This is the third time I visit Kylemore Abbey near Letterfrack, Co Galway, but the first in the depth of winter. The site is no less mesmerising, nestled among the mountains surrounding Pollacappul Lough at the end of a breathtaking drive across Connemara. 

The car hire agent in Galway city told me that his customers can be divided into two groups of equal size: those looking for directions to Kylemore Abbey, and those who ask for the Cliffs of Moher. These are Ireland’s two most visited tourist attractions outside Dublin, and both registered record footfall last year: 1.5 million visitors at the cliffs and over half a million at Kylemore.

As I meet the Kylemore Trust’s new executive director, 38-year-old Conor Coyne, the charitable organisation and its commercial subsidiary Kylemore Abbey and Gardens are about to publish their 2018 accounts showing more than a doubling in their consolidated net income to €1.6 million. It has also attracted attention with a study commissioned to show the value of Kylemore Abbey to the local economy, which it estimates to be just under €60 million annually.

On our way to the restaurant for a hearty lunch of spinach and salmon quiche followed by apple crumble tart, all with distinct homely flavours, we walk past a large hole in the ground where excavators are at work. A new monastery will stand here in one year’s time to accommodate the community of Benedictine nuns, exactly one century after their predecessors moved here following their flight from Ypres in Belgium during World War I. The community’s 10 nuns, currently accommodated in a farmhouse across the road, will move back where it all started. Three more are expected to join them in 2020.

“It is a significant investment,” Coyne says without offering a number, and I infer from our conversation that it is in the millions of euro. The new building will include a guest house for pilgrims taking part in retreats at Kylemore, a new activity to be developed here. Further out, builders are at work in an existing house that will offer additional capabilities.

Our tour continues to the famous six-acre walled garden, where two of the original 25 Victorian glasshouses have now been restored. Their multiple moving parts and joints make them a maintenance nightmare, Coyne admits. In the main stately house, interactive exhibition rooms re-opened this June after a €3 million investment tell the story of the site from its original 19th century owner Mitchell Henry through to the nuns and boarding school students who lived here through the years.

We also walk along a wing of the former abbey that is off-limits to visitors: it has been extended with a modern glass front and the flag of the University of Notre Dame flies outside. Coyne explains that American academics and students stay here regularly for seminars and this continues the educational mission of the estate since the boarding school closed in 2010. The partnership also attracts large numbers of visitors: Coyne says 39 busloads are already booked into Kylemore at the time Notre Dame will play a game of American football in Dublin next August.

Kylemore Notre Dame
The University of Notre Dame leases a wing of Kylemore Abbey for academic programmes. Photo: Thomas Hubert

In fact, US nationals represent 25 to 30 per cent of visitors to Kylemore. French and Germans follow, with around 15 per cent each, while Irish visitors account for only around one in five tickets. Uncharacteristically, UK tourists are way behind with less than 5 per cent of sales.

Over the course of this interview, I will ask Coyne about this unusual visitor mix and the unusual business it sustains, including:

  • The economic impact study he commissioned and how much local activity can really be attributed to Kylemore Abbey;
  • The profitability of the Kylemore Trust and its plans for investment in the future, with Coyne saying that the €1.1 million capital expenditure recorded last year was expected to increase;
  • Kylemore’s quest for sustainability, which Coyne sees both as an obligation under the trusts’s values and a part of sound business management, including for the wider tourism industry;
  • The Benedictine ethos underpinning business at Kylemore and Coyne’s role, in line with the stated objective that the “principal aim of the trust is the advancement of the Roman Catholic Religion”.

Thomas Hubert (TH): By way of introduction, you only came into this position recently so what is your role here to start with, and how did you come to take over as head of the trust?

Conor Coyne (CC): The Kylemore Trust is the parent organisation here in Kylemore Abbey in Connemara. My role really is two-fold: one is to provide functional and strategic leadership for all our staff, and secondly to work in collaboration with and support the Benedictine community of nuns that are based here in Kylemore to support them in their monastic activities. 

It’s quite an unusual role and a very, very exciting, adventurous role which I took up in April – one very close to my heart as well because I’m originally from Connemara after spending 15 years away in Dublin. I heard about it from a few of my colleagues who told me about it being advertised in the Irish Times executive recruitment section one Friday. I threw in my CV not thinking about it much more. But then after a three- or four-month recruitment process, I continuously and gradually got more excited about the possibility of getting the role. Once I was successful about this time last year, myself and my family agreed and made a decision to move our young family down to the west of Ireland, did that for over a three-month period, and here I am from April – really never regretting that decision at all.

TH: How does one become the head manager of Kylemore? What did you do before this?

