‘A pale granite dream, afloat on its own reflection’

Week IV

The miniature Gothic church built in Margaret’s memory.

The miniature Gothic church built in Margaret’s memory.

Mitchell Henry’s final days in Kylemore were sad ones. His adored wife Margaret had died at 45 years-of-age, and rested in a simple brick mausoleum in the grounds of his palatial Kylemore Castle. His political life, into which he put a great deal of personal effort, advocating on behalf of all Irish tenants the rights for them to own their own land, was out manoeuvred by Charles Stewart Parnell and the Land League. Henry described the Land League methods as ‘dishonest, demoralising and unChristian’. He probably was not surprised to lose his Galway seat in the general election of 1885. He blamed ‘Parnellite intimidation’.

Although he strove hard to be a benevolent landlord, he was constantly being challenged on his methods. At a public meeting in Clifden the Ballyconneely curate Father Conway attacked him as a Protestant, and as an evicting landlord, referring particularly to a tenant relocated from the site of the walled garden. A proposal of no confidence was carried.

The Freeman’s Journal came to his aid by defending Henry against the people’s ‘dire ingratitude’. It published a letter from the entire tenantry of the Kylemore estate praising their generous and charitable landlord. It stated that the removed tenant was now ‘a prosperous and contented man’ in a fine slated house much superior to his former thatched cabin.

But the final blow was the death of his daughter Geraldine whom he described as ‘the flower of my flock.’ An 1892 newspaper report tells us that she was driving her open carriage, a phaeton, with a very spirited horse. At the bridge at Derryinver, she lost control and was flung over the precipice. Her body was found on the rocks below.

Information is unclear but it seems Geraldine Gilbert Henry was married and living in America. She had lost two children in infancy, and was brought home to Kylemore where it was believed would be a safer environment to raise little Elizabeth, her third child.*

Two years later, Kylemore was put up for sale.

Henry’s thoughts

For nine years Kylemore was on the market. Its ruinous cost had finally eaten into Henry’s fortune to the extent that he was now practically impoverished. His once great family business, Henry Merchants and General Warehousemen of Manchester and Huddersfield, was in liquidation. At last, in 1903, the distinguished sounding William Angus Drogo Montague, Ninth Duke of Manchester, offered a derisory £63,000 for the lot. The offer was accepted.

Henry had seen the whole disaster of Parnell’s fall from grace; and the Irish Parliamentary Party’s savage internecine warfare, that only the Irish can do so dramatically, and always at the wrong time. Home Rule, so nearly there, was pushed out into the next century.**

Perhaps Henry’s policy of winning over the Westminster members through argument, and not by the Land League’s intimidation, or Parnell’s policy of ‘obstructionism’, which infuriated the members, may have been the best way forward after all. We do not know what Henry’s thoughts were on this. He died in 1910, and was laid to rest beside his beloved Margaret at Kylemore.

It is perfection

The duke and his American wife ripped out the delicate Italian fittings and ‘installed morose Jacobean panelling’ and other ‘modern improvements’ before finally deciding that, after all, Kylemore was not for them.

Again the castle lay idle until the arrival of the Benedictine nuns rescued from their convent at Ypres, Belgium, which suddenly became part of the Western Front in one of the main battles of World War I. With very little money but with extraordinary hard work and a sense of purpose, this small community of women revived the farm, remodelled the interior of the castle to accommodate themselves and a highly regarded school for girls; while reimagining the walled garden into a prize-winning restoration. It is acclaimed today as one of Ireland’s main tourist attractions.

In a further development since 2015 the Abbey entered a partnership with the American university of Notre Dame which now offers young students a true Irish immersion to experience culture and history, and a prayerful life in this beautiful landscape.

Tim Robinson described Kylemore Castle as ‘a pale granite dream afloat on its own reflection, in all the troubling moral ambiguity of aesthetic splendour founded on gross inequality.’

For me I will walk pass the castle til I find the little neo Gothic church, by the lake; a 14th century cathedral in miniature, built by Henry as a remarkable tribute to his adored wife Margaret. It alone justifies the extravagance of the Kylemore dream. It is perfection.

NOTES: *There was a report that the baby Elizabeth and her nanny were also in the carriage but were not seriously injured.

**In 1889 Captain O’Shea filed a petition for a divorce naming Parnell as co-respondent. The publicity ruined Parnell’s reputation. He died two years later.


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