Kylemore Abbey is another one of those places we visited in 2011 that, if given the chance, I’d definitely see it again. We only saw half of the grounds due to time constraints, something I feel is a true shame and one of the biggest drawbacks of traveling with a tour group. But if that other half is as beautiful as the part we did see, it’s definitely worth a second look.
Though currently home to Ireland’s oldest community of Benedictine nuns, Kylemore’s history extends farther back than their arrival in 1920. The abbey’s construction began in 1867 by Mitchell Henry as a gift for his wife, Margaret. The couple had visited the region on vacation in previous years and fell in love with Connemara’s rugged beauty. At that point in its history, the abbey was considered a small “castle” and used to showcase how the land could be made to flourish.
As part of this effort, Mitchell had a 6 acre walled garden built a mile west of the castle. The garden was one of the last Victorian walled gardens built in Ireland, and the only one located in a bog, but through ingenuity, it flourished. Twenty one glass houses grew exotic fruits and vegetables, and were heated by boilers and a network of underground pipes. Today, the garden still grows the same kind of plants and vegetables that the Henrys would have planted, though this is only due to great restoration efforts in the past 20 years.
Sadly, Mitchell and Margaret only shared Kylemore for a short time. The Henrys vacationed in Egypt in 1874 – just a few years after the castle was finished. Margaret fell ill while in Egypt, and after two weeks, passed away. Her body was embalmed in Cairo before being transported back to Kylemore, where Mitchell constructed a stone mausoleum for her.
Four years later, he began construction on one last building in Margaret’s honor, a small Gothic church farther down a woodland path. Though the chapel included burial vaults, for unknown reasons Margaret’s body was never interred there. Both she and Mitchell remain buried in the modest mausoleum, tucked between the castle and chapel along the trail.
With so much to see in a short amount of time, our tour guide made it clear from the start that we wouldn’t be able to see both the gardens and the abbey itself. While a large chunk of our tour group went to see the gardens, my family and I chose to explore the abbey itself, then walk along the lakeshore to the mausoleum and small gothic church.
Connemara is another one of those regions that makes my heart soar, awash in awe over the mountains’ brilliance all around. But walking through Connemara feels different than through the Ring of Kerry – the land has a different character to it, a different level of severity. In places like Kylemore’s lakeside trail, you can get a good taste of that difference as you look out at the mountains reflected off the water. For me, those moments brought peace, and quickly it didn’t matter what we were walking to see – I just wanted to take in the journey, and isn’t the goal of every traveler to reach that point?
Honestly, I’d say that’s Kylemore’s greatest strength – its natural beauty. Sitting here nearly six years later, my clearest memories aren’t of the artifacts on display within the abbey, but the views around it. The way the soft breezes came off the lake, adding a comfortable chill to the air while walking from place to place. The architecture, though gorgeous in its own right, simply can’t compare to the picturesque landscape. And when you set the two together, man’s creation nestled in nature? Then a special kind of magic happens.
Kylemore Abbey and its grounds are open year round from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Tickets are reasonable, starting at €13 for adults and €10 for seniors. Tickets for students and children ages 11-17 both cost €9. Children 10 and under are free.
Additional Links & Resources:
The Golden Book: Ireland, page 90