Kylemore Abbey

A historic garden on Ireland’s wild Atlantic way

By Fionnuala Fallon

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Kylemore AbbeyEven by the standards of the Victorian era, the 19th-century walled garden belonging to Kylemore Abbey in County Galway, Ireland, is, at 6 acres, far larger than most. As for its location—a stretch of peaty bogland overlooking Diamond Hill, surrounded by deciduous woodlands and the wild, cloud-stained skies of Connemara—there can be few as dramatic. So, too, is the story of its creation. Built in the 1860s at the height of the British Empire by the wealthy British industrialist and member of Parliament Mitchell Henry as a present to his beloved wife, Margaret, Kylemore’s walled garden once formed part of a 15,000-acre historical estate.

At its heart was the Henrys’ home, a vast baronial-style castle perched by the edge of Pollacappul Lake.

Kylemore Abbey 6-acre gardenBack then, Kylemore’s walled garden was a secret universe, hidden behind high walls and, as was the tradition of the time, far out of sight of the house. Those walls served a double function, keeping out unwelcome visitors and offering protection from cold easterly winds and the prevailing westerly gales of the Atlantic, which are a feature of Connemara’s wet and windy climate.

Within, the Henrys built a wonderfully productive garden manned by an army of gardeners (the work provided local families with employment at a time of deep economic depression) and filled with fruit trees, vegetables, and flowers (including one of the longest double herbaceous borders in Ireland) as well as 21 glasshouses heated by no less than 5,000 feet of hot-water pipes.

garden with heirloom vegetables, annuals, herbs, and fruitBut the idyll was shattered forever when tragedy struck the family in the shape of Margaret Henry’s death in 1875 from a fever contracted during the couple’s travels in Egypt. Soon after, a heartbroken Mitchell Henry left Kylemore. He eventually sold the estate in 1903. As the era of the “big house” finally came to an end along with that of British rule in Ireland, Kylemore’s walled garden fell into a slow decline.

By 1920, a community of Benedictine nuns fleeing war-torn Belgium had purchased Kylemore Castle, where they established a well-known boarding school known as Kylemore Abbey. Over the ensuing decades, the nuns fought valiantly to preserve its Victorian walled garden. In particular, a green-fingered nun by the name of Sister Benedict took it under her protective wing, before the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme finally enabled the walled garden’s award-winning restoration in the mid-1990s—a 20th-century phoenix plucked from the ashes of history.

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