Friday, October 1, 2010

Snapshot: Kylemore Abbey

For someone who was homeschooled most of her life (not entering formal school until the 8th grade), attending a Catholic convent school in Ireland was a shock. Even more given that it was housed in a castle. I remember the car rounding the corner of the drive up to Kylemore Abbey and my mouth falling open. "I'm going to school in a castle?" I gasped.

Nestled at the base of Druchruach Mountain on the northern shore of Lough Pollacappul, in the heart of the Connemara Mountains, Kylemore Abbey is one of Ireland’s most lovely castles. It's relatively new having been built in 1867 and yet already steeped in history - engineering initiatives, model farms, walled gardens, tragedy, a hideaway during Ireland’s troubled history, royal visits and education for the global elite and local girls.

The history of Kylemore fits into three distinct periods:

Mitchell and Margaret Henry (1867–1903)
The Castle was built by the Henrys. Connemara was a popular destination for hunting and fishing. The couple visited Connemara while on their honeymoon and dreamed of building a home there. Mitchell introduced many improvements for the locals who were recovering from the Great Irish Famine, providing work, shelter and later a school for the workers' children. He represented Galway in the House of Commons for 14 years. Sadly, Margaret did not get to enjoy Kylemore Castle for very long. She died suddenly in 1874. Mitchell later lost their daughter as well.

Duke and Duchess of Manchester (1903-1910)
In 1903, Mitchell sold Kylemore to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. They lived a lavish lifestyle and spent only a few years at the castle. The property as heavily mortgaged and the Castle was eventually taken over by a London banker who installed a caretaker and land agent until a buyer was found 7 years later.

The Benedictine Community (1920–present)
In 1920, The Irish Benedictine Nuns purchased Kylemore Castle and converted it into an Abbey. Kylemore Abbey is the oldest of the Irish Benedictine Abbeys. The community was founded in Ypres, Belgium, in 1665, to provide an education and religious community for Irish women during times of persecution in Ireland. Through the centuries the daughters of the Irish nobility, lived there as both students and postulants. In 1688 the nuns moved to Dublin at the request of King James II only to return to Ypres two years later after James’ defeat at the Battle of the Boyne. It was only after their Abbey was destroyed in WWI that the nuns left Belgium eventually settling in Kylemore in December 1920. There the nuns opened an international boarding school and established a day school for local girls.

In 2010, I returned to Ireland. It was my first time back in 24 years. What a difference two decades and one Celtic Tiger phenomenon can make. However, Kylemore Abbey has remained relatively unchanged. My classroom looked exactly as it had in 1985 with the same scarred tables and chairs that I vividly remembered from long boring days in the chilly classroom overlooking the Lough. And yet it too was about to change. The Mother Superior told me that the 2009-2010 school year would be the school's last year of operation. Kylemore Abbey will continue as one of Ireland's most popular tourist destinations as well as home for the nuns.

I can't say that I felt any regret at this news. I never enjoyed the school - grumpy hierarchical nuns, unenthusiastic students and a permanently bone-chilling castle. What I loved were the ever-changing verdant grounds, the castle as history, a mysterious walled garden, Lough Pollacappul so expressive of the sky above it and those broad-shouldered mountains towering all around. That's what Kylemore is to me. I may never see it again, but I'm relieved and pleased that it will continue to house the nuns and receive visitors. I think Margaret and Mitchell would have liked that too.