After a morning spent exploring the epic basalt column formations of the Giant’s Causeway, we leave the Atlantic coast of Northern Ireland and head south toward the iconic lakes region of Connemara.
The 320 kilometers (200 miles) south-westerly drive takes us through a picturesque rural scenery of verdant hills and quaint villages. The occasional ruin of an abandoned medieval castle punctuates the skyline, a stark reminder of Ireland’s long and turbulent history.
A Land of Austere Beauty
Some four hours into the drive, we enter a wild land of pewter-tinged granite mountains rising from rusty peat bogs and slate blue lakes. We have reached Connemara, the startlingly beautiful northern hinterland of County Galway, known through the ages for its stark living conditions. The lower hillsides are streaked with a network of ancient stone walls, often partially collapsed, that delineate small plots of farmland and pastures.
We are traveling along an exceptionally scenic stretch of road, known as the Connemara Loop, to Leenane (a.k.a. Leenaun), a small village nestled between the Mwelrea, Devil’s Mother and Maamturk Mountains and overlooking Killary Harbour – Ireland’s only fjord. The weather changes at kaleidoscopic speed. One instant, the pale autumn sunshine brushes the heather-covered mountainsides in rust and ocher tones. At the next bend in the road, angry black clouds and rain squalls all but erase the scenery in blurry shades of grey.
A Coaching Inn
The downpour has decreased to a misty drizzle by the time we reach the Leenane Hotel, our destination for the night. Established sometimes in the 1790’s the Leenane is Ireland’s oldest coaching inn – albeit one that has been refurbished to high contemporary standards. It also boasts spectacular views of the fjord from just about everywhere in the house, including our room and the cozy hotel bar with its open turf fire. The restaurant entices us with the best of local specialties, such as the superb Killary Bay Salmon and Rack of Connemara Mountain Lamb. It’s the ideal place for dining in on this gloomy November night.
A Love Story
It’s a short 16 kilometer (10 mile) drive along a picture-perfect country road to Kylemore Abbey. Originally built as a Neo-Gothic castle in 1864-1871 alongside Pollacappul Lake, the Abbey’s history of love and tragedy is the stuff of Irish legends.
Kylemore Castle was built by Manchester tycoon Mitchell Henry as a present for his beloved wife Margaret. They both fell in love with the area on their honeymoon and he purchased the 15,000-acre estate as a gift for her. The Irish architect James Franklin Fuller, who was responsible for some of Ireland’s best-known buildings the time, was commissioned to design the 40,000-square foot Kylemore Castle, which boasted “all the innovations of the modern age”.
The love story turned tragic when the Henrys went on journey to Egypt in 1874, where Margaret caught dysentery and died shortly thereafter. The inconsolable Henry built a diminutive Gothic “cathedral” in her memory a short walk from the castle. This exquisite building has many of the hallmarks of its large Gothic counterparts, including a fan-vaulted ceiling, projecting corner buttresses, angelic gargoyles and pointed arches. The marble columns that support the vaulted ceiling are made of four Irish marbles: reddish-pink from Munster, black from Leinster, white from Ulster and green Connemara marble from Connacht. He also built a small mausoleum in the woods near the church where Margaret was laid to rest, and her bereaved husband joined her upon his own death in 1910.
From Castle to Abbey
The castle changed hands a few times after that, until it was purchased by Benedictine nuns looking for a new home after they had to flee their monastery in Flanders during World War I. The nuns converted the castle into Kylemore Abbey, which became the first Benedictine abbey in Ireland. They subsequently opened an international boarding school, and a day school for local girls, which ran up until 2010.
Today, a number of the public rooms of the castle have been restored to the Victorian opulence of the Henry family’s days, including the drawing rooms, dining room, ballroom and Mitchell Henry’s study. They are open for guided tours only, but visitors are free to wander around the grounds including the church and the vast Victorian Walled Gardens, which includes a formal flower garden, greenhouses and a kitchen garden. The remainder of the Abbey is used by the Benedictine nuns and is closed to visitors.
Today, Kylemore is one of the most visited attractions in the west of Ireland, and an integral part of the Connemara experience.
Good to Know
- Getting there — Connemara is a region on the Atlantic coast of western County Galway, in the west of Ireland. It is located some 75 kilometers (45 miles) from Galway City and Galway airport. From there the best way to explore this exceptionally wild and scenic area of the country is by car. The N59 is the main road serving the area, following an inland route from Galway to Clifden. Kylemore Abbey is located right on the edge of Connemara National Park, 77 kilometers (48 miles) north from the centre of Galway City and 17 kilometers (10 miles) west of Leenane via N59.
- Visiting — Kylemore Abbey opening days and times vary with the seasons. Consult the Abbey’s website for information and required advance booking for the guided visit of the Abbey .
- Staying — Leenane Hotel, Clifden Road, Leenane, Connemara, Ireland. Contact: Tel: +353 095 42249, and e-mail. .
- What’s in a name? A lot actually, when it comes to Connemara. The region is not just about landscapes, as breathtaking as they are. It is also about the long and harsh history of an ancient people in a desolate land. The name derives from ‘Conmhaicne Mara’ (the tribe of Cormac by the sea). The Irish people originally called it Conmaicnemara until, after centuries of British rule, it was It was shortened in the 18th century to Connemara — Which brings us to Gaeltacht. Although you may see this indication on the occasional road sign, don’t expect your GPS to find it. Gaeltacht (literally Gaelic language) identifies the few districts of Ireland where the Irish government recognizes that the Irish language (Gaeilge or Gaelic) is the predominant language of the home. Connemara is one of the last remaining strongholds and the largest Gaeltacht region in the country.
So interesting. Wish we could visit Ireland and places in it like this!