Kylemore Abbey in Connemara aims for tourist revival

Benedictine abbey needs tourism boost to finance €5m monastery plan

As spring begins to stretch into early summer, Ireland’s devastated tourism industry is daring to think of recovery. Major attractions are desperate for international tourism to take off again. The latest industry estimates suggest the total number of arrivals to Ireland is down one-third on normal levels. But if Connemara’s Kylemore Abbey is a harbinger for the sector, 2022 may yet be alright.

The second-biggest tourist attraction in the west after the Cliffs of Moher, Kylemore is already back above pre-pandemic visitor numbers for this time of year. It only reopened for the new season at the beginning of March, but its chief executive, former Irish Water senior manager Conor Coyne, says it is already operating at about 102 per cent of its 2019 numbers.

Kylemore doesn’t expect this run rate to continue all year – Coyne has conservatively budgeted for up to 60 per cent of its pre-pandemic visitor numbers of almost 550,000 over the whole of 2022. But in this picturesque corner of Connemara’s moody landscape, one can detect the distinct whiff of something that hasn’t lingered over the Irish tourism industry for more than two years: hope.

It is a misty Monday morning on the 1,000-acre estate, which as well as being a tourism attraction is also home to a small community of Benedictine nuns. A cacophony of foreign accents can be heard in the car park. Coyne says US and French visitors, in particular, are prominent in the region again. The faintly inclement weather on the day of our visit is typical for this time of year in this part of Ireland. It doesn’t deter the steady stream of visitors crossing the bridge into the abbey’s grounds.


Kylemore relies heavily on continental (mainly French and German) and transatlantic visitors, who between them usually make up 60 per cent of the total. Almost half the cash brought to Ireland by foreign visitors is spent on the western seaboard – €2.5 billion in 2019. “We’re hearing the story across the west of Ireland. The foreign accents are back with a bang,” Coyne says.

Kylemore, a working abbey, is owned by the Benedictine order, who moved here from Belgium just over 100 years ago after the nuns’ previous base in Ypres was bombed in the first World War. They own Kylemore through a trust, run by trustees comprising members of the order and a handful of laypersons including former Primark executive Breege O Donoghue.

The trust in turn owns a subsidiary operating company, Kylemore Abbey & Gardens (KAG). It runs the estate’s commercial operations comprising its retail and restaurants facilities, the 150-year-old walled garden, and the famous abbey house whose image shimmers in its reflection in Pollacappul Lough, in the shadow of the Twelve Bens mountain range. The abbey scene is reproduced on page 12 of all Irish passports.

Coyne, who previously worked for EY and JP Morgan before joining Irish Water and then Kylemore in 2019, works for the trust and KAG and, ultimately through them, the nuns. But as with all major Irish tourism operations, Covid-19 was the boss throughout the pandemic.


Prior to the arrival of the virus, KAG recorded commercial revenues of €7.4 million in 2019, while the trust raised another €3 million or so in donations. Kylemore is probably the largest commercial enterprise in Connemara and a linchpin of the region’s economy, employing up to 130 people at the height of the season. It says it draws in visitors who spend up to €54 million in the wider locality.

In 2020, Kylemore's visitor numbers fell off a cliff. KAG's commercial revenues fell more than three-quarters to €1.6 million, while donations to the trust fell below €200,000. International travel was squeezed mercilessly to frustrate the spread of the virus, devastating footfall to most major tourist attractions. Kylemore was the seventh most-visited paid attraction in the State in 2019, according to Fáilte Ireland. But the following year, visitor numbers fell from 542,000 to about 100,000.

KAG cut costs heavily and laid off most of its customer-facing staff, managing to staunch its 2020 losses to about €8,000. But this was only after it received a €1.5 million business interruption payout from its insurer, Allianz.

Only the year before the pandemic, Kylemore had invested €3 million in a refurbishment of the abbey house, garnering more than half the cost in grants from the State. As soon as the virus arrived in mid-March 2020, another vital construction project was affected – the new monastery for the Benedictine nuns that was being built on the grounds, the first such building in Ireland in 400 years.

It was to have been part financed by the tourism operation and finished by November 2020, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Benedictines in Kylemore. But as Coyne neared the end of his first year in the job in mid-March 2020, he had to shut down the tourism business as virus restrictions kicked in. The next day, he was forced to suspend activity on the €5 million first phase of the monastery project with the blockwork already up to shoulder height. That was on Friday the 13th.

While KAG’s tourism operation has since resumed, building work on the monastery remains suspended. Coyne believes it is currently too risky financially to press ahead with the project, although he is working on a restart plan and is “exploring all options”.

“Without tourism’s revenue streams, and with the lack of certainty, it was deemed appropriate to mothball [the new monastery]. Until the whole tourism horizon is on an even footing, it would not be prudent to take on significant levels of debt. And now construction inflation has hit us.”

He had previously budgeted for 4 per cent construction inflation annually. But he now believes building costs could rise by a fifth due to the inflation caused by the pandemic and also the war in Ukraine.

