Calling all Cork garden lovers... a visit to historic Abbey was 'breathtaking'

Olive Ryan recalls a visit to stunning gardens in her weekly gardening column
Calling all Cork garden lovers... a visit to historic Abbey was 'breathtaking'

The walled garden at Kylemore Abbey, in County Galway, with Diamond Mountain behind.

KYLEMORE Abbey is situated at the heart of the West of Ireland nestled among the mountains of Connemara in County Galway.

On the approach road, as you glimpse the Abbey building reflected in the waters of Pollacappul Lake, it is breathtaking. So too are the six acres of gardens that have been nurtured within the confines of the walled garden which is located one mile west of the Abbey building.

There is plenty to explore with 1,000 acres of the original 15,000 acre estate remaining intact.

Kylemore Abbey is situated at the heart of the West of Ireland nestled among the mountains of Connemara in County Galway.
Kylemore Abbey is situated at the heart of the West of Ireland nestled among the mountains of Connemara in County Galway.

The Abbey was originally constructed by Mitchell and Margaret Henry in the 1860s. The Benedictine Community of Nuns arrived in the 1920s and established the Abbey as a boarding school which closed in 2010. The Benedictine Order still own and manage the estate at Kylemore.

The Abbey has been restored to its former glory and is now available to visit with interpretive signage, videos and plenty of history about the development of the estate as you walk through.

The walled garden was constructed and developed during the Victorian era and the current head gardener Anja Gohlke goes to great lengths to ensure the only Victorian varieties of plants are used throughout the gardens. The walled garden once boasted 21 heated glasshouses and 40 gardeners! Grapes and bananas were grown here in the wilds of Connemara and the growing facilities were so advanced as to be compared with those at Kew gardens, high praise indeed! Today two of the glasshouses have been rebuilt and the footprint of the others are evident in the upper south facing terrace.

The six acres is divided into east and west by a stream coming down from the mountain behind which is the main source for water in the gardens. The eastern side of the walled garden is home to the glasshouses and remains of glasshouses and traditional Victorian style of ornamental planting as well as the head gardeners house and gardeners bothy and the western side is used for growing fruit and vegetables. The soil here is peaty and has required lots of work over the years to bring it to its current productive level. The gardens had become very overgrown and in the 1990s work began to restore the walled garden here to its former glory, a decision was made to reinstate the original Victorian style of planting. 

It must have been like an archaeological dig to uncover any remains of original features as the gardens had become very overgrown with brambles and scrub.

The vegetable garden at Kylemore Abbey.
The vegetable garden at Kylemore Abbey.

The walled garden was reopened to the public in 1995 and has gone from strength to strength since then with the Abbey and gardens becoming a must see destination when travelling out west. The well edged lawns and displays of bedding plants are in stark contrast to the surrounding countryside beyond that is wild and rugged. These displays have been reinstated with feature plants like cordalyines creating a central focal point and colour from various bedding displays like marigolds, cannas, alyssum and calendulas filling in the beds around them. Beds are replanted twice a year with summer and spring bedding plants with most of the plants grown from seed onsite.

Locating and investing in a walled garden at such a location was a very adventurous and risky venture with wild mountains all around and lots of growing challenges to contend with from plentiful rainfall, poor drainage, salt laden winds, poor soil and the isolated location to name but a few. The Head Gardener’s House is located at one of the highest points within the walled garden and has been restored and is normally open for visitors to walk through and admire the accommodation provided for what must have been a job with some status at the time that it was built.

Today much research is done to ensure that old ‘Victorian’ varieties are grown (varieties introduced to Ireland before 1901) and planted in the garden with some seed saved in house also. 

Many of these plants are rare and unavailable commercially making it an important job to preserve heritage and heirloom varieties through seed saving and vegetative propagation.

There is a double herbaceous border running down the middle of the walled garden on the western side with a hedge at the rear. A detailed planting plan is available which names all of the species and cultivars used within. There are four large vegetable growing plots towards the western end of the walled garden which is worked on a four year rotation.

Work is done chemical free, using heritage varieties and companion planting and there is a lot of seaweed used to improve soil fertility and structure with the proximity to the wild Atlantic coast in this part of the world. Using seaweed has been found to be a good deterrent to leather jackets which can do some damage to young plants and potato crops in the vegetable garden.

The gardens are one of the main attractions here but there is lots to explore when visiting. The tea house is located adjacent to the walled garden and is opened from Easter to October providing welcome refreshments after woodland and lakeshore walks around the walled garden.

There is a Gothic church built in memory of Margaret Henry a short walk from the Abbey.

Mitchells Cafe, Craft and Design shop and pottery studio provides a good wholesome food offering and shopping experience and if feeling very energetic then a summit to the Sacred Heart Statue, which was erected by the Benedictine community in 1932 in thanksgiving for the mortgage being paid off, may be an option. Plenty to explore and enjoy at the heart of Connemara.

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