On the drawing board: Kylemore Abbey as ‘a new icon’

By Judy Enright
Special to the BIR

Since before 2010, when the Benedictine nuns closed their highly regarded school for girls at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, the most frequent question in the area has been: “What next?”

Would the picturesque castle, perched on a rise above Pollacappul Lake, become a tourist hotel? Would the property be transformed into a Celtic Magic Kingdom? Could developers build a casino or conference center in peaceful Connemara?
The answer has come with the unveiling of an ambitious proposal that maintains the focus of the Benedictine order but also enhances and upgrades the property. An eight-member board – The Kylemore Abbey Trust, a registered charity – has been established to develop and guide the proposal to completion. Assisting them will be professional advisors, including accounting and architectural firms, project engineers, and a development company, Venture Advancement Ltd.

“A new icon”
During an interview at Kylemore last fall, Sister Maire Hickey, OSB, Abbess for the past five years, talked about the plans and said, “Iconic Kylemore will develop into a new icon. Until now it has been a tourist attraction and a school with a community of nuns in the background. We want it to be a Benedictine monastery that is the center of activities of various kinds, and open to visitors of many kinds. We want it all to have a certain kind of ethos and focus,” she said. “We see this as the continuation of our educational mission.”

She described extensive renovation and upgrading of the castle building to open more rooms to the public. Eventually, Sister Maire said, the hope is to refurbish and open the entire castle to showcase life in the late 1800s and to have it declared a heritage house.
Work has already begun to convert the former gym into a community chapel, which Sister Maire expects will be ready by next summer. When finished, there will be enough space for about 100 visitors to join the nuns in prayer and reflection. Nuns and former students used the castle’s ballroom as a chapel but it was not open to visitors. That former chapel will become an auditorium for a new education center.

An education center
The boarding school behind the castle will be extensively refurbished to create an education center with ensuite bedrooms, classrooms and community rooms for 25 students and teachers. Since the school closed, the nuns at Kylemore have been working on a new educational mission, “relevant for the needs of today while maintaining the Benedictine tradition and ethos.” The education center, Sister Maire said, “will be a place where good living is appreciated and where visitors can learn what makes life good.”

Also included in the plans is construction of a new purpose-built monastery, separate from the castle, that will include a monastic church and guesthouse for visitors. “We have always shared our building with the school and guests,” Sister Maire said. “For years, we have been thinking about and hoping to build a proper monastery on the grounds. Then we could open more rooms for guests.”

Funding will also enable continued maintenance of the magnificent Victorian walled garden – a highlight for the more than 250,000 tourists who visit annually.

In a glossy brochure, printed for fundraising, the Abbess writes, “The Kylemore Abbey Trust has taken on the responsibility of harnessing the very substantial financial resources and technical skills required to deliver on our plans and initiatives…”

Price tag: $9.2 million

Funds are currently being raised on both sides of the Atlantic for the $9.2-million project and the Trust is seeking major contributions here to lay the foundation and get the project moving.

For more information or to inquire about making a pledge or major donation, contact Mary Reed at 914-420-3517 or e-mail her at reedmary44@yahoo.com. Mary and her campaign committee hope they can raise at least $1.1 million in New York City and environs. They will welcome Sister Maire as the featured speaker at a kickoff event in the American Irish Historical Society in New York City on Jan. 15. For more information about that event, call Mary Reed.

The Abbess will also be the featured speaker on Jan. 9 at a Washington, DC, breakfast meeting to honor women of Ireland. The event will be held in the Hay-Adams Hotel. See the Irish American Partnership website (irishap.org) for details. Proceeds will benefit Kylemore.

Locally, tax-deductible donations may be addressed to Mary McAleer at the Irish American Partnership, 33 Broad St., Boston, 02109. Please note that the donation is for the Kylemore Abbey Capital Campaign. You may call the Irish American Partnership at 617-723-2707 or 800-722-3893 for more details or visit their website.

Most visitors to the West of Ireland have stopped to experience the many attributes of Kylemore Abbey, which is truly the jewel of the west. The property has a fascinating history as well as many modern additions – such as the creation of a Children’s Play Trail, in collaboration with the furniture college (GMIT) in nearby Letterfrack, and the restoration of Victorian gardens, greenhouses and the teahouse.

“Perfect destination”
I have visited, taken guests, and written about Kylemore Abbey many times over the years because it is a perfect tourist and travel destination. You can see something different every time you go. Stop by the neo-Gothic chapel, the Mausoleum, the garden and teahouse, the castle itself with the history of the property and Mitchell Henry, a Manchester doctor who was modern beyond his time, and built the castle for his wife. You can visit one or more attractions on the property, enjoy a hot, tasty meal in the teahouse - adjacent to the gardens - or in the cafeteria or stop by the gift shop, one of the best in Ireland.

There are also opportunities to spend time living with the community at Kylemore in contemplation or volunteering. Several dozen women have come in the past three or four years because they heard about the opportunity by word of mouth. There is no advertising, Sister Maire said. “They come to experience life here or work for us on a volunteer basis.”

She added that a number of groups also come for retreats, conferences or workshops. Plans are already in place for a group from Maryland (students and staff) to visit Kylemore next summer for a 12-day educational experience in Ireland for which they will receive course credits. Classes will include Irish history and culture and there will be workshops with local people in music, poetry and more.

“Our vision is that the Kylemore of the future will be a monastery and spiritual place of prayer, study and education and a wonderful tourist facility as well,” Sister Maire said.

We are always happy to hear that US and Irish airlines have increased flights to and from Ireland and specifically from Shannon, which so handily services the wonderful, wild West. The expanded service announced for Dublin and Shannon means almost 270,000 more seats between Ireland and the USA next summer, a 20 percent increase over 2012.
Recently, we heard that:

• US Airways will return to Shannon (flights last landed there in 2009) for the 2013 summer season, operating a daily service from Philadelphia.
• During the summer,United will operate a new service from Chicago to Shannon five days a week and will also restore direct service from the US Midwest to Shannon.
• Delta will fly New York JFK-Shannon daily throughout the peak summer season.
• American will introduce a daily service from New York JFK to Dublin, starting in June. And because Aer Lingus has increased its fleet from six to seven planes, there will be an increase in those flights during the summer season too.
• Two daily flights will operate between Boston-Dublin between late March and mid-June.
• Orlando-Dublin service will operate twice daily from the end of March to mid-June and increase to three flights a week for the summer.
• Dublin-Chicago is increasing from a daily service to 11 flights per week.
• The Dublin-JFK route will operate twice daily and there will also be daily departures from Shannon to JFK and Logan.
HAPPY 2013

Welcome to a new year and all the exciting adventures that come with it.