“I don’t want to pre-empt the price any contractor may come back with, as we are currently going through options. But that is about where we are. For funding, we will explore the classic philanthropy model and maybe some other debt options. But we are also relying on the speedy return of revenues.”

That means it needs a vibrant revival of Kylemore’s tourism and commercial operation. So far, the early signals appear positive.


Although it was closed to the public for large tracts of the pandemic, Coyne argues that Kylemore used the time wisely to revamp parts of the operation. Some staff were redeployed to work on projects such as the creation of new walking trails, the removal of invasive plant species from the grounds, and the creation of new facilities outdoors to accommodate children.

“We have taken the opportunity to come back better. We weren’t flush with a huge budget but we tried to be as smart as we could,” says Coyne, as we tour Kylemore’s facilities.

Prior to the virus, the shop and restaurant sales were about €4.3 million annually. Kylemore’s retail operation sells a mix of luxury goods, upscale souvenirs and artisan products. It now focuses more heavily on producing more of its goods in-house, and also stocking artisan products made in the locality as part of its drive towards sustainability.

“We want to grow the sale of goods produced in-house from 20 per cent of the total in 2019 to 30 per cent now, and then on to 40 per cent,” Coyne says.

Kylemore has invested in producing honey and jam on-site, while it also operates its own soapery and a chocolate-making business. These recently received widespread publicity in the UK as part of a BBC show that highlighted the production work carried out by the nuns – Sister Genevieve is the chocolate-making nun while Sister Magdalena is reputed to have the best commercial focus.

Kylemore has also worked with Bord Bia on a new brand for its in-house food products, which it plans to launch soon. It has no immediate plans to launch a chocolate café-type operation, akin to what the Butlers Chocolates company operates. But Coyne doesn’t scoff at the idea either.

Kylemore hopes to grow its chocolate turnover from about €150,000 currently to between €250,000 and €500,000 annually “in the next few years”. Some of its chocolate products are already stocked externally in outlets such as Fallon & Byrne in Dublin.

One of the fringe benefits of the pandemic for Kylemore was a surge in visits from domestic tourists, who previously made up less than 10 per cent of the total. Domestic visitor numbers more than doubled in the pandemic. While Coyne doesn’t believe the raw numbers of Irish visitors will grow further as locals begin to take international holidays again, he hopes it will “plateau” at the higher level in coming years.

Kylemore worked with another State agency, Enterprise Ireland, to revamp its e-commerce operation during the pandemic. Online ticket sales have grown from a small fraction prior to the pandemic to 25 per cent now. Its online retail sales also grew heavily and it exports more of its products to buyers abroad, with the entire operation handled in-house.

Visitor numbers

Coyne believes that by expanding the range of products and services available to paying visitors, he can “optimise” the revenues generated without bringing visitor numbers past their summer peak, when up to 60 coaches per day arrive.

In line with Tourism Ireland estimates, Coyne has budgeted for visitor numbers this year to be 50-60 per cent of the 2019 total. But he wants revenues to climb up to 70 per cent.

He hopes to be back at 90-100 per cent of pre-pandemic business levels by 2024 or 2025. Given the early return on its efforts, could a faster revival of visitor numbers be on the cards?

“I’m an optimist at heart, so I’d hope so,” he says.

The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (Itic), the sector's umbrella lobby group, estimates that international arrivals in March were down by 31 per cent on 2019 levels, although the crucial US cohort was down by 45 per cent. Crucially for Kylemore, however, Itic estimates that the numbers of continental visitors that are so important to the abbey recovered in March to above 80 per cent of their pre-pandemic total. Europeans may yet fill the gap if the number of US visitors softens further due to American perceptions of war in this part of the world.

However, Itic remains concerned that policymakers do not have a true picture of the regional spread of tourism. The Central Statistics Office has yet to resume its full research activities into the sector, such as the in-person surveys of tourists at ports and airports from which much of the data used by businesses such as Kylemore flowed.

“This is an urgent issue,” says Eoghan O’Mara Walsh, Itic’s chief executive. “Individual businesses need the more detailed data to plan ahead. So far all we have are basic visitor numbers. We’d be confident that the numbers returning this year will hit 60 per cent [of the pre-pandemic total]. Hopefully the west of Ireland will see plenty of that.”

For Coyne, the focus remains on driving Kylemore’s self sufficiency and sustainability strategies, which he says fits in with the ethos of the Benedictines.

“Kylemore is like its own little ecosystem. Nearly every job type is here. Gardeners, chocolate makers, soap makers, guides, accountants, chefs, mechanic. It’s like its own little town. I think we will come back strongly,” he says.

“But the number one priority is to restart and complete the monastery. The Benedictine nuns are the beating heart of the estate. Their whole ethos revolved around sustainability and self sufficiency. We often have healthy debate about what is appropriate for a monastic estate. They deserve great credit for the way they persevere.”

Coyne believes Ireland’s tourism industry as a whole was perhaps beginning to “rest on its laurels” before the pandemic.

“The industry didn’t have to try too hard – the numbers were already coming. Maybe now we will sharpen our game a bit. A little bit of hunger is no harm.”