Kylemore Abbey’s foundation stone was laid on September 4, 1867 by Margaret Vaughan Henry, the wife of Mitchell Henry. The estate had been bought and planned as an elaborate love token for Margaret and as a ‘nesting place’ for the growing Henry family. Although Mitchell Henry was born in Manchester, he proudly proclaimed that every drop of blood that ran in his veins was Irish. It was to Ireland that he brought Margaret on honeymoon in the mid-1840s and where they first saw the hunting lodge in the valley of Kylemore that would eventually become their magnificent home. Although they visited Connemara in a time of hunger, disease, and desperation, Mitchell could see the potential to bring change and economic growth to the area.
The son of a wealthy Manchester cotton merchant of Irish origin, Mitchell was a skilled pathologist and eye surgeon. Before he was thirty years of age, he had a successful Harley Street practice and is known to have been one of the youngest ever speakers at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. On his father’s death, Mitchell inherited a hugely successful family business and became one of the wealthiest young men in Britain. Mitchell lost no time in quitting his medical career and turning instead to liberal politics where he felt he could change the world for the better. His newfound wealth also allowed him to buy Kylemore Lodge and construct the magnificent castle.
Designed by Irish architect James Franklin Fuller and engineer Ussher Roberts, Kylemore boasted all the innovations of the Victorian Age. There were 33 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, 4 sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiard room, library, study, school room, smoking room, gun room and various offices and domestic staff residences, as well as gardens, walks, and woodlands which eventually covered 13,000 acres of land at a cost of little over £18,000. During construction, the sound of dynamite blasts were heard in Connemara for the first time as the castle was carefully set into the face of the mountain. This achieved the exact positioning required which to this day gives the castle its iconic appearance.
At Kylemore, Mitchell and Margaret's large family revelled in the outdoor life of the ‘Connemara Highlands’. Margaret took on the role of the country lady and became much loved by the local tenants. Her passion for travel and eye for beauty were reflected in the sumptuous interiors where Italian and Irish craftsmen worked side by side to create the ‘family nest’. Sadly, the idyllic life did not last long for the Henrys.
In 1874, just a few years after the castle was completed, the Henry family departed Kylemore for a luxurious holiday in Egypt. Margaret was struck ill while travelling and despite all efforts, nothing could be done. After two weeks of suffering she died. She was 45 years old and her youngest daughter, Violet, was just two years old. Mitchell was heartbroken. Margaret’s body was beautifully embalmed in Cairo before being returned to Kylemore. According to local lore, Margaret lay in a glass coffin which was placed beneath the grand staircase in the front hall, where family and tenants alike could come to pay their respects, a common practice at the time. Margaret’s remains were eventually placed in a modest red brick mausoleum in the woodlands of her beloved Kylemore.
Although Henry remained on at Kylemore, life for him there was never the same again. His older children helped him to manage the estate and care for the younger ones, as he attempted to continue his vision for improvements and hold on to his political career. By now he had become a prominent figure in Irish politics and was a founding member of Isaac Butt’s Home Rule movement. In 1878 work began on the neo-Gothic Church which was built as a beautiful and lasting testament to Henry’s love for his wife.
The Henry family left Kylemore in 1902, when the estate was sold to the ninth Duke of Manchester. The Duke his family left Kylemore in 1914; there are many stories in circulation, but the most likely is that eventually, the Duke and Duchess of Machester did not have sufficient funds to maintain the Kylemore estate; eventually it was turned over to the Benedictine community who arrived in 1920.