by Marla Norman, Publisher
On my drive to Galway through Connemara, I take a scenic detour — through a sheep pasture. It seems that O’Shaughnessy, the name I’ve bestowed on my GPS, is slightly befuddled. Obviously time to reboot.
Part of the reason I’ve landed in a sheep pasture is that I’ve contracted a bad case of Castle Fever. It’s easy to do here in Ireland, where the castle-per-capita ratio is one of the highest in Europe. And the fascinating truth-is-stranger-than-fiction histories that come with them are addictive. (In Ireland, it’s always about the stories!) However, some estates are easier to locate than others. In this instance, poor O’Shaughnessy has had to RecalculateRecalculateRecalculate repeatedly…
Back on course, I zoom past lush meadows, picturesque barns, and sweet little villages with thatched-roofed houses. Then, coming around a wooded bend, I see — THE castle. Pulling the car to the side of the road, I sit and stare. It’s other-worldly, breathtakingly beautiful. Situated behind a misty lake, the place looks like a fairytale mirage.
Kylemore’s story begins with another tour of the gorgeous Connemara countryside. While out on a carriage ride, newlyweds Mitchell and Margaret Henry noticed an especially scenic spot — perfect for the home of their dreams: a 40,000 square foot Gothic-Revival castle with 33 bedrooms, 4 sitting rooms, ballroom, billiard room, library, smoking room, and domestic staff residences. Their estate would also include a 6-acre walled Victorian garden with 21 greenhouses containing every kind of exotic fruit imaginable.
From 1867-1871, stonecutters, craftsmen, and laborers worked seven days a week to complete the turreted, grey-stone castle. The Henrys enjoyed their magnificent home for three years before tragedy struck. Margaret died suddenly in 1874. Henry Mitchell, heartbroken, built an exquisite chapel to bury his young wife. Several years later he sold the entire estate.
The new owners, the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, used the castle to showcase their lavish lifestyle. The Duchess’ wealthy American father, Eugene Zimmerman, financed their extravagant spending. But when Zimmerman died, the couple’s marriage expired as well. Kylemore was taken over by London bankers.
For a number of years, the property was completely neglected. The greenhouses collapsed. The gardens grew wild, and the castle fell into disrepair. Then, in 1920, a group of Benedictine nuns purchased Kylemore and 10,000 acres for a little over £45,000 or about $64,000. The nuns began to slowly repair the castle, which they converted to an abbey and girls’ school. The gardens were restored and two of the greenhouses rebuilt. Produce from the fruit trees and gardens are now used in the abbey kitchens as well as in the restaurant and tea rooms the nuns have opened.
Kylemore has become the most photographed castle in Ireland. Hundreds of tourists visit the site daily and, thanks to the dedication of the Benedictine nuns, the estate is again a vision that causes travelers in the Connemara Valley to stop and stare as if they’re seeing a mirage.
THE CLIFFS OF MOHAR
The favorite retreat of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, has become one of the country’s most beloved parks. The Cliffs of Mohar rise over 400 feet in a vertical wall that stretches 5 miles along the western Irish coast of County Clare. Over 30,000 birds, representing more than 20 species live in the cliffs. Included are Puffins — a big crowd pleaser — hawks, ravens, shags, and gulls.
Today, I’m in luck. There’s no rain. Not even a mist. The weather is perfectly sunny and clear. I can see the Aran Islands and the Twelve Bens, the name given to the mountains of Connemara. I can even see the mountains of Kerry to the south. Hawks and gulls swoop down to dive for fish. It’s a spectacular sight.
O’Brien’s Tower sits in solitary watch on the Cliff’s highest point. Built in 1835 by Cornelius O’Brien, a descendant of the Kings of Thomond, the tower has always been intended for tourists, initially for Victorian-era visitors. I join in with contemporary tourists to check out the tower and views. (Visit the Cliffs of Mohar web site for more information and jaw-dropping photography.)
Later that evening, in a Galway pub, I listen to the foot-stomping Irish jigs and the infectious lilting accents of Irish conversations, some in Gaelic no less. Tomorrow I head for the south and Killarney. I’m hoping for sun and clear weather, but regardless, I’m certain that nothing can dampen the Irish warmth and charm that exists throughout this beguiling island.