CC: Immediately before this, I worked in Ervia, the parent company of Gas Networks Ireland and Irish Water. I was part of the senior leadership team there and my role was really about strategic development and operationalising that strategy. Prior to that, I worked in the subsidiary Irish Water, where I was the head of commercial and procurement and had responsibility for hundreds of millions of expenditure both in capex and opex – a very exciting and challenging time to be part of that newly formed organisation that was obviously very much in the news at the time. 

I learned an awful lot from that role in terms of stakeholder management, new company set-up, bringing new systems and processes and new ways of working, and dealing with adversity in a challenging environment which also helped to develop very strong collegiality among the whole workforce. That was very, very exciting.

Prior to that, I would have been working in business consulting with Ernst and Young where I spent the best part of three years. It was in the depths of the recession though, so I spent a lot at that time commuting back and forth to London, Leeds and Bournemouth working from a consultancy perspective with the NHS, looking at rationalisation, cost-cutting, mergers, etc. So again challenging roles, but something that you could really take a lot out of and learn an awful lot from.

TH: From consulting firms and Ervia to a more spiritual-led and rural-based business here, was there a big pay cut?

CC: You can ask, I couldn’t comment! The cost of living in the west of Ireland is significantly less than it is in the wider Dublin area, so the standard of living than my family experiences now in terms of the materiality stuff is nowhere less than it was in the Dublin area. But built on top of that, we also have the great expanses of the wild open countryside here, so from a standard of living perspective, it has been nothing but upside. And in terms of cold hard cash, I didn’t suffer greatly.

TH: What is the business here? What do you run, where are the activities, the revenue streams, and what’s happening at the moment that is exciting in this place?

CC: There are a number of avenues. I’ll start with the raison d’être for the estate in the first place. Kylemore estate has been in situ for over 150 years. Initially, its inception was from Mitchell Henry who was a landlord  – a benevolent landlord – who was the reason for a huge amount of employment in north Connemara. 

It passed through various different hands up until about 99 years ago when the Benedictine order, having left Belgium due to World War I, made Kylemore their home. So 2020 will be their centenary here and really they are the reason that this whole estate is what it is, where it is and how it is, and why it is here in northern Connemara.

One of the continuing key aspects of life and activity here is the monastic activities which the Benedictine community continue to live their lives by in Kylemore. The construction of a brand new monastery, which we hope to open by the end of next year, is testament to the fact that we have a very active community here. That’s one strand to life here.

A second strand is that our partners and the tenants of the eastern wing here are Notre Dame University and they continue the tradition of education which is so important to the Benedictine community. They joined us on the estate a number of years ago and they will be here for the medium to long-term, hopefully even longer than that. They provide that kind of educational oompf that’s required for the ethos of the Benedictines to be lived out on a daily basis.

Then, thirdly, a key aspect here is our commercial arm run by a subsidiary called Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. Kylemore  Abbey and Gardens is the second most visited tourist visitor attraction outside of the greater Dublin area. Just behind the Cliffs of Moher comes Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. In 2018, 562,000 visitors crossed the bridge and came in to visit. The predominant, vast majority of those guys were from non-domestic markets  – nearly 80 per cent of them were from international markets. So that is a huge industry for north Connemara. 

“All the food we have here is all made on-site, it’s all home-made from products and ingredients sourced as closely as possible to the Kylemore estate.”

Kylemore Abbey and Gardens is the second biggest employer west of Galway and a recent economic study which we will touch on in a few minutes points to the import of Kylemore Abbey and Gardens as a tourist attraction. Kylemore Abbey and Gardens has three different revenue streams: one is the entrance fee itself; one is the restaurant; and one is the shop and the retail proposition, because there is an online part as well. 

I think we’re quite unique in terms of these being all run in-house. We haven’t outsourced anything, so all the food we have here is all made on-site, it’s all home-made from products and ingredients sourced as closely as possible to the Kylemore estate and about 95 per cent of the food here comes from original nun’s recipes with a contemporary twist. Our retail proposition tries to reflect the very best of the west of Ireland and Irish producers, along with high-class retail options that are in keeping with the heritage of the Kylemore estate.

Kylemore exhibitions
The exhibition rooms on the ground floor of Kylemore Abbey re-opened in June after a €3 million renovation. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Roughly about 40 per cent of our visitors come from groups and tour buses and 60 per cent come from passer-by, independent travellers. That’s actually flipped on its head, because the dominant amount used to be in tour buses a couple of years ago, but the transition has been much towards the independent travel now. We are growing that, the tour bus piece is diminishing slightly – that’s just kind of a national trend – but thankfully our independent travel numbers are growing to substitute for that. 

We find independent travellers to be probably a cohort that gets a lot more out of their time in Kylemore because they’re not time-bound. They’re not rushing to the next attraction, they have time to really take in in all that Kylemore has to offer and kind of lose themselves in the serenity and the beauty of the natural landscape, and to find their own little piece of Kylemore. They’re not watching the clock and they’re not running off to a timetable, so we hope to continue to grow that segment. 


