Remembrance plaque for the Irish Dames of Ypres - Ieper - 27/10/2015
On Tuesday, 27 October 2015, a remembrance plaque was unveiled at Ieper for the 'Irish Dames'. The plaque can be found in the Sint-Jacbosstraat 67 where until 1914 the main building of the Irish monastery in Ieper had been located since 1665, now 350 years ago. After the Great War, the community moved to Ireland in 1920 and purchased Kylemore Abbey where the community is still active today. At the occasion of their 350th anniversary of their arrival at Ieper, 6 sisters visited Ieper and unveiled the plaque.

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Ireland’s historic and contemporary connections with Belgium
Visitors to Kylemore Abbey who peruse the history of the Castle and Estate on the boards around the Visitors` route, are usually intrigued to discover that there is a remarkable Belgian connection here. The Benedictine community that has been living in Kylemore since 1920, they discover, came here from Belgium, having lost their convent there during the first Battle of Ypres in 1914.  And on a wall in the main hall they see exhibited a portion of a flag, said to be of the Irish Brigade, captured during the Battle of Ramillies in Flanders in 1706.   The story of the “Irish Dames of Ypres” is – from its beginning in the late 16th century right up to the present day – a “Tale of Two Countries” that forms an interesting and colourful part of the tapestry of Irish-Belgian connections.

The story began in 1598, when a Catholic Englishwoman, Lady Mary Percy, daughter of the Earl of Northumberland, founded a Benedictine monastery for women in Brussels.  In England, the practice of the Catholic faith was banned, and religious orders were seeking places to continue their lives on the European mainland, frequently in the Netherlands, northern France, and Spain.  Lady Mary Percy´s foundation attracted some Irishwomen as well as Englishwomen, and several further foundations were made, including one in the city of Ypres in 1665.  Some of the nuns brought in from other monasteries in Belgium to support Ypres were Irish, and in 1686 the monastery was officially dedicated as an Irish Benedictine Abbey, the Abbey of the Immaculate Conception under the title of Gratia Dei, to be the home of the Irish Benedictines.  The nuns became known popularly in Ypres as De Iersche Damen.

A new Abbess was elected - the first Irish Abbess - namely Mary Joseph Butler, cousin of the Duke of Ormond.  King James II took an interest in the Irish monastery in Ypres, and invited Abbess Butler to make a foundation in Dublin, promising his patronage and protection.  The attempt (1687-1688) did not succeed, and after James´ defeat at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, there was no alternative but to return to Ypres.
Abbess Butler hoped to be able to return to Ireland later, when conditions for the foundation of a Benedictine monastery would be more favourable.  Little did she know that she would never return to Ireland, and that the community of the “Irish Dames” would remain settled in Ypres for the next 200 years and longer, contributing to civic life through the school they ran, and sharing the vicissitudes of the times with its citizens.

The purpose of the Abbey was to provide an education and a religious community for Irish women, although other nationalities were also welcome.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, when anti-Catholic laws were in place in Ireland, the Abbey attracted the daughters of Irish families, both as students and as members of the community, and enjoyed the patronage of many influential Irish families living in exile.  The sisters of the Congregation of the Presentation believe that their Foundress, Nano Nagle, was a pupil at Ypres for some time between 1728 and 1734.  Another former pupil,  Judith Wogan-Browne (1767 – 1774), was a close friend of Bishop Daniel Delany of Kildare and Leighlin, who entrusted to her leadership the group of women with whom he founded in 1807 the Congregation of St. Brigid (Brigidine Sisters).

The Flag of Ramillies, referred to in two popular songs, Clare´s Dragoons and The Flower of Finae, both with texts by Thomas Davis, is perhaps the best-known proof of the connection between the Irish Dames and the home country during their years of exile.  Tradition in the community has it that early in the 18th century, a flag or flags captured from a British regiment at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706 were deposited for safe keeping in the Abbey by Murrough O´Brien, the Lieutenant-Colonel of the regiment of Clare.  The flag hung for about 200 years in the choir of the Abbey Church in Ypres.  A large portion of one flag survived the destruction of Ypres in 1914, and still hangs framed in the main hall of Kylemore Abbey.  Historians call details of this story into question, but whatever the true history of the flag may be, it survives still as a symbol of strong ties between the Benedictine Community in Ypres, their fellow-exiles on the continent, and those who were still at home in Ireland.

During these two centuries and more, the monastery of Ypres was the only Irish Abbey of the Order of St. Benedict.  Indeed, by 1794 the Abbey at Ypres was the only monastery left in the Low Countries.  The communities of Ghent and the other English Benedictine houses had been forced to return to England at the beginning of the French Revolution.

