The City of Galway lies at the mouth of the River Corrib on the north-eastern shore of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. The site of the present-day city has long been an important and strategic crossing point on the river, linking Lough Corrib to the Atlantic.
Galway developed from an Anglo-Norman settlement established on the east bank of the river by the de Burghs in the early thirteenth century. By the early fourteenth century, a compact town, enclosed by a curtain wall, was beginning to flourish as a result of trade.
A charter granted by King Richard III, in 1484, empowered Galwegians to elect their own mayor and bailiffs. This released Galway from the grip of the de Burghs, and cleared the way for the rise to power of the ‘Tribes of Galway’. A sustained period of prosperity followed under the leadership of these fourteen merchant families: Athy, Blake, Bodkin, Browne, Darcy, Deane, Ffont, Ffrench, Joyce, Kirwan, Lynch, Martin, Morris and Skerrett.
One such tribesman was Seán an tSalainn Ffrench(‘John of the Salt’) who served as Mayor of Galway from 1538 to 1539. He earned his nickname because of the wealth he accrued as a merchant (salt was a valuable commodity). Four of his sons also served as mayors.
Over time many of these families established country houses, outside of the old town. Glenlo Abbey House was one such house; others in the vicinity include Dangan House (Martins), Menlo Castle (Blakes) and Ross House (Martins).
The five-bay, two-storey detached house with its grand entrance flight of steps was built in 1740 by the Ffrenches.
The Ffrenches were an Anglo-Norman family who first settled in Ireland in Co. Wexford and from there gradually spread to other parts of the island. The family first arrived in Galway in the early fifteenth century. It is said that the family descend from Sir Maximilian Ffrench, the first of the name, whose descendants accompanied their kinsman, William the Conqueror, into England and fought at the Battle of Hastings.
The house was originally known as Kentfield House, before becoming Glenlow or Glenloe House, deriving from the Irish Glean Locha, meaning ‘Glen of the Lake’.
The adjacent Abbey was constructed in the 1790s as a private church for the family but was not completed and never consecrated. It is typical of eighteenth-century Church of Ireland chapels, which are often found on large demesnes.
In 1846, the house and surrounding 138-acre estate were put up for sale, being described as an “admirable and unique mansion, wanting scarcely anything that art or taste can suggest” and as having “every accommodation a family of distinction can desire, in which are included, three Reception rooms, nine Bed Chambers, Closets, Halls, Corridors, Cellars, Kitchen Pantry, Laundry, Servants Hall and sleeping rooms, Dairy, Turf and Coal Lock-up Houses, with very appropriate and well-built offices, Stewarts’ Apartments Garden, Farm Yard”. It was eventually purchased by the Blakes, another of Galway’s illustrious tribal families. In 1897, the estate was purchased by the Palmers who remained there for the following 90 years.
In the 1980s the house and estate were again sold, this time to the Bourke family who lovingly restored the house and converted it into a hotel.
In the 1990s, two original carriages from the Orient Express were purchased and placed on the grounds of Glenlo Abbey Hotel. Dating from 1927 these carriages served on the Paris to Istanbul to St. Petersburg route; one of the pair was used in the making of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Today serving as the Pullman Restaurant, the carriages offer a unique dining experience.