Kylemore Castle and Abbey

Kylemore Abbey, that stunning castle at the foot of Duchruach and beside the waters of Lough Pollacappul, has fascinated visitors to this part of Connemara since its completion in 1871. It was four years in construction and the cost come to little over £29,000. Now, splendid new look “The History of Kylemore Castle and Abbey’ has just been published and was launched recently at a ceremony in Kylemore Abbey by An Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern.

The author is Kathleen Villers-Tuthill who was born in Clifden and who has devoted much of the past twenty five years to researching the history of Connemara. Other books on the region complied by Kathleen include The History of Clifden 1810-1860 and ‘Beyond the Twelve Bens’.

I first met Kathleen on a trip to the Holy Land back in 1987. We were among a group of over 100 people who enjoyed a very pleasant ten day journey to that famous part of the world. Our group was led by Donncha O’Dulaing, the well known RTE radio broadcaster and it involved stays in Tiberius and Jerusalem as well as visits to many of the famous Biblical places.

Her latest publications is a superb work of research and presentation and is an engrossing read. Kathleen goes into great detail on the history of Mitchell Henry and his family and their association with politics, including a political career in England as well as contesting the Galway seat, the advent of tenant rights, the Home Rule Bill, and the closing years.

In a foreword, Mother Abbess Magdalena Fitzgibbon reflects on the history of this famous place. “Kylemore Abbey has been a Benedictine House for over eighty years. The Abbey, which was once a fairy-tale Castle, was built in the 19th century by Mitchell Henry and stands today as a monument to a great gentlemen and kindly landlord who spent most of his fortune on the estate and for the good of the local people.

The Community of twenty four nuns, who took up residence here in 1920, had fled from their Abbey at Ypres, Belgium, at the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914. They were of mixed nationality and had displayed great courage and determination in the six years prior to settling at Kylemore.
“The Community brought with them a strong devotion to the Benedictine tradition and the Benedictine way of life. They also brought with them a history that stretches back much further than that of Kylemore.

“Founded in Ypres in 1662, our community was made an Irish House in 1684. On the request of King James 11, and under the guidance of Lady Abbess Butler, the Community moved to Ireland in 1688. However, following James’s defeat at the Battle of the Boyne two years later; the Nuns returned to Ypres, where they remained for the next 224 years.

“Having gone through the vicissitudes of wars, extreme poverty and few vocations at times, the Community has reached this new Millennium. It is quite a tradition we carry with us, one which we cherish and shall always endeavour to keep fully alive.

“Since its beginning, Kylemore has been a focal point in the West of Ireland. Previous generations of Benedictine Nuns, for whom Kylemore served as home, have left us with a legacy of love for the place, a sense of stewardship for its continuance and a recognition of its uniqueness in location and attraction.

“Here , there is not only a natural beauty, there is an aura of peace and tranquillity and a sense of spiritualness. Peace is the Benedictine motto and at Kylemore Abbey it is a palpable presence. In the midst of a busy tourist area, Kylemore is an oasis of peace in a restless world and we, as a community, are glad to share this peace with all who visit. The Benedictine life is balanced with prayer and work (Ora et Labora) and at the Abbey we invite those who wish to do so, to join us in prayer.
“Mitchell Henry was a deeply spiritual person and it can only please him to know that a Community of Benedictine now has its home in his Castle, praying the Liturgical Hours, while maintaining the estate and undertaking the tremendous task of observing and restoring its many natural and important heritage features”.

The book contains a wealth of background knowledge set against the prevailing conditions of the time in this region of Connemara. The Galway Express of 1882 reported:
“The country is ruined, and the people find nothing can save them but emigration”. A scheme was set up by James Hack Tuke, and others, to assist evicted tenants to emigrate to America and Canada. Between April and June 1882, a total of 1,276 people left Clifden, Errismore, Roundstone, Renvyle and Letterfrack under the Tuke scheme. And for those with means, the Allen Line was now offering direct service between Galway and Boston”.

The story of the Benedictine Nuns at their famous convent in Ypres (Belgium) and how they has to evacuate it as German forces advanced on the area is recalled in the chapter on “Leaving Ypres”. German bombs were raining down on the beautiful monastery as the nuns made their exit from the building . “ A cry of anguish arose from hearts as, hurrying along the deserted street, we saw our convent apparently burning”. is a quote from the Mother Prioress. A bomb had exploded as they were preparing to leave.

As the War continued to rage in Europe the nuns decided to move to Ireland and took up residence in Merton House, Macmine, Co. Wexford in February 1916, It was from here that they were to travel in a saloon carriage provided by the Midland Railway Company to Galway.

The nuns took possession of Kylemore Castle and estate on the 30th November 1920. The purchase price was £45,000 for a property that “ stood silent and forlorn” at the time. As Kathleen says: “The cold and unwelcoming appearance of the family and guests of Margaret and Mitchell Henry.”

