It must have been an extraordinary sight in the 1860s to see Kylemore castle rise from a bog in the heart of Connemara’s Twelve Pins, barely a decade following the devastation of the Great Famine. More than 100 men were employed, at a handsome wage of seven to 10 shillings a week, turning rough, soggy land, only good for shooting wild fowl and for fishing in its nearby lakes, into a magnificent building. Today it stands more like a palace than a castle, and is still a show-stopper on the Letterfrack road.
The man behind this immense project was Mitchell Henry, the son of a leading cotton merchant in northern Britain, who abandoned his career as a consulting surgeon at Middlesex hospital when he inherited his father’s fortune. Henry had been a regular visitor to Ireland, where he was an enthusiastic angler. He had married a beautiful woman, Margaret Vaughan of Quilly House, Co Down, and honeymooned at Kylemore House Hotel, two miles away from his inescapable fate.
The marriage between Mitchell and Margaret was very much a love match; and possibly as they looked at the valley before them, they agreed to build their dream home there. A man of Henry’s wealth and prestige could have had a far easier life as a landed gentleman in a baronial mansion in one of England’s ‘pleasant pastures’; but here, in the wet and misty mountains was a challenge for Henry’s romantic soul.
Had Henry and his wife chosen their Jerusalem elsewhere, then a simple hunting lodge in Connemara may have been sufficient. A hunting lodge was, in fact, already in situ, the retreat of Robert Wilberforce, the son of the great humanitarian William Wilberforce who led the successful anti slave trade campaign.
To the anguish of his family, Robert, after years of inner conflict, had followed John Henry Newman, the leader of the so-called Oxford Movement, and renounced his Anglican faith for Roman Catholicism, a major incident in the history of the Church of England.
Robert devoted his time to improving the lot of poor tenants by providing 30 cottages, and would have undoubtedly done more but for his untimely death leaving his estate for sale.
Robert’s land and others, were rolled up into a 15,000 acre estate, and by 1866 work on the colossal building began, with its castellated towers and more than 70 palatial rooms.*
And to keep out the damp, winter air, a Turkish bath was a luxurious extra. Big enough for Henry and his guests (I am advised there was a separate section for ladies ), roaring turf fires provided the necessary steam to ward off colds and rheumatism. Its like was never seen in Connemara before.
If the building was impressive so was the domestication of the ‘rough bogland’ as it was turned into a miracle of horticultural management, and self sufficiency. In the eight-and-a-half acre walled garden with its geometrical flowerbeds set in smooth lawns, were 21 glass houses including a winery, fernery, palm house, fig house, nectarine house and banana house all heated by a boiler set over a limekiln that produced 70 barrels of lime a week; plus workshops, a mushroom house, endless store rooms, including laundry and drying rooms, and accommodation for dairy staff. Nearby there was stabling for 29 horses and a coach house, and a post office, even a fire station manned by a helmeted crew with a tender drawn by two horses.
In addition to all this a model farm with all the necessary out houses for animals and storage, even with a turbine to power a circular saw, was installed with attractive designs for ease of management. There were boathouses on the lake and a salmon hatchery… ‘in short a luxurious fantasy of romantic days of yore married to modern industry,’ was carved into the Connemara bog.
Everything had to make way for it. A tenant had to be removed from his little farm where the walled garden was to be sited, and rehoused elsewhere, with compensation. A business which would cause Henry trouble later on.
Outside the magic kingdom the Henrys provided employment for hundreds of people. More than 240 men were employed draining the mountain streams into controlled rivers; while dozens of girls earned nine pence a day harvesting turnips. Tim Robinson wonders if it could be true, as records suggest, that 300,000 trees were planted every years for several years. Exotics were planted too including the rhododendron which despite its beauty this time of year has multiplied out of hand.
‘Winding walks by the lakeside came into existence, and a lordly carriage sweep before the arched main entrance with its carving of a winged figure bearing the family coat of arms.
Not all were pleased with this enterprise. The Martins of Ross blamed Henry’s imported masons, carpenters and plasterers for introducing communistic ideas into Connemara. On the other hand the Joyces of Recess founded their more moderate fortune by selling poitín to them. After the annual staff balls at the castle, 200 tenants and workmen would disperse ‘with three cheers for Mr and Mrs Henry.’
Mitchell, however, being a northern Englishman, had a practical streak as well as his romantic heart. In 1871 he was elected, unopposed, for Galway and represented it at Westminster for 14 years.
Next Week: Tragedy, politics and the bitter Land War.
NOTES: * Designed and constructed by Sameul Ussher Roberts and James Fulleton Fuller. Roberts was very familiar with the watery terrain on which Kylemore (Coill Mhór, big wood ) was built. As district engineer for Co Galway (1848 - 1855 ) he was responsible for the Corrib, Mask and Carra drainage; in Galway he completed the Eglinton Canal, and improved the flow of water through the town for mill power and the salmon fishery.
Sources: include Connemara - The last pool of darkness, by Tim Robinson, Penguin Books 2008, and Beyond the Twelve Bens, by Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, first published 1986.