If you’ve traveled through the West of Ireland, you have almost certainly stopped to visit Kylemore Abbey, built in the 1800s by Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret. Kylemore is one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions for so many reasons—the fascinating history of the castle and the Henry family’s many contributions to life in Connemara, the wonderfully well-stocked gift shop, delicious meals and snacks in the Mitchell cafe and Tea House, the restored Victorian Walled Garden, beautiful Neo-Gothic Church, and the vast array of programs held on site during the height of the tourist season.
The story goes that Mitchell and Margaret visited Connemara on their honeymoon in 1850 and she was so enthralled by a hunting lodge, set on the banks of picturesque Pollacappul Lake, that he later returned, bought the 15,000 acres and built the castle as their home. The Henrys raised nine children there.
A doctor in Manchester, England, Mitchell Henry was amazingly forward thinking for his time and a real innovator: He created the first model farm in the west of Ireland; cultivated the largest Victorian Walled Garden in Ireland, with 21 glasshouses heated by a vast network of water pipes; rerouted the public road to facilitate construction of the castle; generated his own hydro-electricity; and set up a school on the grounds for the tenants’ children. He also represented Galway in the House of Commons for 14 years and was a keen advocate of home rule for the Irish.
Henry died in 1910 and Kylemore went through a series of owners before the property was purchased in 1920 by Benedictine nuns from Ypres, Belgium, who had fled to Ireland after their abbey was destroyed in WWI. They ran a highly regarded girls’ school at Kylemore until 2010. A Galway development company now manages the property, although the nuns are still very much in evidence as some live on the property and in a nearby farmhouse.
Kylemore’s Play Trail
Although Mitchell Henry is gone, innovations continue at Kylemore. We recently visited the newly created Children’s Play Trail, designed as part of Kylemore’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Mitchell Henry’s death. Brid Connell, of sales and marketing for Kylemore, gave us a tour and explained the design process and collaboration with students from the nearby furniture college (Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology Letterfrack) who built the pieces along the trail. An architect by training, Brid was an integral part of the process and worked with the Second Year Furniture Design and Manufacturing students, who were invited to design and make the outdoor play pieces. She chose the location on the Kylemore grounds where each of 22 pieces would be placed and was involved throughout the project.
“Visitors love it that all the pieces are scattered,” she said. “The trail keeps kids and adults moving; it’s not like a regular playground. Parents and children interact here and there’s a great sense of discovery. The whole thing is magical.”
Many facets of Henry’s time at Kylemore were incorporated into the designs and materials used. Henry planted more than 300,000 trees at Kylemore, Connell said, including a variety of exotic and native trees imported from as far away as California and the Mediterranean. Those trees are now about 120 years old, and some have fallen in storms or have been cut down for safety reasons, giving the GMIT students the unique opportunity to work with different kinds of wood.
Dermot O’Donovan, Head of Department at GMIT Letterfrack, explained that 26 students designed individual pieces of “interactive children’s furniture” specific to the outdoor areas assigned to them for the Kylemore project. The participants, who would normally focus on designing and creating indoor, office, and industrial furniture, faced multiple challenges when designing pieces for this heavily used outdoor service environment.
Students had the opportunity to work with the many different woods from Kylemore’s felled trees where possible, he said. Their designs incorporated adjustment for expansion and contraction of the wood caused by moisture in the environment. It is challenge enough to design indoor furniture that can withstand normal expansion and contraction of from about 10 to 12 percent, he said, but outside, especially in rainy Connemara, contraction can range from 15 to 22 percent. And students had to find the best methods to finish their pieces so they will weather well and, O’Donovan said, “survive the test of time.”
There was a “huge element of learning” in the play trail, O’Donovan said, for the students who created it and now for children visiting Kylemore. During the project, GMIT brought in outside health and safety experts and lecturers to assess student designs. The students were shown their assigned spaces and then created their designs in 2D and 3D. The small models were given to lecturers and Kylemore representatives for feedback. “Students got constant feedback,” O’Donovan said, from technicians and lecturers and then there was a final project critique.
Success Draws Applause
O’Donovan applauded the success of students from GMIT Letterfrack not just with the Kylemore project but also in the outside world. Students do 20 weeks of industry training as part of their education and are placed with companies all over the world, including the woodworking companies Mark Richey in Newburyport, MA, and Thomas Mosher in Auburn, ME, as well as Payne/Bouchier Fine Builders and New England Casket in Boston.
Some 250 students are registered in five different three-to-four-year degree programs at the Letterfrack campus where they are not only trained in health and safety aspects of their trade but also learn math, science, advanced manufacturing technology, computer-aided design/manufacturing, and other subjects required by the industry. There is a huge demand for GMIT Letterfrack graduates in the States and elsewhere, O‘Donovan said, thanks to the breadth of their knowledge and skills.
If you’re in Connemara, be sure to visit Kylemore and walk along the Abbey to the Walled Garden. We’re sure you will be as charmed by the play trail fixtures as we were and awed by the outstanding collaboration between higher education and the tourist industry that made it happen.
Summer may have flown but there is still a lot to see and do in Ireland if you are thinking about a fall visit.
In Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, for instance, the Kilbeggan Races are on and are always fun. Check out kilbegganraces.com for details.
There’s an Autumn Propagation Workshop scheduled Sept. 8/9 at magnificent Cashel House Hotel in Connemara. Packages include two nights B&B, two lunches, dinners and afternoon tea. Gardening courses are offered there throughout the growing season. For details, visit cashel-house-hotel.com
In Roscommon, the Strokestown Agricultural Show will be held Sept. 8/9 at Strokestown Park House. See strokestownshow.com for more.
Love oysters? Ireland’s the place for you and September is a month with an R so you’re good to attend the Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival Sept. 28-30. See galwayoysterfest.com for details.
Dublin Festival Season runs from Sept. 1 through the end of October. Visit: dublinfestivalseason.com for more information.
If you love music, be sure to take in the Dingle Trad Fest Sept. 6-9. More details are available at dingletradfest.com. And, don’t forget the Monaghan Rhythm and Blues Festival, Sept. 7-9 in Monaghan Town. See harvestblues.ie for more.
A Taste of West Cork Food Festival is planned for Sept. 10-16 in Skibbereen (atasteofwestcork.com); a Waterford Harvest Food Festival is set for Sept. 10-16 (waterfordharvestfestival.ie) and the Midleton Food and Drink Festival will be on Sept. 8. Visit midletonfoodfestival.ie.
Be sure to check discoverireland.com for details on all kinds of events happening in Ireland when you visit.