Guide to Belleek

The village of Belleek has become over the years a place of worldwide renown, principally due to the famous Parian China. It has the distinction of meriting the word Belleek in the Webster Dictionary. In compiling the script to be used in a walking tour of the village and its surroundings care needs to be exercised not to over elaborate on the history either military or political. Several distinguished authors have produced excellent publications that deal with the above matters; these are available to students interested in those periods.

        The first important settlement in the district was a pre-Christian Rath on the hill overlooking the River Erne and the ford that gives the place its name. Beal Leice meaning the Flag Stone Ford. The hill still bears the name Rath More = The Rig Rath. In that era Lough Erne was a natural division between too ancient Irish Kingdoms. On the north of the river was the Kingdom of Mulleek meaning the Central Hollow. It stretched from Pettigoe and the Boa Island to the modern border with Donegal. In this Kingdom were a number of Raths, some small, others large, the principal one being Rath More.

        Raths were a man made circular structure of clay topped by a wickerwork fence. In the enclosure were houses built in the same way as the fence. The Rath was not as we might think a fort; rather it was a secure enclosure to protect at night the cattle and other livestock from the many wild animals who roamed the countryside. On the south of the Erne was the other ancient Kingdom of Toura meaning the Kingdom of the Rath People. It stretched from the Barr of Wealt to near the coast at Ballyshannon. There was no conflict in those times between the two Kingdoms, wealth was measured in cattle and there was plenty of grazing for the livestock.

        Looking at a map of Fermanagh one can see how the Flag Stone Ford was of great importance. It was the first place that the Erne could be crossed west of Enniskillen. From the broad lough until the Erne entered the Atlantic Ocean four miles away at Ballyshannon there were only three fordable places. The one at Belleek being the best and most assessable. Once the area became of military importance to rival factions the situation changed completely. A castle was built near the ford and a fortress was constructed on Cloghore Hill directly above the ford. The original fort was of wood and destroyed and rebuilt as a result of numerous battles fought in the area. The present stone structure as built by General Lake in 1790 as was a permanent stone bridge that replaced the ford.

        It must be remembered that a residential village was not constructed until the seventeenth century following the Plantation of Ulster. The Caldwell family of Castle Caldwell were the landlords of the district, the village would have been built to house the Yeomen who were under the control of the Caldwell’s. The Vikings were one of the first foreign invaders into the Erne region. They arrived at the coast near Ballyshannon and as the river could not be navigated by boat they took their vessels over land to Belleek where they were launched again on the Erne waters. From here they traveled inland to plunder and rob the many Christian Monasteries in Fermanagh.

        Many villages on these islands have been described in prose and poetry as sleepy quiet places. The natural silence being broken by the noise of the domestic stock and forms of wild life. The mooing of cattle, the early morning call of the rooster, the braying of a donkey, the barking of dogs and the song of the many birds including the call of the hooper swans and of the cuckoo and corn crake. Man made sounds would have come from the peel of a church bell, the ring of the hammer striking the anvil of the blacksmith or the sledge breaking stones in a quarry.

        Belleek was somewhat different, it had special sounds of it’s own. The River Erne in bygone days had a voice a distinct voice of it’s own. The river rises in County Cavan over 60 miles to the south east, it forms it’s first lake in the east of Fermanagh, changes to a river that encircles the island town of Enniskillen, From there it becomes a great broad lake and slowly the water makes it way to Belleek. From the Erne enters County Fermanagh until it departs and enters Donegal at Belleek it only has a drop of two feet for a distance of over 40 miles. At this point the massive volume of water thundered over the once famous Belleek water falls, from there until it reached the Atlantic at Ballyshannon a distance of four miles it cascaded through rocky ravines and over more water falls that tested the endurance of the numerous salmon and trout making their way upstream to the spawning beds of the great lake. From Belleek to the estuary at Ballyshannon the water fell 150 feet.

        It was the large volume of water that gave the Erne this special Voice that first lost it’s its sound when the falls were blasted into history in 1880 in an effort to relieve the flooding in the upper regions of Fermanagh. The final destruction took place in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s with the construction of two hydroelectric generating stations between Belleek and Ballyshannon. Until then it had been one of the most famous rivers in Europe for salmon and trout fishing and for its eels.

        No more can be heard the noise of the ratchet of a big brass reel as a fisherman played a salmon with his split cane rod. These noises are now no more and the place is the poorer of it.

        Going back to the nineteenth century the invention of the steam engine brought a major change to Belleek and to Lough Erne. Paddle steamers were introduced to the lake and goods and passenger were carried between Belleek and Enniskillen. A railway was constructed along the north shore and the famous pottery was built by John Bloomfield of Castle Caldwell. Eventually the steamers gave way to the railway and it in turn gave way to road transport. The pottery brought much need employment; houses were built to accommodate the workers. Rathmore Terrace became the home for the English Potters who came to teach the skill to the locals. It became known as the English Row. Another set of houses were built for the locals, it was Hawthorne Row and became known as the Irish Row.

        In the early 1900’s the first public housing scheme was started, this took the form of about 30 houses known as labourers cottages. Many of these house still survived in a modernized from. The original Belleek village has undergone considerable change, where once it stood on it’s own, new housing developments have taken place with the result that the once population of a few hundred has expanded to over two thousand for the area that was once the ancient Kingdom Of Mulleek and part of the Kingdom of Toura.

