Notre Dame students exploring the wild countryside close to Kylemore Abbey.
By Jim Smith
Connemara, County Galway — Kylemore Abbey, one of the most popular tourist spots in the West of Ireland, was built as a majestic castle by English physician and philanthropist Mitchell Henry in 1871, four years after he purchased the surrounding 15,000 acre site as a gift for his wife, Margaret, and out of love for his ancestral homeland of Ireland.
Nestled in the rugged hills of Connemara in County Galway and on the edge of Lough Pollacappul, the castle eventually became Kylemore Abbey in 1920 when the nuns of the Benedictine Order settled there after their Abbey in Ypres, Belgium, was destroyed during World War I.
Three years later, the nuns opened a renowned international boarding school and a day school for girls from the Galway area by converting the expansive living spaces and bedrooms into classrooms and dormitories.
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After establishing a proud history of educating young women from around the world, the Abbey School closed in 2010, but the nuns remained in residence and continued leading lives of prayer, community service, labor, and stewardship of the estate’s heritage.
In 2011, a path to the Sacred Heart Statue was re-opened for guided mountain hikes, and in 2013 a new Benedictine Church opened.
But because education had been at the core of the Abbey’s mission for nearly a century, a void lingered within the community. That is until 2015 when the “Fighting Irish” arrived.
Five years after the Abbey School closed, the Benedictine Community and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana entered into a 30-year partnership to create a center to promote their shared values.
At that time, the Kylemore Abbess, Mother Maire Hickey, announced that she and her staff were “delighted that the University of Notre Dame has responded favorably to our invitation to join our community in advancing our educational and spiritual mission; I have high hopes that the partnership will yield rich fruits for generations to come.”
Lisa Caulfield, director of the Notre Dame Global Center at Kylemore Abbey, suggested at the time that the match was one made in heaven.
“We are an unashamedly Catholic university. When Kylemore became a possibility, it really did tick all the boxes in terms of education and Catholic ethos, and in such a beautiful location,” she said.
Caulfied told the Echo that the mission of the partnership continues to be one of cultivating “academic excellence and faith formation while carrying out authentic community outreach.”
She said that the center offers academic conferences, environmental field trips, artist residencies, spiritual retreats, and open-enrollment master classes, including ones in June led by Jean Butler of Riverdance fame and renowned flautist Sir James Galway, which are open to the public.
Owen Smith, a recent alumnus of Notre Dame and currently the Program Manager of the university’s Dublin Study-Abroad Program, told the Echo that the hundreds of students who visit Kylemore each year have plenty of opportunities to expand their horizons.
“Students spend time exploring the Abbey’s Walled Gardens, the old school building, the Gothic Chapel, and the nuns’ chocolate and soap-making facilities,” he said.
“And they sometimes join the nuns for morning prayer and Vespers. They also make excursions into the surrounding region by hiking Mamean and Diamond Hill, visiting sheep farms, walking along Killary Fjord, or just spending time in the picturesque towns of Clifden and Letterfrack.”
Combining natural beauty, spirituality, and a wide range of educational opportunities, Kylemore seems to have it all, as the legacy of Mitchell Henry and the Benedictine Nuns of Ypres lives on.