Before American singer-songwriter Steve Earle found one roaming the city streets; and long before Gerard Butler won Hilary Swank’s heart with the song in the film P.S. I Love You, there was another Galway Girl. In fact, she was from County Down, but Margaret Vaughan's tragic tale will be forever linked with Galway as the inspiration behind Kylemore Abbey’s Gothic Church.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before the tragedy, there was romance.
It's 1852. Successful financier, Mitchell Henry and his new bride, Margaret Vaughan, are on honeymoon in Connemara. The couple is enjoying an al fresco lunch in the townland of Kylemore. As they sit, Margaret comments how beautiful the area is. How wonderful it would be to live there. Thirteen years later a castle emerges, overlooking a glassy Connemara lake.
Luxury is too small a word to describe the place. In his book Irish Country Houses, Terence Reeves-Smyth talks of the castle as being “on a Citizen Kane scale, boasting many splendid reception rooms including a ballroom with a sprung floor, a magnificent staircase, a library, a study and 33 bedrooms...” For almost 10 years, Mitchell, Margaret and their nine children live here, in what sounds like, from all accounts, a state of bliss.
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But then, in 1875 on a visit to Egypt, Margaret contracts a fever and dies. A heartbroken Mitchell can’t bear to spend much time in Kylemore and avoids it when possible. His broken heart, however, can’t stop him from building his wife one of the most elegant final resting places money can buy.
Someone well acquainted with Kylemore is manager Brid O’Connell. For Brid, the church is more than just a resting place. It’s a tribute. “At Kylemore, the gargoyles usually seen at a Gothic church are smiling angels,” she explains. “To me, this is the first sign that there is something special and different about this church. It was built in memory of a woman; and with its small scale, delicate features, carved flowers and birds, there are definite feminine qualities.”
A secret love story
Few visitors know the story of Kylemore and its reason for being built. Brid has broken the news to thousands of guests there.
“They’re amazed and saddened when I tell them,” she says. “Margaret was only 45 when she died leaving her husband and their nine children broken hearted.”
It’s dramatic stuff. For Mitchell, Kylemore Abbey – a labour of love – turned overnight into a vast reminder of the woman he had lost. His, and Kylemore’s, is a love story with no letters from beyond the grave and no carefully edited flashbacks. Whatever about Hollywood, this is the real stuff.
Yet, as any good writer will know, every story must have its end. Mitchell and Margaret’s came when he passed away in 1910, joining his wife in the Gothic Church at Kylemore.
And there they stay. Happily ever after.