2014 – Day Twenty Six

We have decided to pick up the pace a little – the endless driving has begun to get to us both. Our aim today is to get to Westport, just inside county Mayo. There is an Abby on the way that we both want to see – it looks like something out of a fairytale.

After the rocky roads of yesterday, our landscape changes yet again. The rocks are gone and if I didn’t know better, I would swear we are in Scotland. Surrounded by grassed mountains, there is no stone, only grass and open farmland. This region is full of water too – ponds, streams and lakes present in abundance. It’s so like Scotland. The sun is out, so we see it at its best.

The Abbey is not far away, in Connemara. It is one of the most beautiful places I have seen – an absolute fairytale castle. It’s set at the edge of a lake, at the base of a mountain range, surrounded by the most exquisite of gardens. As we approach, the setting is a
postcard, with the castle reflected in the water’s edge.

Borne in love, as a honeymoon gift from Mitchell Henry to his wife, it was built as a baronial castle, but is now owned by the Benedictine nuns. The castle and estate cover 15 acres; most of of it perfectly manicured. Henry planted over 300,000 trees to recreate a
woodland. There is some grazing land, but it’s not accessible to the public.

Kylemore was, and is a work of love. Built in 1867, sadly his wife Margaret was only was to live in it for four years – she passed away from dysentery during a holiday to Egypt, leaving her husband a widow and their nine children motherless.

She was only 45.

Mitchell built a gothic church on the grounds in her memory with a single stained glass window displaying the five Graces. He entombed her in a mausoleum on the grounds as, in his words, he could not bear to have her in the cold ground. He lived until 1910, and at 84, joined her in the tomb only after a life rich in politics representing Galway in the House of Commons and transforming Kylemore into a property ahead of its time.

He developed his own hydroelectricity plant, the local fire brigade, and created the largest walled garden in Ireland (six acres), with 21 glass houses, heated via pipes from his own lime kiln. History shows he was also a kind man, creating a school for his tenant’ children and reducing his tenant’s rent in hard times. He also set up a post office and telegraph office nearby and encouraged his tenants to let him install windows in their houses to let in light and air (this was shortly after the cholera epidemic, which followed the potato famine). At the time there was a punitive tax on glass and consequently many family could not afford windows. This is where the term “daylight robbery” was coined.

He lost a fortune in the process. He never remarried.

At one stage the castle was considered for purchase by King Edward VII, but it was declared too expensive for him. In the end, the Duke and Duchess of Manchester bought it in 1903, for £63,000. Legend has it that he was a gambler, and lost the deeds to the castle betting on a poor hand of cards. It changed hands twice more, and was sold to the Benedictine order in 1920, whence upon it was not only a nunnery, but for a period of time, a school for girls.

The nuns are still there now. We glimpse a group of them going about their business in full habits, and I spot one in the walled garden walking her border collie. They both seemed very happy. If you felt the calling to a spiritual life, given what has to be forfeited, I could think of no nicer place to live than here.

Borne of love, marred by tragedy, gambled and lost. Brought to life from fairyland, now a place of prayer and peace. Restored to glory. It is truly of the most beautiful places I have seen. Chris has to drag me away.

We drive the short distance to Westport and settle for the night. My mind is still full of the beauty of the castle and its gardens – a love letter that has stood the test of time.