Last month, Kylemore Abbey and Gardens published an economic impact study commissioned from Fitzpatrick Associates Economic Consultants. Researchers conducted a survey of visitors to Kylemore showing that 48 per cent of those staying overnight and 70 per cent of day-trippers declared the estate had been a deciding factor in their choice to travel to the region. They asked them how much they were spending in counties Galway and Mayo, and extrapolated this to last year’s 562,000 visitors, ending up with a figure of €53.8 million.

In addition, the Kylemore Trust spent €6 million on local goods and services last year, bringing its total estimated value to the local economy close to €60 million.

TH: What are the key things that struck you in this study? The findings that maybe you didn’t expect, to give us a sense of the scale of the importance you have here around the Connemara region?

CC: A little bit of context: I am a Connemara native myself and I’m brought up and used to the fact that tourists make this their home for about six months a year. We always just assumed that tourists come to Connemara but we actually never question ourselves why. One of the first things I did when I took over part of the business in Kylemore was to really put a quantifiable figure on the impact that Kylemore has on the locality and the region. 

The key thing that really struck me and really maybe threw me back a bit is that of the 560,000 visitors that came to Kylemore, 200,000 said that they specifically came to the region because of Kylemore being here. That really struck me because that’s saying that close on 40 per cent of the people that came to Kylemore Abbey came specifically because we were here, and not because they were just generally in the region anyway. 

Kylemore’s impact on the Connemara, southern Mayo and western Galway region is probably akin to some of the multinationals in Dublin – your Google, your Facebook, your Amazon.

To quantify that, what does that mean? Those people stay on average between 1 and 3.2 nights. For each one of those days that they’re here they spend over €120 a day so when you work out the figures, that tells you that there is €60 million worth of revenue attributable to Kylemore spent in the region of Galway and Mayo. 

Furthermore, that also equates to 1,450 jobs in the hospitality industry – accommodation, food and beverage, transport, services and other tourist attractions – all those are attributable to Kylemore being here. If you overlay on top of that the fact that there are up on 140 people working in Kylemore in peak summer months and 110 people year-round, you’re up on 1,550 to 1,600. 

And you can overlay on that again the fact that over the last two years and years to come, we have had and will have major capital expansions – be it the monastery, be it the €3 million investment in the abbey which occurred earlier this year. Those investments also account for roughly about 100 jobs per annum as well, so you’re close on 1,700 jobs directly and indirectly attributable to Kylemore being in the region. 

I suppose it might sound a bit far-fetched, but Kylemore’s impact on the Connemara, southern Mayo and western Galway region is probably akin to some of the multinationals in Dublin – your Google, your Facebook, your Amazon – in terms of pro-rata impact on the local populace.

TH: If I want to go nit-picking a bit, those people didn’t say they came exclusively for Kylemore, but it was an important factor in their decision. Is it fair to say that this €60 million is actually thanks to Kylemore being here, or is it part of a wider ecosystem with the Connemara National Park across the lake? How could you potentially attribute how much of this is actually down to Kylemore itself?

CC: Good question, and to be honest we challenged the methodology that was used in the first place as well, because we don’t want to be accused of not being fully kosher with our figures. The methodology that was used by Fitzpatrick Associates is a very disciplined and defined methodology whereby people are asked a series of questions with a one-to-five grading as to why they make their choices. 

When you pro-rata out the survey base, 200,000 said that the specific reason that they came was Kylemore. They’re asked, one-to-five, was Kylemore or not the specific reason that you came and it equates to 200,000 people saying the specific reason was Kylemore. I won’t question the fact that there are fantastic attractions nearby and a general region, but we have the survey results that speak for what they come up with, and they weren’t really that open to interpretation.

TH: When we talk about direct jobs in the tourism industry, it is a very seasonal business nationwide. How do you deal with that? Do you actually find the staff, especially in the summer, that you need? What do those people do if they are seasonal, what kind of options do they have for the rest of the year?

CC: Kylemore has made a conscious decision to stay open year-round and we are very, very, very busy for about six to seven months a year, but for about four-five months a year we’re not particularly busy, particularly on weekdays. Actually, it’s a perfect time to come on weekdays if you want the serenity and tranquillity in those months. 

But there are still 110 people who have employment year-round, even in off-peak seasons. A lot of those guys will focus their efforts on the production of in-house artisan craft products, whether that be our food propositions, our hampers, our chocolates, etc. And there’s still a huge amount of maintenance activity that needs to be done off-peak, that you don’t necessarily get the time for when there’s the throngs of tourists here – whether that’s the eradication of rhododendron on the estate, repainting things, etc. – that all needs to be done off-peak season as well. 

We’re drawing our staff from people who were educated in one or two secondary schools, there’s not a huge cohort there. So we really have to focus on investing in our staff through training and qualifications.

