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Ireland: Kylemore Abbey

Kylemore-2016-04-25

In the remote western side of Ireland, in a wild region called Connemara, sits an abbey called Kylemore. There is a photogenic castle, and it is an easy place to get a great picture. This is one of those pictures that everyone seems to have. In this article, I will tell you all about it and how to get the shot.

About Kylemore Abbey

First, what are you looking at? It is a castle built upon a 13,000 acre estate.

But who built it? Where did it come from?

The castle was actually built in the late 1800’s as a private home of a guy named Mitchell Henry, who was a doctor from London. He and his wife Margaret loved the area, and had gone there for their honeymoon. Upon receiving his inheritance from his rich dad, he had the castle and gardens built as an elaborate gift for his wife. He then hung up his medical practice and moved to this area to become a politician.

He had the castle built in 1867 and it took 4 years to complete. The castle cost £29,000 to complete. According to a currency calculator I found online comes to about £2.3 million (about $3.5 million) in today’s money. As far as castles go, £2.3 million or $3.5 million doesn’t seem like a lot of money, so maybe I’m doing the conversion wrong. In any event, as impressive as Kylemore Castle appears, it isn’t that old and it apparently didn’t cost that much to build.

Anyway, Mitchell Henry lived in Kylemore Castle for over 30 years. He served as a Member of Parliament for the Galway area, and also oversaw the Kylemore estate. Initially, much of the land was bogs, but he reclaimed much of it. He also had tenants on the estate, and encouraged them to reclaim bogland. He thereby turned the area into a productive estate. Apparently, this was a big deal because Ireland was still reeling from the Great Potato Famine (1845 – 1852). Anyway, in 1903 Henry sold the castle to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester and moved back to London.

The Duke of Manchester was a guy named William Montague. As was common at the time, he went and found himself a wealthy American wife to shore up the family finances (which were in pretty bad shape). Her name was Helena Zimmerman, and her father (Eugene Zimmerman) was a railroad president and major stockholder of Standard Oil. The Duke and Duchess lived off his money for a while. They apparently did so quite lavishly, and Duke was one of the world’s greatest spendthrifts (seriously, he was famous for it, and there is even a landmark US legal case about spendthrift trusts involving him). Anyway, he rung up huge debts, including a lot of gambling debts. As long as the Duchess’ father was around to support them, all was well.

However, the father died in 1914. That was the end of the money train for the Duke and the Duchess. The entire Kylemore estate was quickly taken over by the banks. The banks held the estate and looked around for someone to sell it to. That didn’t happen quickly. It didn’t help that this all occurred right at the start of World War I, or the Great War as it was called then.

Oddly, it was the War that was the salvation of Kylemore. A group of nuns called the Benedictine Nuns had been around for hundreds of years, living in Belgium in a place called Ypres. If you know anything about World War I, you have probably heard of Ypres as the location of great battles of that war. There was fighting there on several occasions and the whole area was devastated. The Benedictines were forced to flee and were looking for a new home. They discovered Kylemore and moved their abbey there. So from 1920 on, Kylemore became an Abbey and served as a girls school. It served as such until 2010.

Kylemore has been open for public tours since 1970s. It is still run by the Benedictine Nuns, and since closing the school is just an abbey and tourist site.

Taking The Shot

Enough of the background – what you care about it photographing this place. So here’s the deal with Kylemore Abbey. You can do it one of two ways:

  • Snap and Leave: The first way is to drive up, walk to the spot where you get the shot that everybody gets, snap it, and move on. Time needed: About 1 minute.
  • The Full Tour: The second way is to pay to enter, walk to the castle and tour the whole area. Time needed: 1-2 hours.

I recommend the first way. You won’t be missing any great shots by doing in. In fact, The first time I visited Kylemore, I was determined to get something different from the standard shot. First, I stood where everybody else stands, but tried all sorts of different shots, angles, focal lengths, etc. After that, I paid the admission and spent a few hours walking around looking for shots. In the end, however, the only picture I liked was the standard shot everyone gets. I could have come and gone in under a minute and done just as well. I suspect the same will be true for you.

In addition, even non-photographers don’t find the full tour of Kylemore Abbey all that great. For example, my man Rick Steves says “The best thing about the abbey is the view of it from the lakeshore. Hourly tours inside are a letdown, so just enjoy its setting”. However, if you are interested in the local history or area, you might tour the grounds. They are very nice. But, again, I personally would just take the shot and move on.

How do you get the standard shot? It is ridiculously easy. There is a spot in the parking lot where you will see people taking pictures. That is it. You cannot miss it. Just walk up and take the shot. You do not have to pay admission or even walk very far.

Exposing the Picture

Once you are at the designated location, the exposure of the shot is easy. You will doubtlessly be there during daylight hours (it is open 9 am – 5:30 pm). Because it is Ireland, it will doubtlessly be cloudy. So I would start with default exposure settings something like this:

  • Aperture: f/8 – f/16. You really don’t need a deep depth of field because everything in the frame will be far away. However, there are some foreground elements you might want to keep sharp, so you might as well use a smaller aperture. If you are using a tripod, that is especially true.
  • ISO: ISO 100-400. Since it will be daylight, you should have enough light to keep the ISO low. If you are hand-holding your camera, start with an ISO of 200-400. If you are using a tripod, you might as well put the ISO all the way down to 100.
  • Shutter Speed: For the shutter speed, just use whatever is required to get a good exposure after you have set the Aperture and ISO. If you are hand holding, make sure it is fast enough to avoid camera shake. If you have your camera on a tripod, that will not be a factor so just use whatever the meter tells you to use.

You might also consider using a neutral density filter here. That would allow you to use a very slow shutter speed, which would blur the water nicely. Of course, that requires a tripod as well.

Getting There


Kylemore Abbey is in western Ireland in a region called Connemara. This is a wild, remote region of Ireland that is very beautiful. In fact, it is the one place I go to in Ireland on every single trip there.

There are two ways you can see Connemara. The first is the best, which is to spend a few days there. Stay in Clifden or Westport and spend a couple of days wandering around and enjoying the remoteness of it. There is more than enough to do. Here are some highlights:

  • Connemara National Park, full of scenic mountains, bogs, and trails, including the hike to Diamond Hill, which offers some great shots.
  • Clifden – Clifden is a scenic town in the heart of Connemara. Nearby are the Sky Road, which has great views, and Clifden Castle as ruin just outside of town.
  • Cong – Beautiful little town and home of Cong Abbey. If you are rich, stay in Ashford Castle. If not, just tour the grounds.

You can hit most of these by doing what is called the Connemara Loop.

The second way to see Connemara is to stay in Galway and just drive out and back in one day. Galway is the largest city on the western side of Ireland, and is a mainstay of most people’s trip to Ireland. To be honest, while Galway is a great city, there isn’t that much to see there. It is known more for its laid-back vibe and music scene. Luckily, Connemara is very close to Galway. You can spend a day doing to Connemara Loop and come back to Galway to hit the pubs in the evening. Best of all worlds.

Anyway, there is lots to see and do in Connemara. Kylemore is right off the N59, so you will doubtlessly pass it. No special arrangements need be made. Just stop by, get the shot, and move on. You’ll be glad you did.

Kylemore Particulars

  • Ticket Prices: €11.70 for adults; discounts available for students and seniors; children 10 and under are free.
  • Opening hours: 9:00 am – 5:30 pm, seven days a week.
  • Website: www.kylemoreabbey.com
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