GardensAug2019 112

Top Connemara Attractions, Victorian Gardens

Kylemore Abbey's Victorian Walled Garden is an oasis of ordered splendour in the wild Connemara Countryside. Developed along with the Castle in the late 1800s it once boasted 21 heated glasshouses and a workforce of 40 gardeners. One of the last walled gardens built during the Victorian period in Ireland, it was so advanced for the time that it was compared in magnificence with Kew Gardens in London.

Comprised of roughly 6 acres, the Garden is divided in two by a beautiful mountain stream. The eastern half includes the formal flower garden, glasshouses the head gardener's house and the garden bothy. The western part of the garden includes the vegetable garden, herbaceous border, fruit trees, a rockery and herb garden. Leaving the Garden by the West Gate you can visit the plantation of young oak trees. The Garden also contains a shaded fernery, an important feature of any Victorian Garden. Follow our self-guiding panels through the garden and learn more about its intriguing history and the extensive restoration work that it took to return the garden to its former glory after falling into disrepair.

Today Kylemore is a Heritage Garden displaying only plant varieties from the Victorian era. The bedding is changed twice a year, for Spring and Summer and its colours change throughout the year.  Be sure to visit us and fall in love with a garden that is surely the jewel in Connemara's Crown.

Want to know more about the stunning flowers that makes up one of Ireland’s longest Herbaceous Border? Download our Herbaceous Border leaflet Here

Map of Kylemore


Garden restoration
After the Henry's left, the Victorian Walled Garden began to fall into disrepair. Once the nuns arrived in 1920, the gardens were brought back into use but this time as a working garden where fruit and vegetables were grown to supply both needs of the nuns and the girls school. Local gardeners under the supervision of Sr. Benedict, carries out this work. Sr. Benedict also ran the nearby farm with beef, dairy cattle, and poultry farm. The garden and farm were extremely productive, and Kylemore was a almost fully self-sufficient estate for many years. In this extract from an interview with John Joyce in 1993, we see the extent of the garden at the time.
"We had all types of vegetables, carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes; the early potatoes were number one, we used to sow them in March. The cabbage was next, all different types of cabbage" John Joyce, former gardener.
However, as time wen on less and less was given over to gardening, nature began to encroach further and further on the Garden. By the 1990's most of the garden was hidden under a deep layer of shrubs and brambles with large trees growing a where once formal flowerbeds were found. The glasshouses had disappeared, and most of the garden buildings had fallen in. It seemed that the once majestic oasis had been forgotten. It was at this time that Sr. Magdalena FitzGibbon took on the project of bringing the garden back to its former glory. Partial fundraising became available through the Great Gardens of Ireland Fund, and Sr. Magdalena set about raising the necessary support for her project to restore the "secret garden". Working with great faith and foresight, she managed to catch the collective imagination of the people.
"The restoration of the garden was a dream: a place where once could dream. reflect and find peace. Pax - peace-is our Benedictine motto and it all springs from the stillness of silence." Sr. Magdalena FitzGibbon OSB
In 1995 an advisory team of historical restoration consultants, garden archaeologists and architects was brought together to ensure the success of the ambitious project. A new Head Gardener, Ann Golden, was appointed and a team of local workers and students gardeners recruited so that the project could begin in earnest. Much of the early work was akin to an archaeological dig as the long-hidden structure of the garden was painstakingly revealed. At an early stage it was decided that the garden would be a heritage garden where only plant varieties from pre-1901 could be used. This was a crucial decision in giving authenticity to the project, although it also meant research and hard work! In 1995 following five years of investigating, digging, clearing, and reimagining, the garden was again ready to be viewed by the public. 
On 13th October 2000, the garden was opened with great fanfare to the delighted public. Sr. Benedict was on hand to  place the key in the grand entrance gate, and Kylemore's last original gardeners John Joyce and Mike Thornton were invited to plant a ceremonial tree. The formalities took place in the newly built Garden Tea House which had been designed to beautifully complement the restored Garden, In 2001 the garden restoration project won the prestigious Europa Nostra, a fitting accolade for a job well done.  