Where we do find the greatest challenges in terms of employment is actually for the seasonal staff. Getting the seasonal staff, in general, dovetails nicely with school or college holidays. We can find ourselves quite busy in June and September in terms of footfall, but the schools or colleges are still in place. So actually you can have an all-hands-on-deck piece in both June and September when you have people coming out from the finance department, from the marketing department or whatever to clear out the trays in the restaurant for the peak lunchtime hours. 

We’re unusual as well in that 90 per cent of our employees are from within 20 to 30 km of the estate. You’ve probably seen, Thomas, in your drive out here that there’s not a huge population nearby, so we really can’t rely on urban-based – Galway- or Westport- or Castlebar-based – employees for huge proportions of our staff. We need to focus on our local cohort of a staff pool. 

We’re drawing our staff from people who were educated in one or two secondary schools, there’s not a huge cohort there. So we really have to focus on investing in our staff through training and qualifications,  so that they can be the very best they can be. We’re not looking for quick solutions and buying expertise, we’re looking at developing our own expertise in-house with people who are from the locality and the region and who themselves are invested in the organisation and its value to the whole region.

TH: Looking at the study, one of the figures showing the impact of Kylemore on the local economy was how much services and products you buy locally. That was about €6 million last year, and what struck me was that over €1 million of that was actually capital expenditure. That’s quite a lot – is it an exceptional year? I know the visitor rooms here were reopened, there was a massive investment behind that in recent months and years, but is there a sustained €1 million capital investment programme going ahead?

Kylemore restoration
A new monastery is now under construction following the renovation of the historic abbey building earlier this year. Photo: Thomas Hubert

CC: This estate is very much like the analogy of painting a bridge, and once you finish you start on the other side all over again. €1 million I wouldn’t say is exceptional at all, actually, because that’s based on 2018 accounts. 2019 is when we had the €3 million investment downstairs in the ground floor of this abbey. We invested roughly about €1.4 million and Fáilte Ireland €1.6 million, so there will be an expansion in our capex for the 2019 results. Then for 2020, we would be looking at a further expansion again because we have just recently commenced the construction of our new monastery, which will be the single biggest capital project on the estate in over 150 years.

If we can get our hands on the funding there’s a lot more we can actually invest in the future as well, so I wouldn’t say that a million is exceptional. It might be exceptionally low compared to what we have to spend in the next couple of years!

TH: How much of an investment is the monastery itself?

CC: It’s a considerable investment, which is funded solely through the current, past and future revenue streams from Kylemore Abbey and Gardens, and philanthropic purposes as well. Those two revenue streams are the sole areas of funding for this monastery.

TH: Then for the visitor and commercial side of things, you’ve mentioned a Fáilte Ireland investment. How else do you fund all this capital expenditure? Do you go to banks, to public sector agencies like Fáilte Ireland? How does that work for a trust like Kylemore?

CC: From time to time, especially for things like the abbey update downstairs, we had to use bridging finance or whatever, but there wouldn’t have been any utilisation of debt for the upgrade of the vast majority of assets here. We keep that under a certain control, we ensure that we always have a certain kind of barrier there. We probably don’t enjoy the same looser risk appetite as opposed to a purely commercial organisation. We have, maybe, more of a conservative approach, very much in keeping with what we are, where we are and the import that we have to the region.


Consolidated accounts filed for 2018 show that the Kylemore Trust and its subsidiary Kylemore Abbey and Gardens have indeed very little debt – €307,349 outstanding on a bank loan, and that’s about it. 

Another unusual feature of the trust’s balance sheet is that its main asset is quite literally invaluable. The historic buildings sitting on the 1,000-acre estate are valued at €4.4 million – the paper value of investments put into their restoration when the trust was founded in 2009 to amalgamate the Benedictine community’s assets with those of two companies previously used to manage the estate. “Due to the historical and cultural significance of these assets and their unique location, obtaining accurate valuations would involve disproportionate cost,” the accounts read.

Kylemore Abbey and Gardens leases part of the estate for commercial purposes from the trust in exchange for €800,000 in annual rent, booked as a charitable donation. The University of Notre Dame, meanwhile, holds a lease until 2030 under which it pays no rent but will hand the keys of an improved building back to the trust at the end of the lease.

The trust’s consolidated accounts show that €4.3 million in restaurant and shop sales represented its largest revenue source last year (a slight decrease on 2017), followed by €3.1 million in admission tickets (slightly up). Minor music teaching, farming and fishery incomes brought the total intake close to €7.5 million. The trust also received €721,935 in donations.

Kylemore restaurant
Restaurant and shop sales were the leading source of income for the Kylemore Trust last year. Photo: Thomas Hubert

The main cost was payroll at €2.2 million, while the cost of sales was just under €2 million. The trust supported the community of 10 nuns, including €124,481 in nursing home, welfare and health costs.

