A long-lost family album dating back to the 19th century provided the blueprint for the €3m restoration of the iconic Kylemore Abbey.
With ‘Downton Abbey’ becoming a cultural phenomenon around the globe, there has never been as much interest in magnificent country estates.
A new RTÉ series, ‘Great Irish Interiors’, catalogues the painstaking restoration of the Connemara castle back to the full glory of its heyday in the late 1800s.
Kylemore is as colourful as any of its British counterparts after its various incarnations as home to an aristocratic family, a duke and duchess, an order of Benedictine nuns and its last role as a famous boarding school for girls.
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The original house had 33 bedrooms, four bathrooms, four sitting rooms, a ballroom, billiards room, library, study, school room, smoking room and gun room, along with 13,000 acres of land at a cost of little over £18,000.
Local archivist and historian Dr Damian Duffy told how he unearthed a family album from its first owner, Mitchell Henry, a wealthy English surgeon who lived there from 1868 until the death of his wife Margaret in 1874.
The last of the Henrys left the estate in 1903 but a dusty photo album left behind gave vital clues to the Kylemore Abbey Trust, who completed the restoration of the castle this year.
“We are very lucky to have a lot of amazing archive photos in the building so we can look at them and try to bring those archive photographs to life as much as we can,” said Eithne O’Halloran, abbey and Gothic church manager at Kylemore Abbey and a former pupil there.
After the last of the Henrys left the castle it was sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester in 1903 before being bought by Benedictine nuns who fled Belgium during World War I and founded an abbey there in 1920.
Dr Duffy said the Henry family album dated back to when it was built in 1868.
“It was in the house for a long time since before the Benedictine community arrived and I just unearthed it recently,” he said.
“It was very helpful for the work we did in the exhibition. It gives us some pretty high quality photographs of the various rooms.”
He said the album also contained a photograph of a fire drill exercise taken in 1888 at the front of the castle by its own fire brigade.
The documentary follows the painstaking restoration of previously unseen rooms at the estate, which had been an international girls’ boarding school until a decade ago.
The cameras track historic interiors consultant Joanne Smyth and Ms O’Halloran in their tireless search for artefacts, furniture, soft furnishings and wallpapers from Mitchell Henry’s Victorian era.
They recreate a stunning new series of rooms to showcase the elegance of the period to the abbey’s half a million visitors annually.
The RTÉ series also shows the fascinating transformation of Emo Court in Co Laois, which was handed over to the State 25 years ago.
‘Great Irish Interiors – Kylemore Abbey’ will be shown at 8.30pm on RTÉ One tomorrow and the episode on Emo Court will be shown on Friday.
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