THE BORDER AT BELLEEK
The village of Belleek has been a political border village since 1924. For many centuries it had a border tradition due to the fact that it was situated on the only fordable part of the Erne waterway west of Enniskillen. It was the gateway between Ulster and Connaught and the warring Irish tribes from the provinces vied with each other to have control of the ford from which the village gets its name. Many battles were fought there not only between the native Chieftains but also with the English forces. For some years the Caldwell’s maintained a force of Yeomen in the village.
The Normans under Gilbert de Costelloe built a wooden fort in the 1200’s on the present site where the remains of the stone Star Fort are to be seen, it was built by General Lake following the 1798 rising. The then wooden bridge was replaced by the stone arched bridge at the same time. The Battery building had been occupied by English regiments until after the establishment of the present border in 1924 when it was handed over to the Irish Free State army whose headquarters were in Finner Camp. It is understandable that there was a military tradition in the district for many years.
Many young men from the area joined English regiments and fought in the Boar War. No outstanding events occurred in the area in the early 1900’s. This military tradition continued to a greater extent from 1914 to 1918 when many young men fought in France. Most of them survived to tell the tale but their experiences did have a telling effect on their lives. There is no record locally of any persons losing their lives in either world war.
The founding of Belleek Pottery in 1857, closely followed by the building of the Great Northern Railway had a beneficial effect on Belleek village. The first Erne drainage scheme in 1882 brought much needed employment to the village. Sadly the beautiful and famous water falls were destroyed in the process. As a result of the events outlined there was always a change in the population with new families coming into the area. As a result the village was noted as being a welcoming place where nobody was thought of as being a stranger.
There is not any tradition of local involvement during the period 1916 until the early 1920’s. Then there were several noteworthy events. The last Battle in Belleek took place in 1922 when the Fort was occupied by a Sinn Fein republican group. Under orders from Churchill the Fort was shelled by British artillery units and soon was back in the hands of the English. The villagers left the scene and found refuge with relations in rural areas. A rogue element took the opportunity to rob business premises and were not content to steal stock but also destroyed the account books with evidence of money due to the traders by the raiders.
Sadly one life was lost when the driver of an armoured car was shot and killed by gun fire from the Battery, which was occupied by the republicans. His body remained in the vehicle at Corry cross roads for some time until a truce was arranged and two local ladies recovered the body. On a Sunday morning when most members of the R.I.C. were at church a raid was carried out on the local barracks, after removing all weapons and ammunition the building was set alight. Many years afterwards I spoke to one of the men who took part in the raid. He told me that every thing was brought by road in a commandeered ambulance to the shores of Lough Melvin where it was planned to take it by boat to Co. Leitrim. He told me that the boatman demanded a payment of £25-0-0 before he would make the journey. This would lead one to suspect the patriotism of some of those involved.
Having listened to a fellow pupil at school bragging about his father’s part in the troubles, I, in later years made enquiries from a dependable old timer. From him I learned that only two local men lost their lives, one was shot in Dublin by a jealous husband the other was shot and wounded by a comrade, when they both sought the affections of a young lady. Sadly the wounded man was moved from one safe house to another in Co. Donegal until without medical attention he died a painful death. The aggressor joined the Civil Guards and served far away from home in Co. Cork.
The line of the new border was decided by the existing county boundaries. This meant that the portion of County Fermanagh north of Lough Erne, bounded by Donegal from Belleek to Pettigoe would be isolated from the six counties. Access could only be made by travelling through the Free State or by water. There are about 65 town lands in this portion of Fermanagh. The movement of military or police would be almost impossible. Was this area to be conceded to the new Free State? or could some method be found to have it included in the Six Counties. The River Erne being very wide directly upstream from Belleek made the cost of a new bridge at that point prohibitive and would not solve the problem at Pettigoe. During this time a group of Specials were brought by boat and they commandeered Magheramena Castle former home of the Johnston family and now the residence of the Parish priest – Fr. Lorcan O’Cairain who was a personal friend of both Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.
Behind the scenes influential bodies got to work and a solution found to the problem. A new bridge was constructed at Roscor, 2 miles upstream from Belleek and two bridges constructed, one at each end of the Boa Island, the later by-passed Pettigoe village. At Belleek the border was midway on the old stone arched bridge, from there the road passed through Donegal for about 300 yards to the border point near Corry Cross. Customs Posts were built on each side of the border on main roads. Motor vehicles had to have special passes to cross the border, people on the trains were checked by customs officials, a fully new industry was soon created – this was the smuggling trade and the cute local people found many ways to deceive the Excise men especially where the smuggling of cattle were concerned.
To accommodate pilgrims going to and from Lough Derg the road from Pettigoe was nominated a concession road, whereby vehicles could travel from Free State to Free State provided they did not stop in Northern Ireland. The same rule applied to vehicles travelling across the short portion of road from Belleek to Corry cross. Doctors and clergymen had special passes to travel on second class roads where there were no customs posts. These roads were also patrolled by customs men. Strange to say police from Belleek when going on duty south of the River Erne passed unhindered through the 300 yards of Donegal from the bridge to Corry Cross. As also did local B-Specials and the Home Guard during World War 2. At one time a Constable from Belleek Barracks actually resided across the border in Clyhore as did a British Customs man.
Along the border the boundary line was marked by hedges and streams, in other parts it was just a line on a map. Where I now live the farm has been in the family since about 1870 and two thirds of the land is in Donegal and one third in Fermanagh. Many other local farms are in a similar situation. I could go on for much longer with details of the border at Belleek, but I have chosen to relate to you many unpublished facts that you will find I hope of interest. I am of course happy to answer any questions you may care to ask.
Enniskillen Castle Museum. Saturday 14th November 2009.
By Joe O’Loughlin. Belleek.