This left the trust with an overall surplus of €1.6 million last year, boosting the trust’s total funds to just under €10 million – including €2.9 million available in cash – before it embarked on the renovation of the abbey’s exhibition rooms and the construction of the new monastery.

Kylemore Abbey and Gardens paid €12,888 in corporation tax in 2017. Neither the company nor the trust paid corporation tax last year.

TH: You’ve mentioned the 2018 results that have begun to be published now. Where does it stand for the past year? How did the trust you and the commercial operation do and how did that compare with previous years?

CC: 2019 has nationally been a challenging year for tourism. I’m aware of a report that was in the Irish Times about a month and a half ago, which said that a number of large tourist attractions in the country around the time of September/October were about 10 per cent down in terms of visitor numbers compared to 2018, which was a bumper year, because of weather and geopolitical reasons. It’s in that context that Kylemore is roughly somewhere around 3 per cent down on numbers from 2018. 2018 was our biggest year ever though, so so we are very close to probably 2017, which was our second-best year ever.

Our numbers had a challenge around the month of May, which was quite poor across the country, but we actually picked up considerably during the rest of the summer. In October we outperformed 2018, and actually, we’ve grown our domestic numbers in September and October by 20 per cent. So we’re on the track back and will come close to matching 2018 figures. We’ll probably come in slightly below it, but ever so slightly, which is actually a great achievement in terms of the fact that there’s been a bit of a downfall across the country, particularly outside of Dublin in similar-sized attractions.

TH: How does that translate into profitability and return for the trust?

CC: Profitability and return for the trust would be very close to on a par with 2018. We do have some kind of exceptional items and some of those will be attributable to the renovation downstairs, which would have been quite high in capex but would have had a certain amount of opex required as well because of some of the tweaking and changing that went on. So broadly speaking, a profitable enough year to come as well, and we expect probably a growth in profits on 2018 next year.

“I don’t think the experience that one associates with Kylemore or actually the estate itself could sustain a doubling or tripling of numbers.”

TH: We talked about the recent investments, but if we look back maybe a few years, there was a running business here which was the school, which closed in 2010, and it’s been really a journey since then. Some of the more recent developments we have talked about, but the estate itself is changing. What is the general trend? What’s coming next? What do you want and what does the trust want to happen with Kylemore and why is it investing in the way it is at the moment?

CC:  The future for Kylemore – I suppose there are a few different strands to it. From a purely commercial perspective, if we want to continue to be one of the premier quality visitor attractions in the country, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we ever want to be the biggest, because we don’t. I don’t think the experience that one associates with Kylemore or actually the estate itself could sustain a doubling or tripling of numbers but a decent growth of numbers would definitely be welcome. 

What we want to focus on is the quality of experience when people come here, so that they have a more immersive experience, whether that be in terms of guided tours; a personalisation of their visitor experience; meeting the makers – and what I mean by that is artisan tours that we do with our chocolate makers or pottery or soaps – and really getting immersed in the nature and the beautiful natural serenity that we have here in Kylemore. 

In terms of that visitor piece, we want to focus on growth, but not exponential growth – incremental growth, in tune with the capacity of the estate, and really focus on growth in the shoulder seasons and the off-peak season; that November through to March period, showcasing Kylemore as a place come in the winter to get away from the mad rush of Christmas or a place to lift the winter blues in January or February. 

Where I see Kylemore coming into the couple years ahead as well is – I think the monastery is so fundamentally important to that, because it’s going to be based here. Just as you look out of the abbey on your right-hand side, you’ll be able to see the monastery just 200 yards away overlooking the lake. It’s going to be really at the beating heart of the estate, while at the same time secluded enough so that monastic activities can happen uninhibited by the huge numbers that pass through in the summer. 

Having that monastery here and having it at the beating heart of Kylemore would be hugely symbolic. It will be very apparent to all the visitors that come here that the monastic tradition of the Benedictine order is alive and well here in the farthest reaches of Connemara. That’s going to be such an important thing for us.

I think a third strand that’s going to be quite important for us as well is that whole sustainable journey. Sustainability for us is critical: the environmental piece – and we’re looking at that in terms of our aspirations to do away with single-use plastic; to have zero waste to landfill; with our energy view of the world where I have an aspiration within seven years to be carbon neutral in terms of our energy usage; with the electrification of the fleet of and vans and cars, which has already started and I hope to have completed by 2021; and with potential utilisation of our natural elements to produce energy for us as well. That piece will be vitally important, and we’re looking at that too, as well as biodiversity. 

