Ciara McDonnell meets Eithne O'Halloran who reflects on her school days at Kylemore Abbey.
I went to school here in Kylemore Abbey. I finished here in 1992. It was a very unusual place to go to school, our childhood lasted a very long time. Academically we were not the most gifted in the world but it was a very unique place to go to school. I went to school with lots of local Connemara girls, and we sat side-by-side with girls from all over the world, who came to the abbey as boarders. It was brilliant, but also difficult because as a teenager you tend to be very awkward anyway. We were from very rural Connemara and already felt like ‘bog trotters’ and we were sitting beside very glamorous girls from South America and from Alaska and America and Paris, so it was awkward at times.
Having said that, it was a really interesting place to go to school; getting to go to school every day in a castle felt very romantic. We were positioned away from everything else; an all-girls school in the depths of Connemara, and I think that protected us somewhat. It was very magical.
When we were 15 and 16 we were still going outside to play, because we were learning in the middle of all these beautiful spaces every day. Occasionally there might be a bus tour of French boys who would come on a day trip as students and the whole school would descend into pandemonium because we never saw boys.
The boarders didn’t have anysocial life, really, except when they would get to go home or occasionally, coming towards the summer, some of the boarders would be allowed to go home with the day girls for a few nights and come out with us locally.
It was not strict at all. I think that’s the biggest misconception people have about Kylemore Abbey and boarding schools in general. Often girls would be sent to us, having been considered ‘bold’ in their old school and I think their parents thought that they were coming to us to be straightened out. There was nothing to rebel against, so it was a very warm and relaxed environment.
The girls had the run of the building and it wasn’t at all authoritarian. Most of the girls, even if they had a wild reputation, would settle down after a little while and the boarders would make really good friends and rely on each other.
Kylemore was always half boarders and half day girls. As day girls, we would sometimes be jealous of the boarders because to us, they had it easy and they came to school on aeroplanes and things like that. We would be a bit shy and wouldn’t want them to know that we maybe came from a small house or that our fathers were farmers. They envied us, because we went home to our families at night.
I am still friends with lots of girls that I went to school with. There is a big school reunion coming up in 2020, where girls from all over the world will come back. It was a very unique environment; I often think we were very innocent, but we were innocent in a very safe environment. Kylemore Abbey produced a lot of artists, a lot of music. In this area here by the time I was going to school, there wasn’t a great expectation for girls to go to college. There are 10 children in my family and I was the second to go to college.
Then a few years later, when my nieces came to school here, they all went to third level. Within a few years the social expectation changed a lot.
You have to remember that for us day girls, we were coming from a disadvantaged area in Connemara, so a lot of the girls who were going to school here would have been living in near poverty. The boarders would all be complaining about the food and the cold, they always seemed to be sick and have boxes of tissues on the desk.
When I went to school here and even before that I was fascinated by the history of Kylemore. My mother and my sisters and her sisters, all went to school here.
My office today is opposite our second-year classroom. If you had told me when I was in second year that I would still be here when I was 46 I never would have believed you. I probably would have been horrified. I started out here giving history tours and I still give occasional ones.
Eithne O’Halloran is the Abbey and Gothic Church manager at Kylemore Abbey and a former pupil. She stars in Great Irish Interiors on RTÉ One, January 2 at 8.30pm. The documentary follows the challenging restoration of period rooms at Kylemore Abbey.