 and the Kylemore Estate soon fell into financial difficulty. It was sold to a banker from London, who never took up residence there and held onto it until 1920, when it was sold to the Irish Benedictine Nuns for £45,000. These nuns – who had established an abbey in Ypres, Belgium that provided education and a religious community for Irish women – had to flee after their abbey was destroyed in World War I. Upon purchase of the Kylemore estate, they transformed the castle into an international boarding school in 1923 – attracting students from Ireland and mainland Europe, as well as the United States and Asia.
Around the year 2000, the student number began to decline. Due to numerous factors, the decision was made to close the school and the final graduating class was in 2010.
Today, the nuns still reside at Kylemore. They continue their daily life of prayer and work – including the upkeep of the abbey and walled garden, welcoming guests to the estate, farming, and other educational and administrative tasks. The abbey, as well as the little church and walled garden, are well worth a visit. There are also several trails through the wooded areas of the estate, hiking trails up the mountain, and a cafe.
Kylemore Abbey is a wonderful day excursion if you ever find yourself in Connemara, rich in history, romance, and heartache. And it’s just so beautiful to look at!