I mean by that the renewing of the estate with the original native species that should have been here and would have been here 150 years ago before the abbey was built. That’s ensuring that we continue to replant oaks and hazels and ashes, the native species that should have been here, also making habitats that are suitable to attract back the original native flora and fauna that would have been here a number of years ago. We are in quite a good position now, but I think it’s to push towards being as sustainable, eco-friendly and biodiverse as possible. The large programme that we have for the winter months about eradicating as much of the rhododendron will be another little string to the bow as well. 

So looking at the spiritual piece from the monastery, the commercial and hospitality piece from the tourism and visitor business, and thirdly looking at the sustainability and stewardship piece on how we work with our environment are the three strands of growth that I see, as well as potentially some other kind of investment and growth that we may have – retreats, things like that may be developed as well a little later, once we have the bedrock of the monastery in place at the end of next year.


On the path to the neo-gothic church built by Mitchell Henry in memory of his late wife Margaret in 1874, we pass by a scene of devastation: invasive rhododendrons have been hacked to the ground, revealing the view of the Connemara National Park across the lake. 

Coyne picks up the two pieces of litter we encounter along the way. Later, he will tell me that getting waste management right could cut the estate’s annual €100,000 bin collection bill. We also meet two of the electric cars and vans that recently replaced diesel ones. The buses that ferry visitors between the abbey and the walled gardens still run on fossil fuel, though – Coyne says he has looked into replacing the three vehicles with electric equivalents, but that would cost €400,000 each. 

Looking up from the bus stop, he eyes the real prize in his quest to make Kylemore greener: the original hydropower station, which could be restored and supply five to 10 per cent of the estate’s electricity; and the mountain slopes where solar panels would make a real difference.

All this, Coyne says, is central to the business and may attract visitors to dedicated green-themed retreats here in the future. But he also acutely aware of the sustainability challenge to Ireland’s wider tourism industry, and he will return to this at the end of our interview.

TH: You mentioned sustainability as a rolling investment, with costs every year in terms of planting trees, changing the energy mix and all those aspects. What’s the corresponding return from a business perspective? It could be a wider discussion, not only for Kylemore but also for other businesses listening to us. Why invest in those sustainability pieces from a business perspective? How do you think it will bring back something to the trust in monetary terms?

CC: These things can be very, very short-term costs, but actually payback periods are very very short. A couple of examples: if we can get our mix right in our usage of bins, something as simple and arbitrary as bins – the ergonomics of how we use our bins and how we get people to use them, including visitors who don’t speak English to be able to see the right bin to use for recyclables or compost or whatever – if we get that right, we will be able to cut down our waste build here. 

By recycling, by using compost on-site, we can really really cut our waste bill. That payback period could be less than 24 months on a total revamping of our bin solution that we currently have at the moment. That’s something we’re really looking on and thankfully our head of finance has really bought into that as well. A two-year payback for a small capital investment like that makes sense, that that’s a no-brainer. 

Kylemore garden
Conor Coyne in Kylemore’s walled garden: “Sustainability is becoming a very important criterion for people’s decisions in how they travel.” Photo: Thomas Hubert

TH:  I’m curious about the waste bill. Do you know how offhand much it is roughly for a place like this? 

CC: Probably just south of €100,000 or so. 

Similarly, with our electric vans, we would have a certain provision for maintenance and repair for an ageing stock of diesel-fuelled vans. A lot of them actually would have engine problems because you need vans and vehicles to open up their lungs on the motorways, but when they’re going back and over an estate at 20kph, they actually start to seize up a little bit. We found that by converting to electric and getting that blend right, the payback period there is actually very, very, short as well.

You also have the brand proposition of something that’s environmentally friendly, looks the part and his on brand. You’re getting that in place, a much more modern piece of kit and something that really kind of appeals to the staff, because it looks like you’re actually investing in the kit for staff. You get that in place for marginal if negligible cost increases to having diesel alternatives. Again, not a big capital investment required for payback. 

Similarly, we’re looking at changing our lighting solution here to put in a contract for lighting services. That’ll cut down our energy use by 60 per cent in lighting across the estate to no cost increase whatsoever, because there’s actually funding models in place now whereby you lock in at a rate and the marginal cost differential will pay for the capital investment. Then, after a six- to seven-year period – or shorter even if you’re using more – you start to reap the benefits of cost avoidance, because the cost of electricity will go up but you’re locked in on a unit cost for a 10-year period. Similar-type funding models are available for electric vehicle charging points and potentially for the likes of hydro and solar farms in the future as well. 

A lot of this is no-brain stuff actually, in that if you get over the very short-term pain, it gives you huge medium- to long-term gain. I’m talking months to a year or two, as opposed to 10-year kind of payback periods so to me, no brainers. But it’s all about doing those little steps and seeing the big compound savings that come from all these little steps together.


Coyne says his attraction for this job came primarily from the “positive impact” he feels Kylemore has on his native region. “When you see something that important in a local area, when you’re a local, to be able to be part of that gives an enormous amount of professional satisfaction.”

