The most apt of names
Country Life UK|February 17, 2021
Belle Isle, Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland The home of Lord and Lady Nicholas Hamilton. An 18th-century beauty spot that briefly fell into complete neglect has been restored. John Goodall tells the remarkable story of this island estate, its eccentric owners and its modern revival
John Goodall
BELLE ISLE is a house that perfectly answers its name. It stands in a wonderful situation on the shore of an island at the northern end of Upper Lough Erne. With a busy outline of gables and dominated by a narrow tower, it has a romantic, castle-like air today (Fig 2). Surviving in the heart of this building, however, is a small and relatively modest Georgian house, which was constructed in about 1717 as the centrepiece to an ambitious planned landscape that enjoyed a spell of 18th-century celebrity. The rich and intriguing history of the place was explored by Dr A. P. W. Malcomson, in his account of Belle Isle in the Clogher Record (1998).

On September 4, 1607, the Gaelic Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell set sail from Rathmullan, Co Donegal, in search of Spanish support in their long-running conflict with the English Crown. The so-called Flight of the Earls proved to be a disastrous political miscalculation. James I swiftly declared the estates of the refugee earls forfeit and intensified the process of colonising Ulster with a new Protestant population drawn from England and Scotland.

One of the many beneficiaries of this undertaking was Paul Gore, an Elizabethan soldier of fortune, who was eventually elevated to the dignity of a baronetcy in 1621. He established his seat at Manor Gore in Co Donegal at the heart of the 29,000-acre estate granted to him in 1611. He also received a 1,000-acre property in Co Fermanagh that included the island Ballymacmanus on Lough Erne, the future Belle Isle.

The island took its name from the Macmanus family, who had established their seat here in the Middle Ages. One of their treasures, which was apparently preserved on the island until the 1630s, was the manuscript of the Annals of Ulster that was partly compiled by Cathal Og MacManus or Mac Maghnusa (d. 1498). He later became Vicar- General of Clogher, a cathedral town in neighbouring Co Tyrone that features largely in the story of Belle Isle. By 1622, Sir Paul had built a fortification here—‘a bawn of lime and stone 60 foot square with 2 flankers’— and had leased the property to ‘an English gentleman’ who lived beside the bawn but promised to build a new residence within it.

As this arrangement implies, the Fermanagh property was at first a peripheral possession of the family in geographic terms. Some time after 1705, however, the 4th Baronet, Sir Ralph, a wealthy landowner active in Irish politics, married for the second time, to Elizabeth Ashe. She was the daughter of George Ashe, a tutor to satirist Jonathan Swift at Trinity College, Dublin, who was subsequently appointed to the bishoprics of Cloyne (1695), Clogher (1697) and Derry (1716). It must have been through his father-in-law that Sir Ralph secured the lease of the extensive churchlands of Clogher, possibly as part of a dowry arrangement. That, in turn, presumably explains his decision to shift the focus of his landed interest and establish a residence on Ballymacmanus Island, close to his father-in law at Clogher.

The first documentary evidence for the new habitation comes from a description of Fermanagh in 1718 by one Dolan, soon after the bishop had in fact moved on to Derry. He describes Sir Ralph as having ‘much improved and beautified’ the island with ‘very costly and pleasant buildings and improvements’. Sir Ralph is also described as having renamed it Belle Isle.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM COUNTRY LIFE UKView All

THE CAPITAL ACCORDING TO... Ruth Rogers

The co-founder of the River Café talks to Flora Watkins about Chelsea, bikes and keeping her business afloat

3 mins read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

‘A noble mansion'

Margam Park, Neath Port Talbot, part II A country park managed by Neath Port Talbot Council In the second of two articles, David Robinson looks at the development of Margam from the late 18th century, with the building of a magnificent orangery and the creation of an outstanding Picturesque house in the 1830s

8 mins read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

Talk to the countryside

THE NFU is urging all Government departments to connect with the countryside, as a Defra report shows many policies don’t work for rural communities. Published in March, Rural proofing in England examines ‘Government policies closely from a rural perspective’, looking at how much they consider the countryside’s needs and constraints, and creating ‘a baseline for evaluating [Government] performance over time,’ according to Rural Affairs and Biosecurity Minister John Gardiner.

1 min read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

London's little Italy

Maida Vale took its name from a small Italian town and an even smaller pub, so it’s the perfect place to celebrate the end of lockdown, says Carla Passino

5 mins read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

My favourite painting - Arlene Blankers

Studies of the Virgin and Child with the Infant Baptist by Giorgio Gandini del Grano

2 mins read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

April at a glance

We’re all guilty of ignoring what’s on our doorstep, so we’ve made it easier for you. Here’s what’s happening this month

1 min read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

Easter, but not as we know it

WHAT a peculiar Easter! Six of us eating outside, whatever the weather, ensconced under a gazebo pressed into service against the rain, with a brazier blazing beside it. The simplest of menus, but the huge joy of once again eating with others—a powerful reminder of the importance of sitting around a table and being with friends and family.

2 mins read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

Come out, wherever you are

THE Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA) is calling for an extra Bank Holiday this year, in September, after last week’s release of dismal 2020 figures. Over the past 14 months, most visitor sites have been closed for every Bank Holiday and there were 45.4 million total visits to ALVA’s top 294 sites in 2020, down 70% compared with 2019’s 151.3 million.

1 min read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

A green space

GREENWICH PARK, SE10

1 min read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021

All Things Bright And Beautiful

Before the Industrial Revolution, London was awash with wildflowers. Jack Watkins traces their history and finds that, if given a chance, these opportunistic plants may still return

5 mins read
Country Life UK
April 07, 2021