In England many country houses started off as abbeys before becoming homes for rich and aristocratic families. With Kylemore Abbey, however, it was the other way around. Built as a home by a wealthy Englishman Mitchell Henry it later came into the possession of Benedictine nuns who had lost their sanctuary at Ypres in the First World War. The area, scene of some of the war’s most terrible slaughter, was nicknamed Wipers and the satirical newspaper read by the soldiers the Wipers Times.
Mitchell Henry had brought his bride to Connemara, the couple had fallen in love with the area and so he had built the house and garden, which they used as a summer home. Henry came from an family of successful manufacturers in the North of England who were Unitarians. He had a similar background to the sugar producer Henry Tate and, like Tate, he wanted to give something back to the community. He not only gave employment to locals but made sure they were well paid and treated, not something which could be said of all English landowners in nineteenth century Ireland.
Mitchell and Margaret Henry were a close couple and had a large family but she died at the age of forty five while travelling through Egypt in 1874 and he brought her body back to their beloved Kylemore for burial. In fact, he could not bear to put his wife under ground and her body was embalmed and placed in the chapel he built in memory of her. He never remarried and rarely returned to Kylemore until his ashes were buried next to her after his death in 1910. He had been MP for Galway, a much-loved local grandee and a supporter of Irish Home Rule who was fortunate not to live to see the bloodshed if 1916 and the wars that followed as Ireland divided.
Kylemore was visited by King Edward the Seventh in 1903 and it was rumoured that he wanted to purchase it but thought it was “too expensive for a king”. Instead it was bought later that year by the Duke and Duchess of Manchester for £63,000. Like many impoverished English aristocrats he married American money but still managed to gamble away the house, which his wife had lovingly and expensively restored. The nuns arrived in 1920 and soon established a school which remained open until eight years ago. They are still there and I remember seeing them when I first visited years ago but are rarely seen now that it has become the stop for coaches in Connemara where people visit the house, garden, restaurant and gift shop. We were there recently and heard an American choir singing in the chapel where Mitchell Henry and his wife are buried.
Built by an English giver, lost by an English gambler, occupied by an order of Catholic nuns and now a tourist attraction, Kylemore is almost a history of modern Ireland in one building.