We found the castle quickly and checked into room 31.  The we headed off to the town’s main street for a casual dinner at a bar.  The world seemed better after a pint and a burger.  By the time we’d returned, the main staircase leading up to our bedroom had been lit with pillar candles all along the steps, giving the whole place an elegant, medieval feel.  That impression might’ve been emphasized by the full suit of armor standing in the window on the landing, or maybe the ornate chandelier above us, or possibly the wood panelling everywhere.

We still didn’t know anything about the castle, but we were starting to put together the details.  A portrait hung of a man in a sort of olden-daysie hunting outfit, a tunic with a belt.  But this was new–maybe the castle’s current owner?  As we walked out to gather our bags, there he was in the flesh, now garbed in a football jersey.

Turns out he wasn’t exactly descended from an earl.  His father,now deceased, had purchased the place in the sixties for a few thousand pounds.  It had been sitting derelict since tuberculosis was cured — its previous use had been as a sanatorium.  

I learned all this and much more about Belleek Castle from my tour guide, Karen.  I joined an Italian mother/daughter pair for an hour’s walk through of the whole structure.  Among the nuggets of information I pieced together from Karen, who’d only just finished school and was on her third day as a tour guide, and her valiant efforts to teach us a bit about the house and its wildly various contents.  This is where I really started to understand the Celtic knot that is Irish history, with the cords of its stories of the past constantly being pulled through a loop into today and then diving back and reconnecting with another once-upon-a-time.

So here are a few bits of yarn:

Belleek Castle was built by and Englishman called Knox in the 1830s over the ruins of a medieval castle.  When, a decade or so later, the potato famine decimated Ireland, this landlord offered work to the men of the town in exchange for a small wage and a bowl of “Indian Meal” each day.  He had them building a lovely stone wall near the River Moy on the edge of the property in a spot where he and his family liked to picnic.  The wall separated nothing from nothing else, enclosed not a bit of land, and actually served no purpose whatsoever.  It was just a little pointless public works project that may have saved hundreds of lives in its construction.  It has a sign labeling it “Famine Wall.”  

Afterwards, the family sold its lovely home and it passed through the hands of the County council and was eventually made into a hotel where tourists stay and the Irish marry.  But more than that, it became a monument to its owner and a repository of his eccentric enthusiasms.  ???, whose name changed when he acquired a forged American passport, had loved the sea and worked as a merchant marine, sailing between England and America.  He had “socked away” a wad of extra cash by smuggling nylons to the British after World War II.  He apparently hid them between his ship’s double hull and waitied until after the ship passed through customs to throw the lot overboard to be gathered up by his posse and sold on the black market.

Mr. ?’s enthusiasms included the Spanish Armada, medieval armor and weaponry, and fossils.  He collected antiques during his travels and throu newspaper advertisements  More than one room in the castle is done up as a ship, complete with walls made from wood salvaged from wrecked ships.  A marble sculpture in the bar depicts Hernando Cortez and dates from his lifetime.  My tour took me to the basement to see the armor and weapons in a near-garage-sale style jumble, the highlight of which is a decorated, but functional, French crossbow.

Much of the old lands have been given over to tract housing, but a dark fairy tale woods separates the castle from the rest of the neighborhood and contains trails and signage placed by the county.  

See photos of Belleek Castle and Ballina HERE.