The background to the large statue of the Sacred Heart, which is located halfway up Suchruach mountain, is recalled here. In 1932, Lady Abbess Maura fulfiled her promise to erect a statue in thanksgiving for their safe delivery to Kylemore. The Sacred Heart was chosen in recognition of the community’s long tradition of devotion to it.

It was put in place by ten men John Joyce, Tom Conroy, Tommy Kearney, Jack Coyne, Pat Nee, John Lydon, Anthony McDonald, Frank Keane, J.J. McLoughlan and Michael Fitzsimons, the carpenter.
“Using a large hand barrow made by Fitzsimons, the statue was carried up a previously prepared path. The men were followed by members of the community reciting the rosary. At the designated spot, the statue was blessed and cemented into place on a platform over looking the Abbey.”

In 1953, history was made when Lady Abbess Agnes Finnegan, a native of Westport, became the youngest Abbess in Europe at the age of 36. There were forty two nuns in the community at the time.
The guesthouse had become enormously popular and Kylemore Abbey was fast becoming a popular destination for almost every tourist visiting Connemara. Lunches and afternoon teas were served to accommodate the growing numbers of day visitors and a small shop was opened in the hall, selling religious objects and craft work made by the nuns.

But the events of the early hours of Sunday 25 January 1959 had a major impact on the life of the community. It was a beautiful , calm moonlit night, with no wind, but very cold and frosty, Inside the Abbey the community of thirty-six nuns who had been invalids for some years, thirty students, aged between seven and seventeen, and two lay mistresses, were sleeping in their beds. Lady Abbess Agnes would recall the events of the night many years later.

“I remember going to bed that night and it was very, very cold and I was thanking God that I had a bed to go to, and I was thinking of people who were suffering and living rough, that was what was going through my mind.

“I remember waking up about two in the morning, and I heard a cracking sound, It had snowed a short time before that and then it was frozen over, and so I thought it was the frozen snow falling off the roof. And as I was thinking this the door opened and in came my next door neighbour, Dame Michael, “Oh! Lady Abbess there is a fire,” she said . The two of us ran around waking everybody up. I ran up to the school dormitory, and I called the nun sleeping there and told her to get the girls up. We got them out the back way, there was a door leading onto the mountain at the back. If that door had not been there we would all have been burnt. We had just got out in time when the whole dormitory was up in flames. Dame Michael was great, she went around calling the nuns.”

Fire Brigades from Clifden, Galway, Westport, Castlebar, Claremorris, Gort, Loughrea and Athenry attended the fire. The Galway firemen later told the nuns they could see the ‘reflection’ in the sky at Recess and felt sure they would be unable to control the fire. When they turned into the avenue, the fire captain later recalled being greeted by a ‘magnificent view of the Abbey in flames reflected on the lake’.

The chief fire officer on the night was Captain P.B. Sugrue. The source of the fire was an electrical fault and was traced to an old fuse board.

Radio and news reporters from around Ireland made their way to Kylemore while the post office was inundated with telephone calls from around the country and overseas.

After three years of hard work and great attention to detail, the Abbey was fully restored by the contractor John Sisk and Sons and normal life resumed again.

Kathleen refers to the sweeping changes in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council in 1961.
“The daily prayer was shortened and changed from latin to the vernacular: devotions that had grown up during the centuries were dropped , but all liturgical prayer was kept, The vernacular, however, did not entirely supersede Latin at Kylemore,Latin Vespers are still sung each Sunday evening and plainchant remains the dominant music in the nuns worship.

“By for the most popular change to come under Vatican 11 was the one which allowed the nuns regular trips home to visit aging parents and to holiday with family and friends. However, for many that trip home had come too late, forbidden under the strict rules of enclosure to attend the funerals of their parents, the irony of being allowed home to an empty house was not lost on them,” says the author:
In the past few years, under the guidance and direction of Mother Abbess Magdalena Fitzgibbon and her committed group, a number of major restoration projects have been undertaken including the old Gothic Church which has been lovingly restored after being in a state of most severe disrepair and the Walled Garden which represented a huge challenge.

Today, there are eighteen Benedictine nuns in Kylemore Abbey, A total of one hundred and sixty two pupils are attending the school, eighty of whom are boarders. It is the only Benedictine community for nuns in Ireland and, like many other orders, is experiencing a serious decline in vocations.
The author quotes Sr. Benedict, the community archivist, who remains optimistic: “The House has witnessed a fall in numbers in the past and has survived to tell the tale. This too shall pass. And today’s dilemma will simply to be case study for the historians of the future.

And Mother Abbess Magdalena concludes; “I believe Monastic life holds a key to the secret of stability, peace and tranquillity, We then have a responsibility towards the healing of society, to help, through our liturgy, our prayer life and our hospitality, through our Ora et Labora. This is the challenge of the new millennium for us in Kylemore.”

The History of Kylemore Castle & Abbey by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill is published by Kylemore Abbey Publications and retails at 25 Euros. Their contact number is 095 41146.

Courtesy of Michael Commins and the Western People