Day Trip to Kylemore Abbey and Connemara National Park
October 20, 2016
When the opportunity to travel to Ireland arose, Nathanael and I jumped on it - and with a new direct route from Vancouver to Dublin? Perfect. Now, we are back on Vancouver Island, and have stories to share! If you follow me on social media, you've likely already seen a few photos from the Emerald Isle. And if you haven't connected yet, what are you waiting for?! :)
Ireland is an amazing country - the landscapes are so varied for such a small place, the food is delicious, and the people are overall the friendliest I've ever met! In two weeks, we saw a lot yet feel like we barely scratched the surface. While planning the trip, I already had a feeling that Ireland would be a place we'd want to return to, and I was right! Somehow, despite the wind, rain, and challenges in driving, this place gets under your skin. We were frustrated, challenged, charmed, and enchanted.
One of my priorities for this trip was to see Connemara Ponies, so we planned to drive from our base in Galway city to Connemara National Park (which is in the Connemara region of County Galway). The park happens to be next door to Kylemore Abbey, which I thought Nathanael would especially enjoy visiting, so we planned a day trip to both, double-checked our route with our B&B hosts, and set out for the 2 hour drive north.
As we get farther from Galway, the road becomes narrower, bumpier, and the landscape starts to change. We'd heard that you'd know once you reached Connemara because it looks noticeably different, and indeed it's hard to miss (and if you go to Ireland, don't miss it)! Hills dotted with sheep and windswept grasses spring up around us.
We drive and drive until eventually we came to a rest stop area. On one side, there is a small gravel parking area overlooking a lake, and across the road there are a couple craft and pottery shops, and a small cafe. The parking area is more interesting than you might expect - besides the view, there are two monuments to check out. One, the Connemara Giant, is advertised as a 'late 20th century antiquity' and 'built for no apparent reason'. The other, is an abstract structure with a plaque explaining that 'on this site in 1897 nothing happened.' A laugh and a short stretch and we are back in the car, knowing that we are getting closer to our destination, but unsure how much farther we have to go. Almost as soon as we leave the parking lot, we see a sign directing us towards Kylemore Abbey.
We follow the road into the hills, and notice that the sheep are braver here, sometimes in the grasses but more often than not right along the edge of the road. And when I say edge, I mean edge. There are no shoulders here. The banks come right down to meet the road. But the sheep don't care. They walk along the road, graze along the road, and even sleep along the road. They cross the road without checking for cars, so it is up to us to watch out for them. On that note, we saw more roadkill in Ireland in two weeks than we normally see in a year on Vancouver Island. I'm relieved to say we weren't the cause of any of it, but were saddened each time we passed some poor creature.
There are only a couple other cars on this road, and there is a little roadwork going on. Eventually, we round a bend to find a car stopped in the middle of the road. Just as we are wondering what's going on, we look to the right and see it - Kylemore Abbey. "Ohhh, they're taking pictures!" And just like that the car ahead moves on. "Well, there's no one behind us, let's stop for a couple pictures too."
We take a few more photos outside the gate and then follow the trail towards the abbey, Neo Gothic Church, and the Victoria walled garden. We walk down a forested path, stopping to check out tiny streams, and decide to start at the farthest end where the mausoleum is and work our way back. The estate was built in the late 19th century by Mitchell and Margaret Henry, who first fell in love with the area years earlier on their honeymoon. After inheriting a fortune from his father, Mitchell built Kylemore Castle, where the couple lived until Margaret passed away.
The Neo Gothic church is small but ornate, set on the hill across the path from the lake. Inside, the pillars are made of four kinds coloured marble - green, black, grey, and pink. Each of these comes from one of Ireland's four provinces. Green Connemara marble represents Connacht in the west, red Cork marble represents Munster in the south, black Kilkenny marble represents Leinster in the east, and grey Tyrone marble represents Ulster in the north.
Kylemore definitely looks more like a castle than an abbey, however it was purchased by Benedictine nuns in 1920 and has been an abbey for nearly a century. Inside, a couple rooms have been recreated to show how they may have been used in the past. Today, the nuns are still in residence and some areas of the abbey are closed to visitors.
In the opposite direction beyond the entrance is the Victoria Walled Garden. We can either walk, or take a shuttle. We decide to take the scenic route and walk. Ok, it's the same route as the shuttle, but it's not far and we can stop for photos. It's starting to feel like fall here with the leaves changing colours and decorating the ground. Passing a lake full of reeds, and a couple small jetties across the way, it's easy to imagine fishing there on a warmer day. Benches offer places for breaks along the side of the road, and photographic subjects for me.
Eventually we arrive at a large brick wall with a bright blue door leading into the garden. Before we head inside, I photograph the sheep eating feverishly in the paddock outside. It seems they are pulling at the grass in fast-motion, but that might be an optical illusion because of how fast the grass is blowing in the wind. Then again, maybe they are eating quickly to stay warm.
Inside the walls, I am struck by the contrast of this manicured garden with the rugged windswept landscape just outside. Flowers are arranged in groomed beds surrounded by mowed lawns, and a couple of tidy buildings such as a greenhouse, toolshed, and the head gardener's house. One side of the garden is for pleasure, devoted to flowers, and the other side for function, filled with vegetables, fruit, and herbs. It is a pretty scene, but it doesn't grab at my heart with inspiration as does the landscape just beyond those neat brick walls. Still, it is peaceful in the garden and we wander the rows of plants, eventually making our way out of the garden and Kylemore Abbey.
Continuing down the road to Connemara National Park, we realize that we spent too much time at the abbey. Not that it deserved less time, but it is 3pm and we still have ponies to see and a roughly two hour drive back to Galway City, ideally before dark.
At the park, we start at the Visitor Information Centre, and they have an interesting display about the region. However, I am on a mission to find some Connemara Ponies, so the exhibit doesn't get the attention it deserves. The staff explains that there are no wild Connemara Ponies left which is a little disappointing; they are all registered with the breed association. However, there are some horses living in the park, and they direct us up a trail predicting we'll find them after about ten minutes.
The first animals we find are donkeys - one black and one grey. They are resting in their paddock, looking far more content in the wind than I would be. Next up are the sheep - a variety of colours here, perhaps inspiration for the "WACKY WOOLIES" souvenirs you can find all over Ireland.
And finally, we see the ponies! There are three, one is quite young because his coat is still dark grey (they fade to light grey or "white" as they get older. Side note: only albino horses are actually white, the others are called grey even though their coats might look white). The ponies graze along a hillside, mildly watching us as the wind whips around them. They are beautiful and I am happy that we found them (I also acknowledge that I am a little horse crazy, traveling 2 hours in each direction to see these animals for just a few minutes - well worth it in my opinion)!
Contented, with the wind picking up, and the clock inching forward, we head back to the car. Nathanael and I agree that we wish we'd had more time, both at Connemara National Park and at Kylemore Abbey, especially with how slow I move when I'm taking photos and videos! But, Kylemore could be a day in itself, and the park at least one day. There are several trails to explore and we only walked a small section. A future trip would see us following the Clifden road all the way to town (or thereabouts) so that we would be much closer and have more time in these locales.
Where's your favourite place to explore in Connemara?