Margaret and Mitchell’s dream of love
In the Irish language, Connemara means ‘inlets of the sea’ and its landscape confirms this definition, with coastal roads winding around a succession of small bays and inlets; a rich treasure trove of sublime landscapes that remain forever in the mind of any visitor.
My first trip to this corner of paradise coincided with my son’s first trip abroad. He was a 14-year-old boy at the time, curious about travelling and getting to know the world, along with his parents.
Oscar Wilde, an Irishman from Dublin called Connemara ‘a land of wild beauty’, where its subtle rain, while the sun shines, brings a sense of lightness. The warmth of its inhabitants is direct and immediate and leads you straight to socialising, perhaps dancing and singing with them, because music is everywhere here.
It must have been almost the same in 1852. Mitchell Henry, a successful London financier, was on his honeymoon in Connemara with his bride Margaret Vaughan. The couple were dining alfresco, lying on a lawn in the Kylemore Valley. Margaret said the place was beautiful and it would be wonderful to live there. Thirteen years later, on the strength of the promise made by her husband to his young bride, a castle overlooking the crystal-clear waters of Lake Kylemore was built in that meadow.
A 33-bedroom castle, equipped with a splendid ballroom, a library, a sumptuous entrance staircase and a beautiful garden, accommodated Margaret and Mitchell, who had in the meantime given birth to nine children in about ten years.
But a fateful destiny awaited Margaret: during a trip to Egypt in 1875, she fell ill and died a few months later at the age of 45. Grief-stricken Mitchell could no longer live there and, together with his nine children, moved to Dublin. Before leaving Kylemore, Mitchell had a church built as a ‘perpetual tribute’ to their love, where Margaret could rest in peace. It is an extraordinary church, neo-Gothic in style, in which, even at the time I visited, there was a sublime silence to seal a love that had become universal.
With its small size, delicate details and carvings depicting flowers and birds, everything clearly refers to feminine qualities, which are reflected in the beautiful garden that surrounds it. In the small Gothic cathedral, the details of the ‘gargoyle’ made as smiling angels, instead of monsters and the interior with columns of Connemara green, Cork pink and Kilkenny black marble are extraordinary.
The estate purchased by Mitchell, which surrounds the castle, is about 4000 ha, part of which is now occupied by a wonderful woodland system, as Henry had 300.000 trees planted when he built the castle.
The other part of the estate is pastureland frequented by the famous Connemara black sheep and black and white horses left in the wild. When the Henry family lived here, the men hunted, fished and rode horses, the ladies took walks along the lake and in the scenic and romantic Victorian Walled Garden, surrounded by walls and designed in formal geometric patterns.
The Garden, now the largest in Ireland, is built on a south-facing slope, enjoys excellent exposure to the sun and the mountain stream running through it provides the water needed for the various crops.
In the 21 greenhouses on the north side, heated by a system of pipes, exotic fruits such as bananas, melons, grapes and figs used to grow in Mitchell and Margaret’s time. It was exclusive to be able to taste bananas in the 1870s in Ireland, but not anymore. In 1910 Mitchell also died and his remains were moved to Kylemore Church next to his wife’s grave.
In 1920 the Castle and the entire Kylemore estate were sold to a group of Benedictine nuns who had come from Belgium at the end of the First World War because they had fled the toxic gas bombardment that devastated the town of Ypres, where they were staying during their service of caring for the wounded in the trenches. An act of love and solidarity towards the nuns who had fled the war was the ultimate gift that Mitchell and Margaret “wanted” to leave as a legacy to the “angels of Ypres”.
Today, the Benedictine nuns manage the castle and ensure that the Vittoriano Garden is scrupulously and punctually maintained. The Beauty that illuminates this garden is dazzling, because every plant, every tree, every flowering is inspired by a poignant image of harmony and a lush flow of love that has never stopped since Margaret and Mitchell died and has transferred itself into the landscape of this garden.
So that when I left Kylemore with my son and wife, plunging into eastern Connemara, the Luogh Corrib and Lough Mask, I discovered the secret of Margaret and Mitchell’s love, enshrined in its landscapes: Connemara can make your heart sing and the rest of the world disappear. It’s rural Ireland at its finest: walk through nature and absorb its true essence.