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 ODulaing, 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
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
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 Jamess
defeat at the Battle of the Boyne two years later; the Nuns
returned to Ypres, where they remained for the next 224
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
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
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
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
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 communitys 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
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
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 todays 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