The community was never large, fluctuating between three and about twenty members.  A small stream of Irish women continued to follow in the footsteps of Abbess Butler and the first Irish Dames, but the community soon became a mixture of nationalities.  Late in the 18th century the Irish presence disappeared for a short time, until in 1854 Mary Josephine Fletcher arrived from Ireland, uniting the Irish Dames again, as she liked to tell, with their home country. 

During this time of integration into life in Flanders the Irish connection remained strong. Abbess Butler was followed in her office by 6 further Irish Abbesses who had entered the monastery in Ypres, followed in 1840 by London-born Abbess Elizabeth Jarrett, and after her by the Belgian Abbess Scholastica Bergé, born in Tournai.  Abbess Bergé had been employed as a teacher in the monastery school before entering herself, and was the first Belgian to lead the community. The historian of the Irish Dames of Ypres, Dom Patrick Nolan, who had spent a considerable amount of time at the monastery in the early years of the 20th century, remarks on her sympathy for Ireland and her absorption of Irish identity.  He goes so far as to honour her with the tag given to the Hiberno-Normans assimilated into Gaelic society in the later middle ages: she was, he says, ipsis hibernicis hibernior. Though she was old and very sick, it fell to her lot as a Belgian-Irish Abbess to lead her community in tragic circumstances out of Ypres in 1914 and back to its Irish home. 

When the war began in 1914,  four German members of the then community were obliged to leave the country. Fourteen left Ypres in November 1914 and finally arrived in Ireland in 1916, of whom six were Irish, three Belgian,four German, four English, and one Luxembourger

After the war, the community decided – not without a great struggle – against trying to  return to Ypres and rebuild its monastery there.  The majority voted that the community should seek a new future in the place they had been forced to leave over 200 years before.  After over a year in England, they moved to Macmine Castle in Co. Wexford and started a school there, but soon found the location unsuitable.  Kylemore Castle in Connemara was on the market, and in 1920 after many legal and financial hurdles had been taken, the purchase was completed and a new era began for the Irish Dames of Ypres. Sadly, Abbess Scholastica Bergé had died in Macmine, and so never saw Kylemore, the place that was to become the Irish home of the Irish Dames.  It was the second Belgian Abbess, Dame Maura Ostyn, who faced the challenge of the new start. 

The history of Kylemore Abbey School from its beginnings in 1920 until its closure in 2010 has yet to be written.  The early years were a time of raw survival both for the Benedictine community and for Kylemore itself.  But against a backdrop of poverty, crippling debts, maintenance costs of a long-neglected mansion with its extensive and sophisticated gardens, and the economic and political instability of Ireland in the 1920s, a unique school emerged that was soon making a significant contribution to secondary education of girls in this country.  The faith, courage, creativity, educational vision and expertise of the band of founding sisters from Ypres received a new burst of energy from some admirable and gifted Irish women who joined them during the first decades.  New and undreamed of opportunities, subsidised by the Department of Education, opened up for the girls of Connemara, while prosperous families from further afield saw in this Benedictine school in the remote and beautiful West of Ireland a highly suitable boarding school for their daughters.  Parallel with the development of the school, Kylemore Abbey also developed into an iconic tourist attraction, contributing significantly to a transformation in the economy of Connemara and the standard of living of its population.. 

It was not a time for promoting new developments in the Belgian-Irish connection.  But without the vision of Benedictine education for women that had matured over 250 years in the cultural ambience of Flanders,  Kylemore could never have developed its unique charisma that quickly became known far beyond the borders of Ireland.

It is almost a century now since the departure of the community from Belgium and their arrival in Kylemore.  19th century Ypres and 20th century Connemara were worlds apart.  A few faithful Belgian parents sent their daughters for a time to Kylemore Abbey School, and as time went on, there were groups from Belgian schools who came for English language courses in the summer.  There has usually been a cordial relationship with the Belgian Embassy in Dublin, too, and more recently with the Honorary Consul in Galway.  Numbers of Belgian tourists have been increasing a little in recent years, and most seasons bring the occasional military historian who comes to see “the Flag”.  But on the whole, contact with our Belgian home has been relatively sparse.  A rediscovery of our common roots could be fruitful for all concerned, as our awareness grows of the value of international relations within Europe. Our hundred years of Irish-Belgian history is a significant capital that is only waiting to be developed.  Perhaps our centenary anniversary years – 1914 or 1920 or both – could be the occasion of a renewed reciprocal interest in our Irish-Belgian past.         
  • Kathleen Villiers-Tuthill, History of Kylemore Castle and Abbey 2002,
  • Kylemore Abbey Publications  ISBN 0-9542310-1-5
  • Rev. Dom Patrick Nolan OSB  The Irish Dames of Ypres 1908 Browne and Nolan
  • Internet websites in the public domain
Page made by Jozef Coulembier.