Saturday, February 28, 2015

Connemara: Kylemore Abbey and Belleek Castle

Kylemore Abbey
Even though we left Clifden in daylight this morning, any views we might have had of the sea and the mountains were limited by heavy clouds and mist. We had hoped to do some hiking in the hills of Connemara National Park, but having had to keep the windshield wipers on all the way there, we decided that we might as well skip the hike and go on to Kylemore Abbey.

Moss-covered tree at Kylemore
This stunning estate has an interesting history. Built in the 1860s as a private home by a man whose family had made a fortune in the cotton business, what was originally called Kylemore Castle would seem to epitomize the excesses of the privileged class. Mitchell and Margaret Henry had chosen the spot during a carriage ride through the area on their honeymoon, and apparently thought nothing of pouring £1.5 million into the creation of a romantic, fairy-tale home—but as it turns out, that wasn’t such a bad thing. The massive construction project and Kylemore’s subsequent need for support services actually saved the local economy, which had been devastated by the Great Famine of the previous decade.

Kylemore's Walled Garden
In addition to building the house, the Henrys also planted 350,000 trees to restore a deforested area, and a huge walled garden with a series of greenhouses provided year-round fresh fruit and vegetables not only for the family (which included nine children) but also for the local people who staffed the estate.
The garden wall

Kylemore's Memorial Chapel
Detail in Kylemore's Gothic Chapel

Sadly, the Henrys had been living at Kylemore for less than ten years when Margaret contracted “Nile fever” on a trip to Egypt and died; as a memorial to his departed wife, Mitchell built a half-size replica of Norwich Cathedral near the castle. (Nancy noted that all the stained glass windows in the chapel depict women from the Bible—surely a unique feature.)

Kylemore's female saints
In 1903 the property was purchased by Eugene Zimmerman, a wealthy Cincinnati businessman, as a present for his daughter, who had married the Duke of Manchester. The duke and duchess lived lavishly at Kylemore for several years on Zimmerman’s money, but when Zimmerman died, they had to give it up and the estate began falling into disrepair. In 1920, the estate was purchased by a group of Belgian nuns whose abbey had been destroyed during World War I. It was at this point that Kylemore Castle became Kylemore Abbey. The nuns ran a girls’ boarding school for many years, then later established a trust to restore the buildings and grounds to something of their original glory so they could be enjoyed by the public. The Benedictine sisters still live there, making soaps and baked goods for the tourists—but always emphasizing that Kylemore is a place of “deep spirituality.”

Michael and Nancy arrived just as the estate was opening for the day, so we were able to enjoy a “deeply spiritual” tour of the house, chapel, and gardens virtually by ourselves. By noon, however, several tour buses had descended, and since it was pouring rain, most of the visitors had crowded into the gift shop and cafĂ©. We had to lift our lunch trays (carrying tomato-basil soup, red cabbage-carrot salad, and berry crumble) over a lot of other gray heads while we squeezed our way to a vacant table.

We love the graphic signage for the Wild Atlantic Way
Leaving Kylemore, we continued our drive along Ireland's equivalent to the Pacific Coast Highway: the Wild Atlantic Road—and wild it was today, with intermittent rain and constant wind, so again we decided to scrap a planned hike up Croagh Patrick, the site of a popular annual pilgrimage. A few hardy souls were trekking down the mountain when we stopped at the visitors’ center, but it must have been a very slow day because the girl behind the coffee counter had to put down her book to make us a cup of hot chocolate.
Famine Monument
Famine Monument

 Across the road from the Croagh Patrick visitors’ center is a striking memorial to the victims of Famine. We have learned that there was not just one, but several periods of famine in Ireland during the nineteenth century, but it was the Great Famine of 1845-52 (known in the U.S. as the Potato Famine) that drove so many Irish to America. The memorial is a disturbing tangle of skeletal bronze figures aboard a ship. 
Belleek's Grand Stairway
Belleek Castle

The Wild Atlantic Way took us through Westport, then we turned back toward the mountains and into the town of Ballina (pronounced Bal-a-NAH). Our accommodations for the night, while not on a scale quite as grand as Kylemore, were nevertheless fit for royalty. Belleek Castle is a nineteenth-century neo-gothic manor house that has been operating as a hotel since 1970. It’s filled with medieval armor and antique furniture, including the elaborately carved eighteenth-century bedstead in the room we were shown to when we checked in.

18th-century bed
View from our room
It was a lovely bed, but because it was hardly wider than a modern twin-size, Michael was worried that neither of us would be able to get any sleep. The maitre-d’ in the dining room downstairs (where we had made reservations for dinner) overhead him murmur a word of complaint and offered to let us switch to a room with a larger bed—which we did, after sharing a wonderful candlelit meal that included crab-fennel salad on toast, apple-celery soup, roast chicken with forest mushrooms and root vegetables, and a caramel-apple tart. Although many of the castle’s furnishings were very old, we were relieved to find that the bathrooms were state-of-the-art, the radiators were on, and the larger bed in our second room allowed us to sleep very comfortably.

Dinner in the Belleek Castle dining room
(When Michael returned to work after our Connemara weekend, he learned that one of his co-workers had celebrated his wedding at Belleek Castle. What a venue!)

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