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Ballinasloe, County Galway – Historical Tales

Belle Bilton, the dancing gal who captured the heart of the 4th Earl of Clancarty.

The stories of the Earls of Clancarty (who liked UFOs, dancing girls and redrawing the map of Europe), as well as a prominent Australian photographer, a Hollywood star from the 1930s, the battle of Aughrim and one of Europe’s oldest fairs. Extracted from Past Tracks, with Irish translations by Jack O’Driscoll.

 

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THE DANCING GIRL & THE UFOLOGIST

Now part of St Joseph’s College, Garbally Court was built for a French Huguenot family called Trench, who became the Earls of Clancarty. William Le Poer Trench, the 5th Earl, created a great sensation in 1889 when he married Belle Bilton, a music hall dancer. His father tried to have the marriage declared void. When he failed, he sold off much of the family estate. The 8th Earl of Clancarty was a well-known eccentric who believed in UFOs and proposed that the Earth has a hollow centre, accessible via tunnels at the North and South poles.

 

THE BALLINASLOE FAIR

Ballinasloe is home to one of Europe’s oldest fairs. Held every October, it was the biggest event in Ireland for the exchange of cattle and sheep. Sales peaked in 1856 when 20,000 cattle and 99,658 sheep were sold; many of the animals were carried east on the newly arrived railway. Horses were also sold in abundance as army agents from Russia, Prussia and France came to buy cavalry horses, draught horses and ponies for their baggage trains. Up to 6,000 horses were known to change hands in a single day. (Bear in mind that 20,000 horses were killed or wounded at the Battle of Waterloo.) The arrival of the car, the tractor and the tank gradually reduced the influence of the horse but the fair continues to be a major annual event.

 

A DOUBLE LIFE

George Brent of Ballinasloe (with Olivia de Havilland) was one of the great movie stars of his generation. From an illustration by Derry Dillon, extracted from Past Tracks (2021).

George Brent was one of the best-known actors of the 1930s and 1940s, sharing the screen with stars like Bette Davis (with whom he had a lengthy romance), Olivia de Havilland, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney. The debonair star actually started life as George Patrick Nolan, the son of a shopkeeper from Ballinasloe, where he was born in 1904.  He emigrated to the US in 1915, aged eleven, and moved into theatre before heading west to Hollywood where he made his film debut with Warner Brothers in 1931. A legend later developed that Brent had returned home during the War of Independence where, because of his physique, he was recruited as a double for Michael Collins, Ireland’s most wanted revolutionary.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY PIONEER

Born in Ballinasloe in the 1840s, Emily O’Shannessy was a pioneering professional portrait photographer. Having emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, as a child, she went into partnership with Henry Johnstone, Melbourne’s foremost photographer, in 1864. Renowned for its realism, the Johnstone and O’Shannessy Studio offered everything from low-cost ‘cartes-de-visite’ portraits to full-scale photographs. Sitters included Toby Barton, Australia’s first Prime Minister, and Prince Alfred, the first royal to visit Australia. Emily married Galway-born photographer George Hasler; their daughter Muriel Binney was a successful artist who also invented a leg prosthesis and a portable shoe-stand.

 

THE BATTLE OF AUGHRIM

Richard Clancarty, 2nd Earl of Clancarty.

A grassy field just outside Ballinasloe marks the site of the bloodiest battle in recent Irish history. Fought in 1691, Aughrim ended the dream for those seeking to re-establish Ireland as a Catholic state. Instead, at least 4,000 men lay dead, mostly Catholic Jacobites, including a substantial number of gentry-born officers. The Jacobites were actually winning the battle until a cannonball slammed through the air and killed the Marquis de Saint-Ruhe, their French-born commander. In the ensuing decades, numerous people claimed to have seen lights dancing around a whitethorn bush that grew by the spot where Saint-Ruhe died.

 

THE MAN WHO REDREW EUROPE

Richard Le Poer Trench, 2nd Earl of Clancarty, became Britain’s Ambassador to The Hague in 1813. Over the next two years, the Ballinasloe-born aristocrat was one of the key negotiators of the Congress of Vienna, a conference that sought to end the 25 years of bloodshed that had engulfed Europe since the French Revolution. The plan was to resize Europe’s main powers to make everything more balanced. As well as resolving several critical border disputes, Lord Clancarty helped to create the present-day states of Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

 

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BÉAL ÁTHA NA SLUAIGHE (Translations by Jack O’Driscoll)

 

AN CAILÍN RINCE AGUS AN tÚFÓLAÍ

Sa lá atá inniu ann is cuid de Choláiste Naomh Sheosaimh é Garbally Court, ach is le haghaidh teaghlach Úgónach dar shloinne Trench a tógadh an chéad lá é, teaghlach a ndéanfaí Iarlaí Clancarty díobh tráth ní b’fhaide anonn. William Le Poer Trench, an 5ú hIarla, thóg sé raic mhór in 1889 nuair a phós sé Belle Bilton, rinceoir halla ceoil. D’fhéach a athair leis an bpósadh a chur ar neamhní. Nuair a theip air sin, ní dhéanfadh aon ní é gan cuid mhaith den eastát a dhíol, rud a rinne sé. Bhí sé amuigh ar an 8ú hIarla Clancarty gurbh é an giolla greannmhar é: ghéill sé do Réid Eitilte Gan Aithint (úfónna) agus bhí sé den tuairim gur croíleacan toll atá ag an domhan seo againne agus gur féidir dul ann trí tholláin ag na Poil Thuaidh agus Theas.

