Notre Dame students to join the ‘Irish dames’ at Kylemore

A community of 12 nuns at Kylemore Abbey in Connemara is to open its doors to students from the American University of Notre Dame following a ‘significant investment’

Notre Dame trustee emeritus Martin Naughton; his wife Carmel (far left); and Sr Maire Hickey, Mother Abbess at Kylemore Abbey, Co Galway. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

Notre Dame trustee emeritus Martin Naughton; his wife Carmel (far left); and Sr Maire Hickey, Mother Abbess at Kylemore Abbey, Co Galway. Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus


On a balmy autumn morning, as light wind creates small waves on Poll an Chapaill lake, six nuns celebrate midday Mass in their simple chapel at Kylemore in Connemara.

There are no stained-glass windows in the old school gymnasium, which was recently converted into a house of prayer. As the priest prepares for communion, and hands Abbess Mother Maire Hickey the cup, a shaft of sunlight spills out over the pine floor.

Conservation architects Buchan Kane & Foley have won awards for their recent work at Kylemore, including the converted chapel, where members of the Benedictine Community, led by Sr Maire, are realising ambitious plans. Five years after the community closed its secondary school for girls, it is about to embark on a new adventure, with education again at its core.

There had been much speculation, and some local concern, about Kylemore’s future long before the last school term. Three years ago it was one of several areas in Connemara visited by an Indian reconnaissance team for a possible Bollywood film.

The walled gardens and grounds of the 19th-century neogothic castle, built originally by the Manchester-Irish surgeon Mitchell Henry for his wife Margaret, attracts up to 250,000 visitors a year. Still, there was talk about it being snapped up for a luxury hotel.

“We have our chocolate-making business, we run our farm, and Sr Karol O’Connell, who taught music here, is very involved with music in the local community,” Sr Maire says. “However, our community is down to 12, about seven of whom are able-bodied. This project will give the mission a new lease of life.”

The “project” is a 30-year partnership between Kylemore Abbey and the American University of Notre Dame. Next summer several dozen students from the university will attend classes at the abbey for between one and two weeks, complementing the university’s Irish “global gateway”, run from the Keough-Naughton centre on Merrion Square in Dublin.

Work on refurbishing about 8,000sq ft) – almost a fifth of the abbey’s overall floor space – for research and dormitory accommodation is under way as part of the project, which represents a “significant investment”, according to Notre Dame’s director at Kylemore, Lisa Caulfield, who is loath to give an exact figure.

A key supporter is Martin Naughton, owner of electrical-appliance manufacturer Glen Dimplex. Naughton has been on Notre Dame’s board for some years.

“We’ve a number of these ‘global gateways’ or study-abroad programmes, and our Irish one dates to 1998,” Caulfield says. “It arose on the back of a conversation at a football game in Croke Park.”



Naughton struck up a close friendship with Donald Keough, former president of Coca-Cola, and both gave their names to an institute for Irish studies within the university.

“We began our classes in Merrion Square, Dublin, in 2004, and Ireland has become one of our more popular programmes with students,” Caulfield says.

“We were looking for a place to expand, and realised Dublin is not Ireland, and we’ve had students, such as those from our archaeology faculty, travelling to Connemara and to Inishbofin and other islands for some years,” she says.

“We are an unashamedly Catholic university, and we are one of the few universities in the US which is completely residential, with single-sex dormitories, each with their own chapel. So when Kylemore became a possibility, it really did tick all the boxes in terms of education and Catholic ethos, and in such a beautiful location.”

The refurbished student accommodation will be in St Joseph’s wing, built after a fire at the abbey in 1959.

“There will be 18 bedrooms, sleeping up to 44 students, who will undertake short-term courses in creative writing, environmental field work, literature, language, along with spiritual retreats,” she says.

Teachers will be invited from Irish third-level institutions, she says, and there are plans for conferences and seminars. Notre Dame MBA students may also be offered a module at Kylemore, she says.

The students will have much scope for contemplative walking. The Henry family developed hunting trails at Kylemore, one of which leads to the Sacred Heart statue, which dates back to the Eucharistic Congress of 1932. The Benedictine nuns dedicated the statue to their safe arrival from Belgium during the first World War.

The nuns, known then as the “Irish dames of Ypres”, had been forced out of Ireland by the 18th-century penal laws and had weathered the French revolution’s anticlerical period. Their “high” convent was burned down when the town was bombarded by German forces. During the shelling, the terrified nuns had placed a paper badge of the Sacred Heart on every window.

Forced to flee with whatever they were carrying or could fit in a handcart, they arrived at Oulton Abbey in Staffordshire, before deciding to move back to Ireland.

In 1920 they were given help to buy the fairy-tale castle in Connemara, then owned by a bankrupt Duke of Manchester, who had bought it from Henry. The surgeon had not spent much time there after his wife died in 1874.



The Duke of Manchester had permitted Marconi to set up some of his receiver masts on the grounds, and when the British fleet came into Killary harbour on manoeuvres, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were taken on a tour around Letterfrack and they stopped at Kylemore for tea.

Actor Angelica Huston and two Indian princesses (whose uncle Prince Ranjitsinhji had purchased Ballynahinch Castle in 1926) were among past pupils, while Emir Holohan Doyle returned to her alma mater (she got seven honours in her Leaving Cert) for a visit after she won the Miss Ireland title in 1998.

The nuns have been open to ideas since the school’s closure in 2010. In the summer of 2014, artist Denis Farrell ran the Lodestar School of Art there over 10 days as an alternative to conventional academic art education. The community works closely with Leo Hallissey, who runs Conamara Sea Week and Bog Week.

“Part of the Notre Dame project involves building a small monastery for us. We had shared accommodation in the past with the school and tourists, but this will give us somewhere of our own,” Sr Maire says.

The timing of the project is particularly apt, as she and several of her colleagues intend to travel to Ypres next week to place a plaque where the former convent was, marking the 350th anniversary of its foundation.

“There’s no Benedictine community there now, and the building has been replaced by an apartment block,” she says. Nevertheless, as torch-bearers for the spirit of the “Irish dames”, the Kylemore visitors will be afforded a reception at Ypres town hall.




The University of Notre Dame was founded by a young French priest and seven companions on 524 “snow-covered acres” in Indiana in 1842. It describes itself as a “Catholic academic community”, has more than 12,000 students, and is known for its sport.

It has five “global gateways” – in Beijing, Jerusalem, London, Rome and Dublin – described as “academic and intellectual hubs where scholars, students, and leaders from universities, government, business and community gather to discuss, discover, and debate issues of topical and enduring relevance”.

In Dublin, the Keough-Naughton Notre Dame Centre is housed in Daniel O’Connell’s former home on Merrion Square. Taoiseach Enda Kenny recently unveiled a lintel stone at Kylemore Abbey to mark the start of refurbishment work for its new centre in Connemara, where programming in a range of disciplines is due to begin in May 2016.

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