Set on a magnificent 1,000-acre estate, Kylemore Abbey welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the world every year. In fact, this Gothic masterpiece is western Ireland’s second-most-popular tourist attraction, behind only the Cliffs of Moher.
Located on the northern edge of Connemara National Park in County Galway, Kylemore Abbey has been home to Benedictine nuns for over 100 years.
This breathtaking place is a cornerstone of the Ireland tours we run in this part of the Emerald Isle.
But despite the tranquility of its setting, Kylemore Abbey has had a fascinating, often-tumultuous history. To help make your visit even more interesting, join us as we briefly run through it now.
Do you have any questions about the tours we operate? Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our friendly team!
The Story Begins with Mitchell and Margaret Henry
The story of Kylemore Abbey starts with Mitchell Henry and his wife, Margaret Vaughan Henry. Mitchell was the son of an Irish-born cotton merchant in Manchester. Although born in England, Mitchell was proud of his Irish heritage.
When Mitchell’s father died, he inherited a huge sum of money, not to mention a successful business. Now one of the richest young men in Britain, Mitchell quit a medical career to pursue liberal politics.
Mitchell also used his wealth to buy Kylemore Lodge. He and Margaret had fallen in love with the stunning landscape, and the bewitching Connemara region, when they honeymooned there in the early 1850s.
The Henrys wanted to change this part of Ireland for the better, even as it struggled with disease, desperation, and hunger during and after the Potato Famine. As such, they decided to build the grand Kylemore Castle.
With 33 bedrooms, 4 sitting rooms, 4 bathrooms, smoking rooms, school rooms, a library, billiard room, ballroom, study, and gun room, it’s easy to see how this impressive structure is now one of the best castles to visit in Ireland.
The castle also had various offices and residences for domestic staff and was surrounded by walls, gardens, and woodlands.
Construction took 4 years, involved 100 men, and even needed dynamite blasts. The project allowed the Henrys to fulfill their wish to bring change, employment, and economic growth to the area.
Mitchell Henry became an MP for County Galway, continuing his push to help the community. His vision for the Kylemore Estate grew with time. After draining thousands of acres of marshland, he created a productive estate, providing material and social benefits for the region.
This development included the Victorian Walled Gardens, which you can still visit today.
Tragedy Strikes the Henry Family
In 1874, Margaret Henry died suddenly during a family holiday in Egypt. Mitchell had her body returned to Kylemore Castle and later started work on a neo-Gothic church. This beautiful structure is still a lasting testament to his love for Margaret.
Interestingly, Margaret’s remains were never moved to the church. Instead, they stayed in a modest brick mausoleum in woodland on the estate. This is where Mitchell was laid to rest after his death too.
Long before passing, however, Mitchell Henry sold Kylemore Castle to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1903.
The Duke and Duchess Move into Kylemore Castle
The Duke of Manchester was a renowned party-lover, and the Duchess was an exceptionally wealthy woman from America. When they arrived at Kylemore Castle, they started a major renovation.
The “improvement” works removed original Italian-inspired interiors, intending to make them more suitable for the lavish parties to come. With friends including King Edward VII, you can understand the circles the Duke and Duchess moved in.
Further removals during renovation included a stained-glass window of German origin and large quantities of Connemara and Italian marble.
Locals frowned upon these changes as they represented a heartless desecration of the Henrys, their love, and their beloved Kylemore Castle.
Fortunately, some would say, the Duke and Duchess of Manchester owned Kylemore Castle for only 11 years. In 1914, they left the estate following the death of the Duchess’s father, Eugene Zimmerman.
Put simply, the Duke and Duchess could no longer afford to fund the maintenance of the Kylemore Estate. One of the best attractions in Connemara and on the Wild Atlantic Way was available to buy once again.
Kylemore Castle Becomes an Abbey
Benedictine nuns became Kylemore Castle’s next owners. Originating from Ypres in Belgium, they were fleeing the horrors of World War I. After arriving, the nuns established a new abbey inside the castle.
The nuns had a long-standing tradition for education. In addition to the abbey itself, they also created a renowned boarding school for girls. Bedrooms and reception areas were converted into classrooms, while many of the property’s other rooms became dormitories.
The school formally opened in 1923 and soon became famous worldwide. Its standing was so high that it remained operational until its closure in 2010.
Kylemore Abbey Today
The tradition of education continues at Kylemore Abbey today. The world-famous Notre Dame University is based here and uses the site as one of its Global Gateways for learning and social exchange. Various summer schools also still use Kylemore’s school rooms.
And while the abbey is still a working monastery, its grounds and many of its rooms are open for public viewing and enjoyment. This includes Kylemore Abbey’s wonderful Victorian Walled Gardens, which the nuns have restored to full bloom.
Discover Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, and Galway with an Expert Guide
Beautiful Kylemore Abbey rewards visitors in all circumstances. The same is true for the breathtaking landscapes of Connemara and County Galway that surround it.
For a truly authentic experience in this part of Ireland, however, you can’t beat a tour led by fun, friendly experts. This is exactly what Wild N Happy provides!
Our tours in Ireland dig beneath the surface level. We share the history, myths, folklore, and culture that lie behind the things you see.
Kylemore Abbey features in our Discover Galway and Connemara Tour. For more information about this or any other excursions on the Emerald Isle, please don’t hesitate to contact us.