When thinking of Galway’s many historical monuments, the idyllic grounds of Kylemore Abbey quickly come to mind. One of the country’s most adored tourist attractions, the castle was inspired by the great love of a man for his wife and that romantic air can still be felt to this day, centuries later.
While we may all be familiar with the breathtaking lakeshores and picturesque surroundings of the Abbey and Victorian walled gardens, perhaps the history isn’t quite so clear. Journeying into the history of Kylemore Abbey is perhaps more accurately described as venturing into a great fairytale of the 19th century, and who doesn’t appreciate a good love story?
The remarkable history of Kylemore Abbey began on one fateful day in the late 1860s, when wealthy businessman and liberal politician Mitchell Henry elaborately proclaimed his love for his wife with the purchase of a site on which he would build their magnificent nesting place. On September 4, 1867, the stone foundations were laid by Margaret Vaughan Henry, the apple of Mitchell’s eye. The couple’s love affair with the area began back in the mid 1840s when they first spotted the potential in a humble hunting lodge in the valley of Kylemore during their honeymoon.
While Mitchell was every bit inspired by his love for Margaret, he also built the castle in hope for his beloved Ireland. While the businessman hailed from Manchester, he was adamant that every drop of blood flowing through his veins was Irish. The estate boasted all the innovations of the modern age, with Mitchell pouring his blood, sweat and tears into perfecting what would be his legacy and showcasing the remote wilds that flourish in the heart of Connemara. The estate - which comprised of 33 bedrooms, a ballroom, a library, various offices and staff residences, as well as gardens and woodlands - covered about 13,000 acres and cost just a little over £18,000.
Here’s where this uplifting tale of love and hope turns to one of tragedy. In 1874, Margaret became ill while travelling through Egypt and passed away two weeks later at the age of 45. Today, visitors to the Abbey will see a beautifully carved angel watching over the entrance holding the coat of arms of Margaret’s family. Upon closer inspection, you’ll see carvings of birds, representing the hope that Kylemore would become their family’s nesting place, which it surely did.
In 1903, Mitchell Henry sold the estate to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester and lavish renovations went underway in order to make the castle more suitable for entertaining but it is said that their gambling debts forced them to sell the property to the current owners in 1920, when the Benedictine nuns made their arrival after fleeing a war torn Belgium. Since their own Ypres Abbey had been destroyed in World War I, the nuns set about restoring the peace, magic and beauty that once existed within the Abbey and gardens and eventually opened a world renowned boarding school for girls. In 2010, after many years of teaching, the school was closed and Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Gardens became a treasured tourist attraction.