Belleek Pottery is a grand, imposing building standing majestic at the entrance to Belleek village and overlooking Lough Erne. Behind the great white doors lies a history of craftsmanship which has earned admirers all over the globe. It is a welcome sight for the many thousands of visitors who travel great distances each year to experience Belleek for themselves and purchase authentic Irish gifts.
We began our tour of the Belleek Heritage Trail last time at one of the village’s oldest buildings, No. 8 The Thatch. Belleek Pottery is just ever so slightly younger and No.1 on the trail.
When you first enter the visitor centre you get a feel for just how special the output of this stately enterprise is. Just inside the door the International Centrepiece stands opulent, encased behind glass and 28 inches tall. This elaborate creation is the most expensive piece ever made by Belleek Pottery and brought its designers to the attention of the world at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 where it was awarded the prestigious gold medal. The centrepiece represents everything that Belleek stands for – Irish heritage, craftsmanship and beauty.
The Belleek story began in 1849 when a man named John Caldwell Bloomfield returned from his travels to take up his inheritance of the family seat at *Castle Caldwell. Although a rather large estate, which at the time encompassed Belleek village, the heir found it to be struggling in the grip of the famine and his tenants dying or emigrating in staggering numbers. So in his new position, he set about making improvements to the estate and planning to find a way to create employment for people in the area
According to John B. Cunningham in his 1980 book **’Castle Caldwell and its Families’ by the time Bloomfield came up with the idea for Belleek Pottery he was somewhat the serial entrepreneur with a string of failed enterprises behind him. Among his short lived businesses in the Belleek area were a boot and shoe manufacture, a passenger steam boat, a cement company and an iron mine.
As an amateur mineralogist and clearly a very determined man, Bloomfield ordered a geological survey after he had noticed an unusually brilliant gleam to his estate’s cottages (his initial inquiries had found that the lime whitewash the tenants used was mixed with other substances found in the ground). One can imagine his excitement when it was discovered that all the essential ingredients for china making: feldspar, kaolin, flint and shale were abundant. He believed that Belleek was a suitable location for a pottery works of significance.
At that time, the Caldwell Estate was not complete with vast wealth and this ambitious project would require considerable financial backing and expertise. Two men were key in solving this; David McBirney, a business man in Dublin to provide the funding; and Robert Williams Armstrong, an architect and ceramics expert who would take on the position of manager and creative director.
It was to be a monumental project which would involve lobbying for an extension of the railway to Belleek, so coal could be transported for firing the kilns; recruitment of men with specialist skills from the pottery districts of Northern England to work alongside and train local people; construction of houses to accommodate the new arrivals and their families; harnessing the power of the Erne’s strong current with a brand new mill wheel; And of course, a grand new building befitting a world class pottery works which was to be designed by Mr Armstrong.
The new company was founded in 1857 and the foundation stone for the new building was laid in 1858. It would have taken a number of years to construct a stone cut building the size of Belleek Pottery, but nobody knows the exact date of completion. Local lore tells that during the construction a builder fell from a ladder into a soft cushion of muck, as he had suffered no harm, he was duly handed a glass of whiskey by Mr Armstrong and sent back up the ladder to get on with his day’s work. HR departments and Health and Safety at Work were not heard tell of in 1858.
Some years later, Mr Bloomfield clearly was very proud of his achievement; writing in the Journal of the Society of Arts in 1883 he said:
“I also called attention to the fact that near a quarter of a century has elapsed since on a hill in Fermanagh, I first found Kaolin and Feldspar and then and there registered a vow that I would, if I lived, have a china manufacture in the village of Belleek, one of the poorest hamlets in Ireland, filled with ragged children, whose maximum art lay in the making of mud pies in the streets. I had but to call attention to the fact that the shirtless brats then apprenticed and commencing manufacturing life by turning the jigger, were now artisans in broadcloth and receiving wages up to £3.10s per week”.
‘Castle Caldwell and its Families’, John B Cunningham, 1980.
Now in 2015, local people still arrive early each morning to begin their day in the most stately of workplaces designing, creating and promoting Irish craft to the world. The old mill wheel is long since gone, the trains no longer arrive into Belleek station and the kilns don’t require coal for their heat; nevertheless the process of production remains largely the same. If you take the tour you will see intricate Belleek baskets being woven out of Parian clay and decorated with shamrocks and dainty flowers just as they were 115 years ago when preparations were being made for the Paris Exhibition.
Although their exact recipe is a closely guarded secret, the guys at Belleek are not precious about allowing visitors to have a close look at how their Parian China is produced. On the tour you will see mould making, fettling, flower and basket creation, painting and finishing. You may even be invited to paint a piece or smash a less than perfect finished item (there is a rigorous inspection process whereby any piece of Belleek China with the smallest flaw is destroyed).
Fettling is a process of preparing the piece for firing in the kiln. It is a time consuming process requiring great skill to carefully go over the embossed pattern smoothing edges and seams. It is also during this process that essential parts such as handles and spouts are attached. Pictured above is a craftsman working on a Daisy Pitcher.
Six Belleek Claddagh Mugs having been prepared are left to completely dry before being fired in one of the many great kilns. When you take your morning tea from a Belleek mug, you know that it has been individually created with the great care and attention of craftspeople dedicated to their profession.
Apprentices train for up to four years to master the craft of Belleek basket making.
In his 1974 book Belleek the Complete Collectors Guide
, Richard K Degenhardt said of the Belleek basket “Each piece is a testominy to the skill and artistry of its creator; each reflects the meticulous care required in its firing; each represents the talent of its decorator“.
The craftswoman pictured above is creating this delicate Rose bud basket.
Since 2003 the Belleek Living range successfully marries the old with the new by adapting traditional designs to suit contemporary tastes.
Handcrafted flowers fashioned in the traditional way decorate pieces that don’t look out of place in a modern home.
Beautiful hues give colour to the ivory coloured parian china.
A personalized Shamrock Mug has a name added in beautiful script in keeping with the traditional basket weave pattern.
The Belleek Pottery tour lasts around 35 minutes and there is a tearoom, museum with audio visual and shop.
The museum in the Visitor Centre is well worth a look with displays of pieces from the earliest days when utilitarian earthenware was the main product to the very first forays into highly decorative parian pieces. Look out for the beautiful highly decorated mirror that was exhibited along with the International Centrepiece at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.
Aim to give yourself enough time to wander through the museum, take the tour and enjoy a pot of tea and snack in the tearoom, all served on Belleek China of course.
And don’t forget to call and say hello to us at Gilmartin’s Craft Shop afterwards. We are just around the corner from Belleek Pottery.
Those of you with children will be pleased to learn that the little ones are welcome on the pottery tour and even get to go free.
JAN-FEB: Weekdays 9am-5.30pm
(closed Sat & Sun)
MAR-JUN: Weekdays 9am-5.30pm
(Sat: 10am-5.30pm; Sun: 2pm-5.30pm)
JUL-SEPT: Weekdays 9am-6pm
(Sat: 10am-6pm; Sun: 12.00pm-5.30pm)
OCT-DEC: Weekdays 9am-5.30pm
(Sat: 10am-5.30pm; Sun: 2.00pm-5.00pm)
* Castle Caldwell exists today as a public forest park and castle ruins 5 miles from Belleek Village. The best time to visit is in late spring when carpets of bluebells cover the forest floor.
**Unfortunately John B. Cunningham’s excellent book “Castle Caldwell and its Families” is out of print and I cannot find it listed for sale on the Internet. If you do know of a website with this book listed let me know in the comments and I will provide a link.
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