The trustees forming the board he reports to are no ordinary group of corporate suits. They are drafted from the Benedictine order, with the community’s mother abbess, Sr Maire Hickey, and Joseph Coffey, the abbot of Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick, named “A trustees” with extensive powers including the appointment of other directors.

The Trust’s memorandum of association states that its main object is to “establish the advancement of the Catholic faith”. This includes a duty to support the Benedictine community. When the doors of Kylemore Abbey close to visitors every evening, the estate is returned to the nuns who often take walks in its walled garden.

“I’m not a daily church-goer but I have a regular interaction” with faith, Coyne says. His education in a catholic boarding school gave him an understanding of both “the good work of the Church as well as the unsavoury things that happened down the years”. He says he has “respect for the Benedictive community’s approach to detail and uncompromising standards”.

The trust also has an objective of “making Kylemore Abbey available to the public as a place of retreat, peace and reflective recreation”. This means it will probably never host pop music festivals, but Coyne said it would consider a limited amount of small-size corporate events at senior executive level, such as board meetings or strategy days. After all, Fáilte Ireland already held its national board meeting here once.

TH: Can you tell us a bit more about the ownership of this place, whether it’s the land, the business itself and how the trust comes into it. Who sits on the board? How does that all work?

CC: The corporate governance structure of the organisation is that the entire estate sits with the Kylemore Trust. The Kylemore Trust has a board of directors, many of whom are from the Benedictine community themselves. Other stakeholders that are on the board would have an understanding, a knowledge or an affinity to the ways and workings of the Benedictine order. 

They’re the parent company – that board of directors to which I report directly. They oversee entire operations and that board of directors has essentially ownership of the estate. Kylemore Abbey and Gardens then pays an annual rent for the use for visitor purposes of an element of the estate. There may be at 1,000-acre estate, but the visitor attraction component is actually only a proportion of that because there are certain parts of the state that may not necessarily be accessible. 

Some of them may be tied down in terms of the arrangement with Notre Dame University or the monastery. But a large part of the estate would be used by Kylemore Abbey and Gardens for visitor attraction purposes. The subsidiary rents space from the owning trust of the estate.

“It is a key component of my role to ensure that the activities carried across the estate and across all its subsidiaries are in direct line with the ethos of St Benedict.”

TH: How much of the religious ethos of the Benedictines informs the business and your own role, and how important was it in your recruitment as well?

CC: It is a key component of my role to ensure that the activities carried across the estate and across all its subsidiaries are in direct line with the ethos of St Benedict and the overall Benedictine ethos. There are a couple of pillars that are very, very important to draw from that – three or four key tenets that I always place at the forefront in discussions with other members of staff that come from the ethos of St Benedict and the order. 

Hospitality is an absolute key tenet for the Benedictine order. That’s very, very important to treat all visitors from the most famous to the most junior with the same level of affection and the same level of hospitality. That’s a key piece and actually very attuned to a high-quality visitor experience. 

Two or three other pieces as well: stewardship is vitally important to the Benedictine ethos, and that actually permeates itself down into the entire organisation. Stewardship is essentially about passing something on that little bit better than when you got it, and looking after in a very caring and loving way. The modern manifestation of that, you could say, is sustainability. Making sure that something is sustainable, looking after it, caring for it and ensuring that the next generation gets it in at least as good if not better a shape than you got it yourself. Those two pieces are key.

Then spirituality and the time and space for prayer – that’s an important thing for the Benedictine order obviously. That’s why it’s so important that the estate is managed in a way that provides the space and tranquillity and time for people to reflect, to be at one with themselves and to have deeper spiritual experiences if they so desire. 

That’s why for instance, I would say to you that we don’t want to treble or quadruple the amount of people that we have here. We want to grow it incrementally because we want this place to continue to provide that space and that’s very much in line with the ethos as well.

My role with my management team who are commercially, financially or estate-focussed or whatever is to consistently and constructively challenge them to ensure that everything we do is in direct alignment to what one would believe is correct and appropriate on a monastic site, particularly a Benedictine monastic site. 

Kylemore church
Conor Coyne: There are no plans to host weddings in Kylemore estate’s 1874 church. Photo: Thomas Hubert

TH: Does that direct the fact that, when you think big country house in Ireland – you even have a church inside the estate – you think hotel, weddings and events, and that’s not the way this place is going? It is this ethos that is making it more reflective and more concerned about its own sustainability.

CC: Having gone through – I wouldn’t say the ordeal, but the experience of getting married myself, weddings have become a bit of a beast. I don’t think it would be fair to the visitors to the estate. You can have 3,000, 4,000 or 5,000 people here on a single day in August, July or June. It’s a lot of people going back and forth and you could have 50 buses in the coach park and 800 cars outside. 