 

AONACH BHÉAL ÁTHA NA SLUAIGHE

Is i mBéal Átha na Sluaighe a bhíonn ceann de na haonaigh is sine san Eoraip ar siúl. I mí Dheireadh Fómhair a bhíonn sé agus bhí sé riamh anall ar an imeacht ba mhó in Éirinn ó thaobh trádáil eallaigh agus caorach de. Ba í an bhliain 1856 an bhliain ba mhó a raibh ceannach ar bheithígh; díoladh 20,000 beithíoch eallaigh agus 99,658 caora; ar an iarnród nuathagtha a tugadh soir cuid mhór de na hainmhithe sin. Bhí díol as cuimse ar na capaill: tháinig mórán gníomhairí thar ceann airm na Rúise, na Prúise agus na Fraince agus iad sa tóir ar chapaill mharcshlua, capaill oibre agus capaillíní ualaigh. Is amhlaidh a díoladh suas le 6000 capall in aghaidh an lae (Cuimhnigh gur fágadh 20,000 capall ar pháirc an áir i ndiaidh Chath Waterloo, idir chapaill bhásaithe agus chapaill ghortaithe). De réir a chéile, mhaolaigh ar thábhacht na gcapall ar theacht ar an bhfód don ghluaisteán, don tarracóir agus don tanc. Dá mba mhaolaigh féin, níor mhaolaigh ar thábhacht an aonaigh. Is mórócáid bhliantúil é go fóill.

 

AN COILEÁNACH INA STEILLBHEATHA

Bhí George Brent ar na haisteoirí ba mhó cáil sna 1930idí agus na 1940idí. Ba mhinic é le feiceáil ar an scáileán i dteannta réaltaí ar nós Bette Davis (bhí cumann eatarthu ar feadh i bhfad), Olivia de Havilland, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart agus James Cagney. An réalta dhóighiúil dhea-chumtha seo, ba é George Patrick Nolan a ainm i dtús a shaoil. Ba mhac siopadóra as Baile Átha na Sluaighe é, agus is ann a rugadh é in 1904. Chuaigh sé ar imirce go dtí na Stáit Aontaithe in 1915 in aois a 11 dó agus thug seal ar an ardán sular scaoil sé faoi Hollywood. Is ann a rinne sé a chéad scannán le Warner Brothers in 1931. De réir an tseanchais, d’fhill sé abhaile le linn Chogadh na Saoirse agus earcaíodh é mar leathchúpla Mhíchíl Uí Choileáin toisc dealramh a bheith aige leis an bhFear Mór, tráth a bhí seisean ar an reibiliúnach ba mhó in Éirinn a raibh tóir air.

 

CEANNRÓDAÍ GRIANGHRAFADÓIREACHTA

I mBéal Átha na Sluaighe sna 1840idí a rugadh Emily O’Shannessy, agus ba  ghrianghrafadóir gairmiúil portráide ceannródaíoch í. Chuaigh sí ar imirce go dtí Melbourne na hAstráile agus í óg, agus in 1864 chuaigh sí i gcomhpháirtíocht le Henry Johnstone, an grianghrafadóir ba mhó le rá in Melbourne. Chuir siad portráidí de gach sórt ar fáil, idir phortráidí ‘cartes-de-visite’ ar bheagán costais agus phortráidí lánscála. Bhí cáil ar Stiúideo Johnstone agus O’Shannessy as gléine a macasamhlacha. I measc na ndaoine ar ghlac siad pictiúr díobh bhí Toby Barton, céad phríomh-aire na hAstráile agus an Prionsa Albert, an chéad duine de rítheaghlach Shasana a thug cuairt ar an Astráil. Phós Emily grianghrafadóir de bhunadh na Gaillimhe, George Hasler; d’éireodh go han-mhaith lena n-iníon, Muriel Binney, mar ealaíontóir, agus thionscnódh sí próistéis coise mar aon le seastán bróg iniompartha.

 

BRISEADH EACHROMA

Tá páirc fhéarmhar díreach lasmuigh de Bhéal Átha na Sluaighe agus is ann a troideadh an cath ab fhuiltí dar tharla sna céadta deireanacha in Éirinn. Sa bhliain 1691 a tharla Briseadh Eachroma agus mhúch sé an dóchas iontu siúd arbh é a bhfís stát Caitliceach a athbhunú in Éirinn. Ba é toradh an chatha 4,000 fear fágtha sínte marbh, Seacaibítigh Chaitliceacha a bhformhór, agus líon mór oifigeach den uasaicme ina measc. Le fírinne, is ag na Seacaibítigh a bhí an lámh in uachtar sa chath go dtí gur tháinig caor ordanáis ag réabadh léi tríd an aeir gur bhain an ceann den Mharcas de Saint-Ruhe, Francach ar cheannasaí na Seacaibíteach é. Sna blianta a lean, déarfadh mórán go bhfaca siad gléshoilse ag rince timpeall na sceiche gile a d’fhás san áit inar bhásaigh Saint-Ruhe.

 

AN FEAR A CHUIR ATHCHLÓ AR AN EORAIP

Ba é Richard Le Poer Trench, an 2ra hIarla Clancarty, Ambasadóir na Breataine chun na Háige in 1813. I gcaitheamh an dá bhliain a lean, bhí an t-uasal seo as Béal Átha na Sluaighe ar na hidirbheartaithe ba thábhachtaí ag Comhdháil Vín, comhdháil arbh é ab aidhm di deireadh a chur leis na 25 bliain de dhoirteadh fola a bhí imithe thart san Eoraip ó bhí Réabhlóid na Fraince ann. Is é a bhí beartaithe acu mórchumhachtaí na hEorpa a athchóiriú le go mbeadh cothromaíocht níos fearr eatarthu. Anuas ar na mórchoimhlintí i dtaobh teorainneacha a réiteach, ba é an Tiarna Clancarty a chuidigh le Lucsamburg agus an Ísiltír a chur ar bun faoi mar atá siad inniu.