Circle of life at Kylemore Abbey
By Jacqueline Hogge
THE circle of life has been demonstrated in a unique way through a novel children’s play trail at the historic Kylemore Abbey, where pieces have been carved from the wood of trees first planted on the estate over 140 years ago.
What started out as a commission for playground furniture, developed into a play trail with 23 pieces created and designed by students at GMIT Letterfrack as part of their second year studies on the BSc in Furniture Design and Manufacture, the only such course in the country.
The pieces are dispersed throughout the estate, from just past the miniature gothic church, scattered along the avenue to the famous Victorian walled garden.
S-shaped picnic seats and benches, that reflect the geometric shapes of flowerbeds in the walled garden, sheep seats that are inspired by Pollacappul Mountain and an installation of nine chimes in honour of Mitchell Henry’s children, are just some of the pieces involved in the play trail that covers most of the estate.
The live project is an annual event at the Letterfrack college where over the past five years students have been delivering work for clients as diverse as a local crèche in Letterfrack to the President’s office at Áras an Uachtaráin.
Programme director Anthony Clare said the projects are mutually beneficial to the students and the recipients of their wo
In the case of the play trail, the students’ work forms part of a permanent interactive exhibition on the Kylemore estate,” he said.
“With 200,000 visitors to Kylemore every year it is a great opportunity for students to have their names – as furniture designer/makers- in the public domain.”
As part of their research for the project, students toured the abbey and estate, learning the history of Kylemore, its unique geology, local folklore, and the life of Mitchell Henry, who built the castle for his wife and family in the 1850s.
They also learned the story of the Benedictine Community of nuns and how they came to live in Kylemore and restore the estate.
With nine children in the Henry clan, the grounds of Kylemore offered a perfect playground in the latter half of the 19th century, and the pieces introduced by the students are offering a new generation of children the chance to explore this historic wonderland.
Each student was assigned a specific location and was asked to capture the “essence of the place” and to respond to the environment of their individual locations with full-size pieces of fun, interactive children’s furniture.
“The students had an initial briefing with the staff of the Abbey, recorded details related to the area within the grounds that they had been assigned, undertook initial design work and two weeks later presented more tangible design solutions to a formal panel for comment and feedback,” said Anthony.
“We had one final meeting where subsequent changes were approved and then the students set about designing and making their piece, with the entire process taking about eight weeks.
“The pieces have all been made with reclaimed wood from the estate: oak, ash, yew, Douglas fir, willow, elm, pine and larch that was the result of fallen trees that they dried out, all harvested from the vast Kylemore estate.”
One year on, the play trail is getting a lot of use from visiting children and both Anthony and the staff at Kylemore are delighted with its success.
Bríd Connell, sales and marketing manager at Kylemore said it was fitting that the trees planted by Mitchell Henry had provided the raw materials for pieces designed to commemorate his life at the Abbey.
“More than 300,000 trees were planted on the estate by Mitchell Henry 140 years ago. Now the pieces made to commemorate his life have been carved from trees which he planted,” she said.
“The pieces have become firm favourites with inquisitive minds as children are delighted to discover a miniature table and chairs made for their size in a clearing in the woodland.
“Adults too are getting plenty of enjoyment from the pieces, with several spotted playing the Aoelian harp by the lake shore.”
Anthony said he was delighted the pieces were coping well with their exposure to the elements.
“They’re weathering really well and while we need to replace a few of the signs that explain the pieces and their inspiration, it’s a great testament to the students who created them that children of all ages are getting so much enjoyment from them,” he said.
The Benedictine Community, whose prestigious international boarding school within the grounds of the Abbey closed in recent years, has also given the play trail its seal of approval.
“There can be no substitute for Scoil Áine, but Kylemore Abbey wants to continue to tell children and young people that they are welcome here, said Mother Máire Hickey.
“The Abbey will continue to be a place where the gifts and talents of young people will be fostered, and where they can learn to appreciate in the Benedictine tradition the values of beauty, the arts, creative hard work, and community.”
Anthony said the unique opportunity afforded his students through the Kylemore play trail was one that would be remembered for many years to come.
“The potential of engaging the creative minds and technical ability of our students with a project centred on fun, imagination, exploration and discovery for young children has brought about a project of huge significance, with inspired results,” he said.
“This, framed within the backdrop of the grounds of Kylemore Abbey, has made it all the more impressive.
“GMIT Letterfrack is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and while there are a series of events planned later this year, including an exhibition at Farmleigh House in Dublin, it is encouraging to know that one of our most recent projects is providing such joy and creative play to children just down the road from our campus.
“We have 260 students studying with us, the people involved in this project have just finished their work experience, that has brought them to countries including the United States, the UK, Australia and Vietnam.
“This play trail is testament to their creative and production talents and showcases the quality of graduates we send out from Letterfrack, who contribute to and influence the fields of design processes and manufacture of furniture in ways that are innovative, creative and responsive to the needs and development of a quality Irish furniture industry.”