Kylemore Abbey, County Galway

Kylemore Abbey is an intensely romantic place, an enchanted fairy-tale castle in the neo-Gothic style that stands dramatically at the foot of a barren mountain in a remote and beautiful part of Connemara - its numerous battlemented and machicolated towers and turrets reflected in the waters of the lake below. For years this amazing house, now a convent, has been the most admired and photographed building in the West of Ireland.

The castle was built between I863 and I868 for Mitchell Henry (1826-1911), a highly successful Manchester financier and MP, to the design of James Franklin Fuller and Ussher Roberts, brother of Field Marshal Roberts. The story of its building began in 1852 when Henry was on honeymoon with his bride Margaret Vaughan of Quilly House, County Down. Stopping near Kylemore Pass for an al fresco lunch, the young Mrs Henry looked up and saw a small shooting-box on the opposite hillside, the only dwelling in sight, and exclaimed: 'How I would love to live there.' Ten years later, Mitchell Henry, by now a rich tycoon, purchased the property with its 9,000 acres of moor land, mountain and lake and embarked upon a dream house for his wife.

The building took five years and cost over one and a quarter million pounds - a staggering sum in those days. The completed castle was on a 'Citizen Kane' scale, boasting many splendid reception rooms including a ball-room with a sprung floor, a magnificent staircase, a library, a study and thirty-three bedrooms. There were only four bathrooms, but the house was equipped with a Turkish bath, its water pressure ensured by an elaborate system of hydrants. He also built a model farm, laundry, dairy, saw mill, ornate chapel and a Gothic church, which was in part a replica of Norwich Cathedral. There was a six-acre walled garden and thanks to three miles of hot-water piping, twenty-one greenhouses containing tropical fruit, vineries, peaches, pineries and orangeries. Three hundred thousand trees were planted a year to protect the castle and gardens from constant gales and many of these grew successfully despite the harsh weather conditions.

For ten years the Henrys and their nine children lived at Kylemore, entertaining on a lavish scale. Tragedy struck in I875 when Margaret died on a visit to Egypt. She was buried in a mausoleum at Kylemore, but afterwards her husband could no longer bear to spend much time there. Later his daughter Geraldine was killed when driving a pony-trap at Derryinver and shortly afterwards Henry's financial empire started to collapse. In 1902 Kylemore was acquired for a twentieth of its value by Mr Zimmerman, a Chicago businessman, as a present for his daughter who had married the Duke of Manchester. During their tenure from 1902 to 1913, when the estate was mortgaged to money lenders, they made many unfortunate changes, including transforming the lovely ball-room into an enormous kitchen. This conversion was undertaken to satisfy the cook who was expecting to prepare a meal for Edward Vll and Queen Alexander on their visit to Connemara in 1903. Their Majesties did, in fact, come - but only for a cup of tea.

The old ball-room is now the chapel of the Irish Dames of Ypres who acquired Kylemore in 1920. This Benedictine congregation was founded originally in 1572 and later established by Dame Lucy Knatchbull at Ypres in 1665. They came to Ireland after their abbey was destroyed during the Great War and settled at Kylemore, where they established a famous girl's school.

Located between Letterfrack and Recess on the N59. NGR: L 74858S. Open daily, l7 March to 31 October: 10.00 am - 6.00 pm. Closed Good Friday. Restaurant, craft shop and pottery shop as abbey. Toilet facilities. Admission charged to interpretative rooms. Proceeds to restoration fund.
Tel: abbey (095) 41146, shop (095) 41113.