Originally built as a castle by a wealthy businessman, the landmark Connemara building was empty and falling into disrepair when the Benedictine Nuns made it their Abbey one hundred years ago, writes Catherine Kilbride.

There can hardly be an Irish person who does not recognise a photograph of Kylemore Abbey. Set against Diamond Mountain and reflected in Lake Pollacapull, Connemara, it commands attention when first sighted from the road and draws the visitor in to view it at closer quarters, to discover its history and to experience its peace and tranquillity.

The history of Kylemore Castle, which one hundred years ago became Kylemore Abbey – a monastery for Benedictine nuns – is a fascinating one. There are two strands to it: how the nuns came to make their Benedictine foundation here, and how the castle came to be built in the first place.

St Benedict founded the Order in sixth-century Italy. The first English Benedictine convent was the Abbey of Folkestone, founded in AD 630 at a time when convents were being founded in England for daughters of the nobility.
The Benedictine house was a place where the word of God was read and heard, as well as put into practice. The emphasis on listening to the scriptures, through the Benedictine practice of lectio divina, was – and still is – central to Benedictine monasticism.

When the Protestant Reformation brought about the complete suppression of the English monasteries, nuns were forced to either abandon religious life or flee to continental Europe. By 1539, there was no longer a single convent in England.

In the century that followed, the English convents in exile joined other communities on the Continent, and new convents were founded. The first post-Reformation community of English Benedictines to be established on the Continent was the monastery of the Glorious Assumption of Our Lady, founded by Lady Mary Percy in Brussels, in 1598.

As the congregation expanded, it became clear that filiations, or daughter houses, were needed to help accommodate the growing community. One of these filiations was at Ghent, which in turn became the mother house of Ypres.

From 1682 Ypres was an Irish Benedictine foundation, with the community being known as the Irish Dames. The Ypres convent developed a reputation for education, running a successful boarding school. Most of the young girls sent to board there would have been the daughters of members of the English Catholic upper ranks, who were deprived of Catholic schooling at home.

In part because of its series of Irish-born Abbesses, Ypres became known as a convent that attracted wealthy Irish families also. For example, there is some possibility that Nano Nagle, who would later found the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM), was sent from Cork to be educated in Ypres in the early eighteenth century. The Ypres community spoke and taught through English, making the school well-suited to Irish families like the Nagles.

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