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The Belle of Ballinasloe

Judy Murphy

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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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Connacht Tribune

Homemade Wimbledon is a different bale game!

Francis Farragher

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James Craughwell about to serve over the tape – and the sheep gates – to brother Christopher with mum, Anne, in the background. The family dog Prince is showing a keen interest in taking up the role of ‘ball boy’. The brollies on the deck chairs were actually purchased at the Wimbledon tournament that the Craughwells attended in 2017.

WIMBLEDON mightn’t be happening for the tennis professionals this year due to COVID-19 – but one North Galway family are planning their own version of the tournament.

The younger members of the Craughwell family in Menlough village have had a tradition over the years of lining out their own court on the silage slab that’s available for recreation purposes during the early weeks of the Summer.

The three sons of Jarlath and Anne Craughwell – Christopher, Shane and James – rarely missed the opportunity through the years to ‘get the silage slab ready’ for their own Wimbledon tournament.

“The dimensions of the silage slab are almost exactly the same as a tennis court [78 feet X 36 feet} so back the years we always organised our own games. When the silage was made, then that was always it for another year,” Christopher Craughwell told the Connacht Tribune.

As the lads grew older the summer tennis court hadn’t been used for a few years but in 2020 with the introduction of the coronavirus restrictions, it seemed like a perfect time to bring it back.

“This year we took it a stage further. We used the sheep gates for the net with a line of white electric fence tape along the top so this is probably the best job we’ve ever made of it.

“The silage won’t be made for at least another month so were planning to stage our own family tournament over the coming weeks. With the weather so good, it’s been a great way to pass the time,” said Christopher.

See the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops or available for delivery with your groceries. You can also order the paper from An Post at no additional charge – or purchase a digital edition on this website.

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Connacht Tribune

City Council houses Travellers in county

Declan Tierney

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Cllr Donagh Killilea.

Galway City Council will spend close to half a million euro to house a Traveller family – in a property well outside its own local authority boundary.

Instead the family of four, who previously lived on the Carrabrowne halting site, will be accommodated in the house at Kiltulla near Carnmore, which is deep in Galway County Council’s local government area.

The City Council is understood to have paid €388,000 for the property which will require another €50,000 to refurbish – leaving little change out of half a million euro.

Angry residents, who were unaware of the plan, have now organised a petition to City Council CEO Brendan McGrath to voice their objection to the move.

But Cllr Donagh Killilea believes that there is a bigger issue at stake – with Galway City Council acquiring property wherever they like.

And Senator Ollie Crowe said that he believed the City Council – of which he was a member up to his Seanad election – should be acquiring property within their own area and that this acquisition was ‘unprecedented’.

He said that it was his view that there would be nothing bought outside the city boundary and that the money spent on this property would refurbish a lot of the City Council’s housing stock that had fallen into a state of dilapidation.

See the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops or available for delivery with your groceries. You can also order the paper from An Post at no additional charge – or purchase a digital edition on this website.

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Connacht Tribune

Long drives still out of bounds for golfers

Declan Tierney

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Teeing off from the 12th tee at Galway Bay Golf Resort in Oranmore this week on the re-opening of golf courses around the country. There is nothing to suggest that any golfers travelled more than 5km to play in Oranmore. Photo: Keith Kelly.

This week’s relaxation of travel restrictions saw an exodus to the garden centres and the golf courses – but Gardaí have this week reiterated their warning to those planning to excede their five kilometre limit that they may find themselves in the heavy rough.

The first phase of a return to ‘normality’ went to plan, despite the early rush to newly reopened facilities. Even the rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of furloughed golfers, who were on the first tee from daylight.

Time sheets for golf clubs across the county were choc-a-bloc as they opened their doors to members for the first time since the end of March – but many clubs privately admitted that more than half of those who played had travelled way beyond the 5k restriction.

That led Gardaí to warn that they will be mounting checkpoints and turning people back home – adding that the golf clubs themselves have a responsibility to advise members on the travel rules.

Tuam Sergeant Pat Hastings confirmed that Gardaí had the power under the Health Preservation and Protection Act 2020 to turn back individuals travelling more than 5k from their homes.

He warned that a file will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions to deal with anyone who continually breached the regulations.

See the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops or available for delivery with your groceries. You can also order the paper from An Post at no additional charge – or purchase a digital edition on this website.

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