Kylemore Abbey belongs in a fairy tale.
The Tudor-style/neo-Gothic castle is one of the biggest tourist attractions in western Ireland and one of its most photographed spots.
It sits near the village of Letterfrack in Connemara, a wild corner of County Galway. It lies at the edge of Pollacappul Lough (Lake) and is flanked by the Twelve Bens, a series of small mountains that rise above the wind-swept boglands.
Kylemore Abbey has its history, but it’s a modern history compared with many of the old structures and ruins found across Ireland. The 70-room castle is a love story. It was built by a wealthy English doctor for his wife. Some have hailed it as the most romantic building in Ireland.
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Only a few rooms in the castle are open to the public, because the abbey is still in use by Catholic nuns. There is a Gothic chapel and mausoleum, plus a 6-acre Victorian walled garden.
It is an impressive castle, striking when viewed across the lake. Some have hailed it as the perfect view.
Kylemore is a Gaelic term for Big Woodland. The wooded grounds cover a thousand acres.
The abbey, built from 1867 to 1871 by 300 workers, was constructed as a private residence for Mitchell Henry (1826-1910), a wealthy doctor from London, and his wife, Margaret (1829-1874).
Tradition says they fell in love with Connemara on their honeymoon when they rented Kylemore Lodge, the original building on the site. The region was popular with anglers and hunters. It was their wish to live there.
Henry got a sizeable inheritance after the death of his father, a textile merchant in Manchester, England, in 1862.
He decided to give up medicine and turned to business and politics. He used the money to buy the lodge and to construct the castle, gardens, walks and woodlands in Connemara to please his wife. He was elected to represent Ireland in the British Parliament for 14 years.
The Henry tract eventually covered 13,000 acres. The family had nine children when they moved into Kylemore Abbey. It had been built of granite from Dalkey and limestone from nearby County Roscommon.
The castle contains 40,000 square feet and includes a main wall that is 2 to 3 feet thick. There are 33 bedrooms, four bathrooms, four sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiard room, library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room and various offices and living spaces for domestic staff. Rooms open to the public include the dining room, drawing room, community or middle room and three hallways.
Henry began reclaiming the land and he encouraged his tenant farmers to do likewise. He planted 300,000 trees, both native and imported species.
He built a walled garden in what had been a boggy area, not an easy task. It included 21 glass greenhouses for exotic plants. They were heated by boilers and hot water pipes.
Today the gardens feature only plants introduced to Ireland prior to 1901. A small white cottage was formerly home to the head gardener.
Henry treated his 125 tenant farmers with compassion. He provided work, shelter, good pay and a school for the children.
He paid to install windows in their dwellings, something they could not afford because of a local tax on glass. Buildings had little light and little circulation of air, and Henry wanted to change that. The tenants were recovering from a cholera outbreak and before that from the Great Irish Famine that ran from 1846-1850.
Tragically, Margaret Henry died in Egypt of dysentery while on a family vacation. Her body is entombed in a mausoleum. Mitchell was later buried there.
The mausoleum sits near the stunning church built by Mitchell Henry in memory of his wife.
It is a miniature cathedral in Neo-Gothic style. The gargoyles normally found on Gothic buildings have been replaced by angels. The church is built of marble and limestone with one beautiful stained glass window. It features internal columns, and delicately carved sandstone flowers and birds.
The most famous visitors to Kylemore were England’s King Edward VII, Queen Alexandria and Princess Victoria, who visited in 1903. They arrived in Connemara by royal yacht.
The castle was sold that year to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. He had gone bankrupt at age 23 from gambling debts, then married a wealthy American heiress, Helena Zimmerman. Her oil baron father, Eugene Zimmerman from Cincinnati, mainly financed the purchase of Kylemore. They resided there for a few years before being forced to sell because of the debts.
A banker and property speculator, Ernest Fawke, acquired Kylemore in 1914. He never took up residence and rarely visited.
In 1920, the Irish Benedictine nuns purchased the castle and surrounding lands with the help of public loans after they were forced to flee war-ravaged Ypres, Belgium, during World War I.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, many Irish families sent their daughters to Belgium to be educated by the Benedictines. In Ireland the nuns continued to offer education to Catholic girls, with a day school for locals and an international boarding school for others. Actress Anjelica Huston is a graduate.
The school and abbey were badly damaged by a fire in 1959. The school closed in 2010.
Today the nuns remain in residence at Kylemore. They pray, run their farm and make handcrafted products.
The nuns opened the abbey to the public in 1993 to raise money for their operations. The church reopened in 1995 and the gardens in 2000.
Kylemore Tourism Ltd. Took over operations of the estate in 2009. The abbey today includes a visitor center, a tea room, a store, a cafe, a craft and design shop, and a pottery studio.
Kylemore Abbey off the R344 and N59 highways is open seven days a week year-round. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is 13 euros ($16.63 American) for an adult. Senior citizens are 10 euros ($12.79 American) and students are 9 euros ($11.51 American). There are packages for families and online discounts.
It offers an array of guided tours, walks and dinners. There are also music programs in the Gothic church. Guided tours are available daily from April through October.
You can arrange a bus tour from Galway, an hour to the southeast.
For more information, go to www.kylemoreabbeytourism.ie or call +353 (0) 95 52001.
Part of the abbey’s land now belongs to Connemara National Park, one of six national parks in Ireland.
Another portion of the park was previously owned by Richard Martin, who helped found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the early 19th century.
The park, generally south of the abbey, covers nearly 4,950 acres of scrubby mountains, heaths, bogs, grasslands and woodlands. Some of its mountains are part of the famous Twelve Bens or Beanna Beola range. The heart of the park, established in 1980, is Gleann Mur (The Big Glen) and the Polladirk River.
A visitor center at Letterfrack, open from March to October, was once part of the Letterfrack Industrial School.
Park admission is free. For more information, go to www.npws.ie.
Nearby is Clifden, the largest city in Connemara, where you can access the Sky Road, a breathtaking 7-mile loop with scenic views of the Irish coast.