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.
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