In a few months’ time, celebrations will mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Benedictine order of nuns to Kylemore. The order were there to found their famous girls’ international boarding school. Their arrival to the peace and tranquillity of Connemara marked the end of an arduous journey that had seen them flee their home in Ypres, Belgium, after several hundred years.
As German bombs rained down on their convent, the sisters fled on foot, guarded by the 8th Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, and given Red Cross freedom of passage via England to arrive in the west of Ireland.
Two years later, they had purchased the imposing mansion of Kylemore Castle from the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, after crippling gambling debts had driven the titled couple to bankruptcy.
Kylemore had been originally built in 1868 as the private home of Mitchell Henry and his wife. Henry had qualified as a doctor, but on the death of his wealthy cotton-merchant father, had returned to Manchester to take over the family business. On a holiday in Connemara, he fell in love with the region and determined to build his home in Kylemore. He acquired an estate of 13,000 acres and construction began on the castle. It took four years to complete, employed over a hundred men, and brought prosperity and employment to the region. The elegant structure included 70 rooms in all, and a replica Gothic cathedral and a mausoleum were added.
Mitchell Henry became an MP for Galway, an ardent advocate of Irish nationalism, and he and his wife – Margaret Vaughan from Co Down – raised a family of nine children. But Henry was left bereft following the death of Margaret at age 45, from a fever contracted in Egypt, and he returned to England. She was laid to rest in the mausoleum, where he himself was buried on his death in 1910.
The new owner, the profligate Lord Manchester, lived in Kylemore for a number of years, but then came his financial collapse. With its takeover in 1920 by the Benedictines, Kylemore Abbey was famed as a secondary boarding school for the next century, attracting the privileged and wealthy from all over the world to avail of its much-lauded and comprehensive curriculum.
The Benedictines won huge moral and financial support from Church and State to fund its work at Kylemore. Among its strongest benefactors was Count John McCormack and, a measure of the school’s prestige, a banquet in his honour was held in the Shelbourne Hotel in 1923 at which the Governor General of the new Irish Free State was the main speaker.
However, in a Europe in turmoil, there were times when the future of Kylemore Abbey school must have been in doubt. A tentative plan to sell the property in 1930 came to the ears of the National Bank, which had advanced the original loan of £40,000 to buy the property. Taking fright at the idea that it might be sold without its knowledge, the bank went to the High Court to secure an injunction restraining any sale without providing for the indemnity of the original guarantors.
But the crisis was overcome, and Kylemore Abbey went from strength to strength. Today, the abbey and restored walled gardens attract 250,000 visitors a year, making it the most-visited tourist attraction in the west. And although no longer a secondary school, the educational links continue with the University of Notre Dame, thanks in no small part to the influence of the philanthropist, Martin Naughton, who sits on the trustee boards of both the Irish and American institutions.