Born in County Down in 1766, at the age of 17 Alexander Henry emigrated to America where he established himself as a merchant in Philadelphia. Some years later, his nephew, also called Alexander Henry in turn moved to Philadelphia where he joined his uncle’s business, but then came back across the Atlantic to settle in England in 1804. The following year, in partnership with his elder brother Samuel, he set up a company in Manchester, A & S Henry & Co Ltd, that specialised in the marketing and distribution of cotton. The business was enormously successful, opening branch offices in Bradford, Belfast, Leeds, Huddersfield and Glasgow to act as collecting stations for textile products of all kinds; in consequence, the founding family soon became very wealthy, allowing its members to buy country houses and become Members of Parliament, as Alexander Henry duly did, representing South Lancashire.
Mitchell Henry was born in 1826, second son of Alexander Henry, who some years earlier had married Elizabeth Brush, like him a native of County Down. Mitchell Henry trained to be a doctor, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and senior consultant at the Middlesex Hospital, London by the age of 30. However, following his father’s death in 1858, he ceased practising medicine, instead seeking election as an MP. Before then, he had married Margaret Vaughan whose family, once again, came from County Down; the couple would have nine children. Prior to that, and during their honeymoon, they travelled to the west of Ireland and were much taken with the scenery of Connemara. In consequence, after coming into his considerable inheritance, and following the Great Famine when large swathes of the country were offered for sale, Henry was able to buy Kylemore Lodge and some 13,000 acres of land in the west of Ireland from the impoverished Blake family. Here, from 1864 onwards, he embarked on building a new residence. At that date, this part of the country was exceptionally remote. The architect, and keen self-publicist, James Franklin Fuller, who designed the church at Kylemore (built in memory of Margaret Henry, following her unexpected death in 1874), remembered that to get there ‘was no easy matter. The train landed me at Westport the first day, the next meant posting to Leenane, the third was devoted to castle and church, while the fourth dropped me at Westport in time for the night mail; practically it “spoiled” a week.’ Constructing a large castle was something of an act of folly, since it involved considerable amounts of earthworks to clear the chosen site, as well as moving a road to the opposite side of Lake Pollacappul. As if that didn’t involve sufficient expense, instead of using local stone, the client insisted the building be cased in granite from Dalkey, County Dublin, sent by ship from one side of the country to the other. The main architect to work on this job was Galway-based Samuel Ussher Roberts, a great-grandson of the 18th century Waterford architect John Roberts. His design consists, as Mark Bence-Jones noted, of ‘romantic groupings of battlemented and machiolated towers and turrets’, the facade broken up by large and regular groupings of mullioned windows and oriels.’ The castle benefits enormously from its setting, with the mountains rising immediately to the rear and the lake, in which it is often seen reflected, directly in front. The interiors, beginning with the dark-panelled entrance hall, are harder to judge not least because they have been altered by subsequent owners and in addition were damaged by a fire in 1959. Their appearance, however, lacks the Gothic character of the exterior, and instead displays standard mid-Victorian style. The main reception rooms are large and high-ceilinged, with a variety of marbles employed for the chimney pieces, the finest of these being in the drawing room. The staircase hall leads to a first-floor gallery around which were grouped the main bedrooms. There is little here to set the space apart from any other country house of the period. In addition to the main castle, Mitchell Henry was responsible for commissioning the development of an eight-acre walled garden to supply him with all necessary fruit and vegetables: this has been restored in recent years.
Kylemore Castle was not Mitchell Henry’s only residence: he also owned a large property in London, Stratheden House. Originally designed in the early 1770s by Sir William Chambers, it was bought by Henry in 1863 and transformed into a vast Italianate villa by architect T. H. Wyatt before being filled with the owner’s objects d’art which included an antique bust of Agrippa and The Pompeian Mother, a statue by Giosuè Meli’s depicting a woman and child fleeing from the eruption of Vesuvius: this was displayed in its own Pompeian-style temple within the house. Much of the furniture was modern Italian replicas of originals in the Vatican and the Pitti Palace and among the most remarkable rooms was a library with ebonized woodwork and gold mouldings, green silkhung walls, and an ornate ceiling and frieze in Venetian cinquecento style, embellished with portraits of philosophers and poets. Alas, the extravagance of building and maintaining two such enormous and expensive houses, as well as draining bogland and improving conditions in Connemara, proved to be Henry’s undoing. From being very rich, he became rather poor; at the time of his death in 1910, he had only a few hundred pounds. Ten years earlier, Strathedan House and its contents were sold, and the building soon after pulled down, replaced by a block of apartments. Then in 1903 Kylemore Castle was also sold, to William Montagu, ninth Duke of Manchester and his wife, the American heiress Helena Zimmerman. The duke was a notorious spendthrift, as he proceeded to demonstrate in County Galway where he transformed much of the interior of his new property, taking out large quantities of stained glass from the main staircase window and much Connemara marble from a number of the rooms. Despite the considerable wealth of his wife’s family, he managed to run up an impressive number of debts: by 1918, 66 petitions of bankruptcy had been filed against him in the English courts. Two years later, Kylemore Castle was sold once more, this time to Benedictine nuns from Ypres, Belgian. Now called Kylemore Abbey, the order remains there to the present day. After running a girls’ boarding school on the site for many years, they have now turned it into one of the most successful tourist attractions in this part of Ireland.
Stepping Through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens, an exhibition curated by the Irish Aesthete and featuring more than fifty specially-commissioned paintings by artists Lesley Fennell, Andrea Jameson, Maria Levinge and Alison Rosse has now opened at Kylemore Abbey where it can be seen until the end of April.