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

Week V

The ‘Gothic’ church at Kylemore where Mitchell and Margaret rest for eternity.

The ‘Gothic’ church at Kylemore where Mitchell and Margaret rest for eternity.

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 ‘Parnalite 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 Balleyconeely 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.

Fall of Parnall

Mitchell Henry was now very much a fading politician and landlord, but Parnell’s once brilliant career was to collapse in flames. His leadership was put to the test in February 1886, when he forced the candidature of Captain William O’Shea, for a Galway by-election Parnell rode roughshod over his lieutenants Healy, Dillon and O'Brien who were not in favour of O'Shea. Galway was the harbinger of the fatal crisis to come.

O'Shea, although he had helped Parnell while he was in Kilmainham gaol, was intensely jealous of Parnell. He had separated from his wife Katherine O’Shea, sometime around 1875, but would not divorce her as she was expecting a substantial inheritance. Mrs O’Shea was a helpful to the Irish political movement, and was frequently in Parnell’s company.

Parnell later was a known overnight visitor at the O'Shea house in Brighton. When Mrs O'Shea's aunt died in 1889, her money was left in trust.

Later that year, Captain O'Shea filed for divorce, citing Parnell as co-respondent. The two-day trial revealed that Parnell had been the long-term lover of Mrs. O'Shea and had fathered three of her children. Parnell did not contest the divorce action to ensure that it would be granted, and that he could marry Mrs O'Shea. O'Shea's allegations went unchallenged. A divorce decree was granted on 17 November 1890, but Parnell's two surviving children were placed in O'Shea's custody.

The divorce caused a scandal among his conservative supporters, and the fury of the Catholic Church. Confident that his achievements and massive public support would help him ride out the storm, he failed to recognise the power of the Catholic church, and that the divorce crisis would soon cripple this support. Most rural nationalists turned against him. In the December North Kilkenny by-election, his candidate lost by almost two to one.

Deposed as leader, he fought a long and fierce campaign for reinstatement. He conducted a political tour of Ireland to re-establish popular support. In a North Sligo by-election, the defeat of his candidate by 2,493 votes to 3,261 was less resounding. Perhaps he could make a comeback.

He fulfilled his loyalty to Katharine when they married on 25 June 1891. On the same day, the Irish Catholic hierarchy, worried by the number of priests who had supported him in North Sligo, signed and published a near-unanimous condemnation: ‘By his public misconduct, Parnell has utterly disqualified himself to be ... leader.’ Only Edward O’Dwyer, bishop of Limerick, withheld his signature. Mr and Mrs Parnell took up residence in Brighton but his political career was finished. **

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.

History is not kind to the ninth Duke of Manchester. Tim Robinson tells us that the man was ‘unworthy of the valley of Kylemore’. A ‘playboy and gambler, a pal of the Prince of Wales, and bankrupt, he had made the necessary marriage to money in the opulent form of Helena Zimmerman who picked up the mortgage repayments for Kylemore’. The new Duchess immediately set about ‘improving’ the amenities in expectation that King Edward VII was to revisit Connemara after his successful tour in 1903. During that visit, which he undoubtedly enjoyed, He called into Kylemore and was received by Henry’s agent Henry Robinson of Roundstone. Strangely Mitchell Henry himself was not there.

Nevertheless the new Duchess, in a frenzy of activity, threw some bedrooms together into a royal suite, turned the Gothic ballroom into a kitchen, ripped out the delicate marble-columned arches of the entrance hallway, and refurbished it in morose Jacobean panelling. The king, for whatever reason, decided not to return if indeed he had even thought to do so in the first place. The Duchess, who is said to have inherited one million dollars on the death of her father, grew impatient with the king’s non-appearance, packed up their many bags, and left for brighter lights. The mortgage on the castle was still unredeemed. ***

It is perfection

Mitchell 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 until 1922**

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 its 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.

They lie together in the little neo Gothic church, to the right of the castle 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.

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

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

** When Parnell set out for his last meeting at Greggs, on the Roscommon/Galway border on the night mail from Broadstone the 20-year-old Arthur Griffith, who was among those who saw him off, recalled that he looked ‘wretchedly ill’. He returned to Dublin for a few days after Creggs (the meeting was held in wet weather ), and was seriously debilitated by the time he reached Brighton. He died on the evening of October 6 1891. It was a month he had always dreaded, often saying ‘something is sure to happen in October’.

*** 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.

Note on Tim and Máiréad Robinson, whose book, Connemara The Last Pool of Darkness, prompted this series on Kylemore Castle.

Tim and Máiréad Robinson, presented their rich archive of photographs, place name records, reference books, correspondence, manuscripts and early drafts of his books to the James Hardiman Library, Galway University, along with their last home overlooking the harbour at Roundstone. There are plans to turn their home into a study centre.

At the presentation of his gifts Tim said that he could not have done any of his work without the help from NUIG experts in botany, geology and archaeology. He thought that his frequent visits to the university might have given some people the impression that he was a teacher. But no, “ I am an eternal student,” he said.

Responding to the appreciation of his gifts he replied: “We’d like to leave Connemara with as little as we brought to it - and return everything to Connemara.”

The couple returned to London. They had hopes of coming back to visit friends one more time, but poor health prevented them. Tim, who latterly suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died from Covid 19 at St Pancras hospital, near their flat in West Hampstead, on April 3. 2020. Máiréad predeceased him by two weeks.

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