The Benedictine Nuns & Kylemore Abbey: A History
by Deirdre Raftery and Catherine KilBride (The Benedictine Nuns Kylemore Abbey Centenary/Irish Academic Press, €19.95/£17.99)
This book is the story of an Irish success, but it is much more than that. It also encapsulates, in the story of Kylemore Abbey, a history of Connemara over some two centuries, an account of the development of Irish education since the days of the Free State, but more especially of the extraordinary acumen of a Catholic congregation in changing to cope with new times, and moreover to survive, to survive and to flourish in a different way than was originally envisaged when the community settled in Connemara a century ago.
T his book tells the whole history not just of the Benedictine nuns themselves, but of the extraordinary mansion in the wilderness in which they are based.
It was quite the thing in Victorian times for rich Englishmen to build themselves ‘a shooting lodge’ in the wilder parts of Scotland and Ireland for shooting and fishing.
The builder of Kylemore, Mitchell Henry, was a typical specimen as were his family.
From them the house passed to the Duke of Manchester, but debts forced them to sell it off, and so in 1920 it became a final refuge for the community of nuns known as the Irish Dames of Ypres. The Great War destroyed their part of France, and the nuns were, so to speak, rescued by the Munster Fusiliers.
So here they came in 1920 to open a school. This is the familiar part of the story for many, but the authors tells it in detail, following as they do, how education for girls changed over the decades, the aim moving on from creating young ladies into turning out accomplished young citizens.
The heart of the Kylemore nuns’ vocation is a Christian call to serve others”
Social changes affected many other schools – families no longer wished to send their children away, and as costs rose only a selected number could afford the fees.
The college closed in 2010, but the nuns remained. And today visitors can enjoy the peace and one might rightly say the spirituality of the Abbey and its estate. The nuns provide a haven for visitors, and for other retreats and focused religious events.
The last time my wife and I were there one recent summer, it was a rainy day in the west, a really rainy day, when the Victorian Garden (some way from the house) was closed for safety reasons, with water flooding down the paths. We promised ourselves we would return another finer day. And so we will, later this summer God willing, and see that too.
All this is related by Deirdre Raftery, of UCD, who has made nuns in education her special field. Catherine KilBride brings her special skill as a writer.
Their text is greatly enhanced by a lively gallery of images from the Abbey archives, covering the earliest days of the Mitchell family, and the nuns at Ypres right up to the very latest activities and projects of the present centenary year.
It is interesting to see what a multicultural place it has been, with Indian students in saris at the school, and Nigerian nuns now part of the community.
But at the heart of the Kylemore nuns’ vocation is a Christian call to serve others. Over time the best way to answer that call has changed, but it remains a calling which carried with it a true sense of vocation which is admirable in every way.
At the heart of all these enterprises lies in fact a deep spirituality from which all, no matter what their own way in the world takes them, might learn.
The book underlines what many historians have tried to explain in the face of so much recent negativity about ‘the nuns’ just what the country really owes these remarkable women from the 18th Century onwards.
A relative of mine used to say that the country would be better run in the charge of a Christian Brother and a Reverend mother – whatever about the Brother, on the evidence of this book Ireland as a whole would certainly have benefited from the example of the Irish Dames of Ypres, or the Kyelmore Benedictine as they became.
Long may they continue to flourish.
Still available is the delightful cookery book, The Flavour of Kylemore, by Marguerite Foyle (Columba Books, €24.99).
The Abbey, Victorian Garden and grounds at Kylemore reopened on July 3; for visitor information contact tel: +353 95 52001; email firstname.lastname@example.org