        As locals can tell you, during World War 11 Lough Erne was a most important base for the flying boats that provided protection from the dreaded U-boats for the shipping convoys in the Atlantic Ocean. That portion of the neutral Irish Free State territory from Belleek to Ballyshannon was used by the flying boats and was known as ‘The Donegal Corridor’.

        A Fermanagh comedian once boasted that his home county is the only county in Ireland that rhymes with BANANA. This admittedly impressive plaudit aside, the area is best known for its waterways, though the high ground surrounding the rugged borderland near villages like Roslea and Belcoo is every bit as impressive as the Erne. Fermanagh people pride themselves on being a perfectly distilled blend of the extremes of character they find themselves surrounded by. Belfast cockiness, Derry city delusions of grandeur and Cavan thriftiness, are the malts blended to form the rounded welcoming, humorous brew that is the people of the Erne county.

 

There is not much written information about the Viking period and the effect that it had on Belleek. It is known that they landed at Ballyshannon and as it was not possible to navigate the Erne river form there to Belleek they moved their long boats over land and then launched them again into the Erne at Corry.  In the year 924 one raiding party spent the winter at the river which was known as Caol Uisce the Gaelic for narrow waters. From there they sailed into the Broad Lough were they plundered the Abbey’s at Devenish, White Island and Inismacsaint.

 

 Belleek when translated into the Gaelic is Beal Liece which means the Flag Stone Ford. This ford was the first crossing point over the Erne west of Enniskillen a distance of 25 miles. The first Fort on the hill overlooking the village was built by Gilbert de Costella in the year 1211, it was a wooden structure and it was destroyed by fire in an attack in 1212.  Forty years later the Normans built a replacement fort but it was destroyed by the O’Donnells about 1252.

 

As the flag stone ford increased in importance many battles were fought there as it was the principal gate way between Ulster and Connaght. In 1580 the Fermanagh Maguires were defeated at the Battle of Belleek. The Plantation of Ulster in the early 1600’s brought an end to the old Gaelic way of life; things were never to be the same again. The Cromwellian period from 1649 onwards ensured the destruction of the Abbeys and other church property.

 

   Remains of the old stone fort still stand on the site to this day. ( 2008)  It was built about 1790 by the English General Lake, it was a star fort and known as “Belleek Redoubt”. A stone bridge replaced the earlier wooden structures and it had gates of iron at its south end which was guarded by Yeomen. The original village was designed and built by the Caldwell family who wanted to give it the English sounding name of Wellsboro. Goods for Fermanagh were shipped into the Port at Ballyshannon; from there they were transported over land to the quay at Corry, Belleek. From there paddle steamers and other vessels brought them to Enniskillen and other parts of Fermanagh. An ordinance survey taken about the 1830’s tells us that the Erne above the waterfalls was very deep and about 150 yards wide. As there was an abundance of turbary in the area large quantities of turf were shipped to Enniskillen. This created a lot of employment in the area.

 

 There were two mills below the falls the were owned by the Donaldson and Stephan’s families. One was a tuck mill, the other a corn mill. They were powered by twelve foot diameter wooden mill wheels. The river was one of the best fishing rivers in Europe and anglers came from England and other countries to fish. The average annual catch of salmon was over 60 tons with an equal tonnage of eels being netted.

 

 The village was described by a visiting fisherman in the mid 1800’s as being neither cleaner or tidier than many other Irish villages, but is more pretty and picturesque than most. The only two story building was the thatched hotel owned by the Johnston family. Before the founding of the Royal Irish Constabulary about 1835 the area was policed by one constable and five sub-constables, the local magistrate sat twice each month to deal with petty crime. Until then there were no dispensaries or provision for the poor. When the courthouse, police barracks and dispensary was built about 1835 the first resident medical officer was Dr. William Irvine. Yet seldom was a beggar refused relief from even the poorest cotter. The population was about 280 and the average family had about five members.

 

It could be imagined what kind of village Belleek would have been without the Pottery or the railway. The founder of Belleek Pottery – John Caldwell Bloomfield read a paper to the Society of Arts, titled, “The Development of Irish Industries”. He described the village as one of the poorest in Ireland filled with ragged children’ who’s maximum of art lay in the making of mud pies in the street. He saw Belleek as a wretched hamlet, inhabited by squalid occupiers of hovels unfit for human life, there only since the use of the tongue and fist, their extent of art a mud pie.

 

The men of the village were unable to emerge beyond their position as a laborer and were still contented with inferior dwellings and dress. There was little employment to be found for either women or men. For women the opportunity of getting a job would have been either very limited. Only the land lord class could employ domestic staff, conditions would not be good and wages poor. Few dressmakers were needed as the people could not afford to have clothes made. Emigration to a foreign land was an option even though this meant that they would never see their families of home land again. Many of those who did emigrate would send money home to help other family member so leave home. The money helped to pay the rent ad to buy food. It was to be in the early 1900’s before most farmers could afford to have a cart. Some young men joined the army and there learned a good trade.

  The Belleek of the 21st century has come along way.