Just an hour and 10 minutes’ drive from Galway city, a 25 minute drive from Clifden, or a 50 minute drive from Westport, will lead you to Ireland’s beloved and iconic Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden, located in Connemara, Co. Galway. Walk along the lakeshore or through the woodlands to explore the 1,000 acre estate, admire the greenery of the six acre Victorian Walled Garden, head into the gothic church on site to observe some quiet beauty, or explore the restored rooms of the Abbey.
Kylemore has a rich history, beginning with the first stone laid on September 4th, 1867 by Margaret Vaughan Henry, wife of Mitchell Henry. With every dynamite blast to allow the Castle to be carefully set into the face of the mountain, the Henry home with its 33 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiard room, library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room, and many offices and staff residences, was a token of love from Mitchell to his wife. Sadly, she was only able to enjoy their home for a short time, for she fell ill in 1874 and died at the age of 45. Heartbroken, Mitchell built a neo-gothic church on site to honor his late wife.
In 1902, the Henry family eventually left Kylemore and sold the estate to the ninth Duke of Manchester. The Duke and Duchess went about a major renovation of Kylemore, some locals saying that the changes represented a desecration of the memory of the much loved Margaret Henry and her Kylemore Castle. However, once the Duchess’ father passed away (who was bank rolling their lifestyle), they left Kylemore in 1914.
Since 1920, Kylemore has been home to the Benedictine nuns who originated from Brussels (tracing all the way back to 1598!) In fact, Kylemore Abbey is the oldest of the Irish Benedictine Abbeys. At Kylemore, the nuns ran a boarding school and a day school for local girls. The Girl’s Boarding School has since closed, but the nuns continue to develop new education and retreat activities. In addition, the Benedictine nuns founded Kylemore Abbey Pottery in 1973 creating the loveliest gifts for purchase. The sweetest surprise is that the nuns make chocolates as well as soaps that you can also take home. (CJ actually bought some Irish Afternoon Tea in the Kylemore gift shop.)
We started our afternoon at the Victorian Walled Garden. From the entrance, it is a 20 minute walk. There is also a bus that shuttles people from the entrance to the garden, which only takes five minutes. What I found fascinating is that this Heritage Garden only displays plant varieties from the Victorian era, which I think pays beautiful homage to the 1800s when Kylemore proudly showcased 21 heated glass houses and a staff of 40 gardeners.
Then we took the bus back to the entrance and strolled to Kylemore Abbey, which as of June 2019 has opened a new self-guided exhibition that tells the history of this oasis in Connemara. There are also free history talks three times a day if you would like to take a listen! (Note that the upstairs of the Abbey is not open to the public, as it is used as a residence by the Benedictine Nuns.)
Lastly, we walked along the shores of Lough Pollacapull to the neo-Gothic Church that Mitchell Henry built for his late wife. While you may be lucky enough to enjoy a musical performance by a choir or harpist, CJ and I only came across sheep moseying around the church, so check the website for upcoming events. On our way back, I looked out over the lake and felt ease, contentment, and peace. Such wild beauty surrounds the castle, and it renders one speechless. I highly recommend visiting Kylemore Abbey.