The Formal Flower Garden

Victorian Walled Gardens at Kylemore Abbey Connemara Attraction
The first area to greet you on entering the Garden at Kylemore is the Formal Flower Garden. The Victorian style garden design is based on archive photographs taken by Alexander Henry in the 1870s. The geometric patterns and strong colour schemes are typical of those used in a fashionable Victorian Garden. Although many of the plants look similar to those in a domestic garden, ours are all exclusively Victorian varieties (varieties from pre-1901). Pre-restoration this part of the Garden was completely hidden by bushes and trees. However, once the trees and overgrowth were removed the original landscaped slopes and structure began to emerge.

The Garden is sheltered by its original walls which are made of Scottish red brick and Irish granite. The red brick absorbs the heat of the sun during the day and slowly releases it back into the garden in the evening. The apple and pear trees grown in espalier style along the walls, take advantage of this extra warmth which can be invaluable in our cool and damp climate. The imposing walls also help to protect the Garden from wind, frost and of course the always hungry sheep who are our Head Gardener's nemeses! The tricolour beds planted in strips down the side of the garden are known as ribbon beds and again are very evocative of the Victorian era.

At the top of the Formal Flower Garden you will find the first in a series of twelve self-guiding panels, which give lots of interesting historical and horticultural details.

These are our summer planting schemes for the Formal Flower Garden for 2022. The planting schemes are changing twice a year between the spring and summer bedding and show different planting styles every year.

The Vegetable Garden

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The Vegetable Garden forms a very important part of the Victorian Walled Garden. Bordered by the fernery to the east and the rockery to the north, like the Formal Flower Garden this area also features exclusively Victorian era plants. Visitors find it fascinating to discover little seen Victorian vegetables such as cardoon, salsify, scorzonera and the many heritage varieties of common plants such as potatoes and cabbages. As well as vegetables a herb garden containing both culinary and medicinal plants can also be found in this area.

In the past, the Vegetable Garden played an important role in providing produce for Kylemore's kitchens and the Benedictine community were almost self-sufficient over most of their 100 years at Kylemore. Today the Vegetable Garden is principally a show garden although some of the produce is sent to the restaurant kitchens or sold to raise money for charities, we no longer can produce enough to supply our busy estate. Although our garden is not 100% organic, our gardeners are certainly striving in that direction. Traditional farming methods such as the use of seaweed, farmyard and green manure are used as they were in times gone by and natural methods such as spreading coffee grinds and companion planting are used to deter pests.

Head Gardener’s House

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Kylemore Abbey's Head Gardener's House sits in a prominent position overlooking the Garden where in times past it gave its occupier a perfect view over both the garden and the workers. Unlike the other garden buildings and glasshouses, the main structure of the house remained intact and indeed it was home to many guests of the nuns over the years. These guests included a local family who lived there for a while after their own home had been destroyed by fire in the 1970s and the famous German travel writer, A.E. Johann, who used it as a base when he wrote his classic travel guide to Ireland in the 1950s 'Home of the Rainbows'. The house has been lovingly restored to give a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Head Gardener and his privileged position in Victorian society.

Just down the path the 'Workman's Bothy' is also open to the public and gives the visitor a look into the life of the ordinary garden workers. The word 'Bothy' derives from Scots Gaelic where it describes a small house or workers quarters. The Bothy provided live in accommodation to several gardeners and for its time would have been considered of a very good standard. The gardeners worked extremely long hours, from first to last light but Kylemore workers in general received much better pay and conditions than on other estates. At a time of desperate poverty throughout Ireland the chance to work in the Kylemore garden would have been a life changing one.

The Garden Tool Shed is also open to the public with a small display of found garden tools and artefacts on display.