Breathing new life into the land of saints and scholars
Kylemore Abbey has announced a partnership with the famed Notre Dame university. Is this sort of venture the future for our empty convents and monasteries?
Accents from far off lands could be heard on the shores of Pollacapall Lough as far back as the 1930s as young Japanese, Indian, Mexican and American students joined others from across Europe and the local area in making Kylemore Abbey in Connemara home.
"It was such a mixed and colourful collection of people," explains Loretta Joyce from Letterfrack, who was a student in Kylemore Abbey from 1962 until 1967 when she sat her Leaving Certificate exams there.
"They started allowing some of the locals to attend the school during the day. We'd cycle from the village of Letterfrack up to the Abbey, about four miles away, and then cycle home in the evening, praying our tyres were up to the journey," she said. "We thought we were the poor locals in comparison to these wealthy foreign students, but the funny thing was they really envied us being able to go home to our families at the end of every school day."
This week it emerged that students would be returning to Kylemore Abbey as the University of Notre Dame has agreed to create a spiritual centre with the Benedictine order there. It's been six years since the nuns closed the boarding school at Kylemore - it had been operating since the 1920s.
The abbess of Kylemore Abbey, Máire Hickey, said she has "high hopes that this partnership will yield rich fruits for generations to come".
Committing to a 30-year lease, the US university, home to the 'Fighting Irish', will send about 40 students to summer classes at Kylemore Abbey each year from 2016. They will also fund the renovation of about 8,000 square feet of space in the Abbey for research and dormitory use, but they were tight-lipped this week about how much money they are planning to invest.
The exciting partnership, which will see Kylemore Abbey return to being a centre for education, is being supported by businessman Martin Naughton, the owner of global electrical appliance manufacturer Glen Dimplex, who has been a major benefactor of Notre Dame university over the past 20 years.
Nick Entrikin, the vice president and associate provost for internationalisation at Notre Dame told Review this week that both the academic institution and Kylemore Abbey share a common history.
"Whereas Notre Dame's founding order was a group of French priests who set out from Le Mans, France, in the late 19th century to start a school in Indiana, the Benedictine Sisters at Kylemore established their school for girls after their abbey in Ypres was destroyed in World War I," he said. "Both are renowned for their commitments to academic excellence and Catholic character. A collaboration of resources at this juncture makes great sense."
And Mr Entrikin outlined what will be on offer in this part of Connemara.
"This partnership aims to create and cultivate a wide range of academic programmes - conferences, short-term undergraduate study, artist residencies, retreats (at Kylemore Abbey) - that provide an alternative to the many urban-based programmes already on offer at Notre Dame."
He's not wrong there - Indiana and Connemara share few similarities.
The Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame allows students to learn of the old country and since 1998 about 2,500 students have passed through Notre Dame's Keough-Naughton centre just off Merrion Square in Dublin.
Irish studies courses are on offer at a huge range of North American universities including Boston College, Concordia University in Montreal and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Back in Kylemore, Mother Hickey highlighted the impact this new agreement will have on the local area.
"The opening of the centre will see Kylemore Abbey continue to flourish as the largest tourist attraction in the West of Ireland thanks to its Gothic chapel, stunning Victorian walled gardens and its surrounding dramatic landscape," she said. "Once the Educational Centre of Excellence is completed, it is expected its high profile globally, and particularly in North America, will enhance Kylemore Abbey's ability to attract additional visitors to the region. And the development of the centre will involve several stages of construction which will provide employment in the local area."
Not surprisingly, the development has been welcomed by the locals.
As well as being a past pupil of Kylemore Abbey, Loretta Joyce also works in the Rosleague Manor House Hotel in nearby Letterfrack and she said the news has given a major boost to the local area.
"Anything that brings people to Connemara can only be a good thing for the local area," she said. "And this news will help breathe new life back into the Abbey itself which, of course, is brilliant news. It's such a beautiful, serene and tranquil place - not that we ever noticed that as teenagers going to school there. But really we're thrilled the area is receiving this added publicity and look forward to the centre being developed."
While the educational benefits of developing such a centre at Kylemore are undoubtedly important, the news that so many of the old buildings will be renovated and upgraded will also come as welcome news to the Benedictine order who own it.
Indeed many religious orders across Ireland based in large old buildings, and faced with a sharp decline in vocations, are struggling to keep their heads above water. Mounting costs for upkeep mean many will close their doors in the coming years.
In recent years, the Ursuline Convent in Sligo and the Convent of Mercy in Macroom both closed. Others do just enough to get by running retreats and spiritual courses in the hope of making enough money to keep the building in a habitual state.
While the very beautiful Kylemore Abbey benefits from its location on the edge of Connemara National Park, the investment from the University of Notre Dame means the future of the abbey is more certain.
And for the likes of Nicole Shanahan who runs the award-winning Clifden book shop nearby, the news is most welcome.
"Kylemore Abbey is such a vital part of this area, for generations it's played a role in people's lives and now is a major tourism generator, so yes this news is fantastic and I'm delighted," she said.
"In many ways the old abbey is like a good old book, modern technology can create something similar, but there's no way you can make a perfect copy of the Book of Kells or Kylemore Abbey. Both, in their own way, are unique."