The Belle of Ballinasloe

Author Nuala O'Connor with her new book, Becoming Bella. “I’d love to have done more of Belle in Ballinasloe, but the real juice of the story was how she got here,” says Nuala. Photo: Hany Marzouk.
Author Nuala O'Connor with her new book, Becoming Bella. “I’d love to have done more of Belle in Ballinasloe, but the real juice of the story was how she got here,” says Nuala. Photo: Hany Marzouk.

Lifestyle – A music-hall star in Victorian-era London who ended her days in County Galway is the subject of a new book of historic fiction. Judy Murphy meets the author Nuala O’Connor.

When you’ve lived with someone for more than three years and have become increasingly attached to them during the time, it can be tough letting them go.  Novelist Nuala O’Connor felt that sense of loneliness when sent the final draft of her latest book, Becoming Belle, to its publishers.

It’s based on four tumultuous years in the life of Isabelle (Belle) Bilton, a music-hall star in Victorian London who ended her days in Ballinasloe as the Countess of Clancarty and is buried in the grounds of the town’s St John’s Church.

It’s an extraordinary story, beautifully told by Nuala who first encountered Belle four years ago, through an arts collective she’s involved with in Ballinasloe.

The diocesan secondary school, Garbally College, was the theme of a show they were working on. Most of the group are visual artists, but Nuala (who also writes as Nuala Ní Chonchúir) is a poet, short-story-writer and novelist, so she had to take a different approach. As she began researching the history of Garbally and its previous residents, the Le Poer-Trench family, she came across Belle Bilton and was hooked.

Here was a woman who’d became a London music-hall star at 19 and shortly after, had had a child outside marriage – a big no-no in Victorian times. But instead of ending up on the streets, as so many in her situation did, Belle went on to marry William Le Poer Trench, Viscount Dunlo, and moved to Ballinasloe where the couple had “five children and were a tight unit”, according to Nuala. Belle died from cancer, on New Year’s Eve, 1906, aged just 39.

Dublin-born Nuala, who has previously journeyed into historic fiction with Miss Emily, based on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish-born maid, Ada, was smitten by Belle, a woman who thrived, despite breaking the strict rules of Victorian England.

In some ways, there were resonances with her own life. Born into a very Catholic family, Nuala, too, had a child outside marriage in her early 20s, while studying at Trinity, and despite suggestions that she give him up for adoption, Nuala held firm. Cúán is now 24, older brother to Finn and Juno.

Our interview takes place in their warm, quirkily decorated Ballinasloe home, filled with art and eclectic pottery as well as a lively rescue dog, which her husband Finbarr is tasked with keeping under control – a tough task.

After the Garbally project, Nuala knew she wanted to write about Belle, focusing on one period in her life.

“I decided to write about how she got from one place to another; from being a music-hall actress to Countess of Clancarty, looking at those four years,” she explains.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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