Connemara’s spectacular Kylemore Abbey has a history that’s as colourful and unexpected as its dazzling Victorian Walled Gardens, writes Melanie May
With its wind-swept landscapes and romantic remoteness, Connemara invariably captures the hearts of those who visit. One couple who fell hard for Connemara’s charms was Mitchell Henry and his wife Margaret. In 1849, the couple honeymooned in Kylemore Lodge and thus began their lifelong love affair with the area.
In 1863, as a grand romantic gesture, Sir Henry purchased Kylemore Lodge and the surrounding land, ensuring no expense was spared when building the couple’s dream home. It took 100 men over four years to build Kylemore Castle, with its 33 bedrooms, spectacular stained glass windows and expanses of Italian and Connemara marble.
The Victorian Castle dramatically protrudes from the mountains like a magic-realist pop-up book, its majestic granite façade reflecting in the dark waters of Lough Pollacapul. And it is as breathtaking today as ever, regarded by many as the most romantic building in the country.
Italian landscape designers planned Kylemore’s gardens, and when complete, their splendour drew comparisons with London’s Kew Gardens. Within the garden walls, 21 heated greenhouses produced tropical fruits such as pineapples, bananas and figs, the surrounding wilds of Connemara providing a striking contrast to the colourful, orderly gardens.
Sir Henry, Margaret and their nine children lived happily in Kylemore Castle until tragedy struck in 1874. Whilst on holiday in Egypt, Margaret contracted dysentery and died. She was just 45 years old, her youngest child was just two.
A heartbroken Sir Henry commissioned a memorial church near the Castle on the lakeshore. Though neo-Gothic in style, there are no gargoyles; instead, smiling angels look over those who enter. Delicate flowers and birds carved out of pale sandstone adorn the interior. The craftsmanship is exquisite, a true testament to his love for Margaret.
Margaret’s remains lie in a charming mausoleum in the woods, just beyond the church. When Sir Henry died in 1910, he was interred beside her.
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Before his death, Sir Henry sold Kylemore Estate to the 9th Duke and Duchess of Manchester. The couple enjoyed a lavish lifestyle there, but by 1914 had to leave as they couldn’t afford the upkeep.
In 1914, another family was also leaving their home. An order of nuns known as the Irish Dames of Ypres fled to Ireland when their Abbey in Belgium was destroyed during the First World War. In need of a new home, they purchased Kylemore estate in 1920, which then became Kylemore Abbey.
The nuns added a school and a convent to the grounds. The school formally opened in 1923 and, up until 2010, educated girls from around the world including two Indian princesses. Since the 1970s, the nuns have welcomed visitors to the estate to enjoy the grounds and learn about its remarkable 150-year history.
As you stroll through the castle’s authentically refurbished rooms, you glimpse west of Ireland living in the early 20th-century. A blend of historical footage, archive photos and artefacts bring Kylemore’s history vividly to life.
For over a century, the nuns have lovingly tended to the estate. They still live in the Abbey and nowadays make chocolate and soaps in the old school rooms. Connemara is synonymous with sheep, so the nun’s craft cute chocolate sheep and lambs. Make sure you exit through the gift shop and shepherd some home with you.
Following extensive renovations, the Victorian Walled Garden is resplendent with its original buildings, formal flower beds, vinery, vegetable patch and one of the longest herbaceous borders in the country. Framing the bountiful garden is the original wall of Scottish red brick and Irish granite. Within the garden, you’ll find only Victorian-era plants, many of which are rare. The gardeners work diligently to preserve these heritage and heirloom varieties.
Each year, the planting schemes in the flower garden change and more heritage varieties of plants are added. There’s always something new to unearth in the garden, but one thing that never grows old is the view. Anja Gohlke, Head Gardener, generously reveals her secret spot: “My favourite place to sit and enjoy the view is at the top corner, near the herb garden. From there you can overlook the whole walled garden and beyond over to the Twelve Bens mountain range”.
Just beyond the beauty of the blossoms and blooms, you’ll find a braying herd of Connemara ponies patiently awaiting pets from excited children. The Connemara Pony is the only horse breed native to Ireland and the herd is yet another way Kylemore highlights the area’s unique heritage.
Three new river walks have been created this year, which will acquaint ramblers with the agreeable surroundings of the Dawros River.
“Three separate areas give three different views,” explains Jessica Ridge, marketing manager for Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. “One is across what once was a racecourse in Sir Henry’s time. In another spot, you almost feel like you’re in the river when you’re standing in the clearing. It’s amazing. The third one is a lovely serene spot where the river moves quite slowly.”
Summer recitals also take place and Jessica sings the joys of hearing traditional Irish music in the church. “The acoustics are fantastic. It’s perfectly built to project music and because it is sandstone, it is quite soft and the sound has a lovely quality.” It’s an authentic cultural experience and a highlight for those who attend.
“It is this amalgamation of history, heritage and nature and peacefulness that makes Kylemore Abbey so unique,” lauds Jessica. “There’s so much heritage and history in the place. So many generations have passed through, leaving their mark and the nuns bring a whole new dynamic now.”
Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden is a great Irish love story, built for love, restored with love and replenished by love. Full of history, heritage and heart, you’ll fall head over heels on a visit.
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