I don’t think it’s particularly suitable or fair to those visitors who would be getting married themselves. To be kind of fighting among the throngs, vying for space or nearly being competing forces on an estate such as this wouldn’t be in keeping with both what you would expect or aspire to for the visitor experience, or what you’d want yourself from a wedding day – fighting your way through to throngs. It’s not really something that we are currently minded towards. You can never say never, but I would definitely think from my perspective and in consultation with the Benedictine order, it’s not something that we can envisage anytime soon. 

TH:  How do the members of the community – the nuns – participate in the business? I have noticed from the accounts that there’s an acknowledgement of the free labour that they provide, and at the same time, their upkeep is ensured by the trust. That’s part of the objectives of the trust. So how do you interact with them as workers and also as people who benefit from the work and the finances your raise?

CC: “Ora et labora” are the two key foundations of the Benedictine order and that’s work and prayer. Work is given a huge amount of import in the Benedictine order. All the nuns play their part in different ways. Our mother abbess here is actually chair of our trust board. That ensures the Benedictine ethos is very strong in terms of board decisions, etc. We have a number of Benedictine nuns on that board as well, so from a corporate governance and strategic decision-making perspective, the Benedictine order is very much there in the heart of all those decisions that are made.

Just on the way up here, Thomas, we popped into Sr Genevieve’s chocolate kitchen so we have nuns that help drive the artisan crafts and products developed here, whether they be soaps or chocolate or whatever. Sr Genevieve has been a driving force behind that. 

Kylemore chocolate
The Benedictine nuns are involved in chocolate production and other parts of the Kylemore business. Photo: Thomas Hubert

We also have Sr Karol here who runs a fantastic music academy and has really brought music education, particularly here in the west of Ireland, to a whole new level. Her work is hugely acknowledged throughout the country. We have nuns involved in making cards and different things like that, but that is only a part of their life. The huge main element of their life is monastic activities which happen separate to these daytime activities.

We also have Sr Magdalena here who is who has a fantastic commercial acumen and a great business mind, and has been a great person for me to have strategic discussions, debate and conversations with as well. She was one of the real driving forces behind Kylemore becoming a visitor attraction in the first place. Her counsel and strategic thinking have always been a huge advantage for me to have. 

So you can see that the input from the overall community has been fantastic, continues to be fantastic and permeates the entire organisation. But it has to be said – that is just part of their daytime activity and the monastic activity is the key piece for them.

TH: You’ve mentioned the nationwide challenge to tourism numbers in recent months. How do you see that going? We’re talking about potential Brexit and things like that – the closing of borders around the world. With the importance of overseas visitors you have here, are you worried about this side of things?

CC: It’s funny you mention Brexit, because we’ve actually had a Brexit bounce this year. We’ve had an increase in our UK numbers. Now, that said, I’m digressing a small bit but we historically haven’t had huge UK numbers of visitors – less than 5 per cent, kind of level with Italy and Spain, and much less than the number of British people that are around the area in general. We’d only have a sixth of the number of American visitors that are from the UK if that makes sense: 30 per cent of our visitors are from America and less than 5 per cent from the UK. 

I think there are about 11 to 11.5 million inbound flights into Ireland per annum. At a very kind of macro level, something has to be done in terms of the sustainability and the environmental footprint that has on the world – that’s Ireland as an example, but flights from here to there, I think there’s going to have to be a more sustainable alternative produced, whether that’s electric aeroplanes or whatever that is. Something has to be done there because that’s probably unsustainable to keep going and growing the way we are.

In terms of Ireland is a proposition, I think particularly in the west of Ireland, we have to look at the categories and we can’t be all things to all people. Maybe it’s segmentation and going for certain segments, whether that is the more affluent or culturally curious or whatever that may be. We have to really focus on that and make ourselves right at the forefront of choices when people are making their decisions – whether they are coming from Shanghai, Beijing, Orange County or San Francisco, that coming to the west of Ireland or to Ireland is the one place they want to come to, no matter where else they go to Europe, and that we’re focusing on putting ourselves at that level.

We have been successful, Tourism Ireland is very, very successful and Fáilte Ireland has been successful historically as well, but I do think with greater challenges coming from global unrest and political elements and potentially recession coming in different countries, we just have to focus on being the very, very best that we can be in specific segments as opposed to trying to be all things to all men. 

I know I’ve probably used this word for the tenth occasion, but sustainability is also becoming a very, very important criterion for people’s decisions in how they travel and into the future. We even find that people who’ve flown from Chicago to London to Dublin will call ahead to ask if there’s a sustainable eco bus in Kylemore, so it does seem to be the thing that’s very much on trend at the moment. 

Making sure that Ireland is right up there with your New Zealands and your Scandinavian countries in being seen to do things in a very sustainable manner will be a critical component not only now, but into the future.