Beautiful Belleek Parian china exudes elegance and luxury. The delicate shamrock designs on the luminously glazed pieces are an iconic symbol of Ireland, quite different from folksier motifs. These are prestigious, treasured Irish gifts. Nothing about today’s Belleek reflects poverty, hunger or deprivation, but if you trace the roots of this beloved line that is where they lead.
The famous china company is located in a tiny village of the same name with fewer than 1,000 people nestled near the River Erne. Belleek is in County Fermanagh in Ulster. It’s a border county, officially part of Northern Ireland but bordered on three sides by the Republic of Ireland. Tucked below Donegal and above Sligo, it is arguably one of the most under-appreciated places on the island of Ireland.
When the Great Hunger came, Belleek was not spared the loss of the critically important potato crop. The village did not have the sort of industry other parts of Ulster did, such as the famous linen mills. The famine was its worst in 1847, and one local landowner wanted to do something to help the community. In 1849, John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited some land and promptly had a geological survey done. The land offered exactly what was needed to make pottery – clay, flint, feldspar, kaolin and shale – and it was near the River Erne – a crucial source of power for the mill required to grind the clay and stone. Bloomfield lobbied hard and managed to get a rail line run into the little village so the pottery could be easily shipped out. Everything was in place and production began. The Great Hunger was over, but the employment was still desperately needed.
The Early Days of Belleek
The company’s plan was not to make elegant Irish gifts. Their first products included hospital bed pans and telegraph insulators. Not very glamorous! But the seed was planted early. They also produced quality kitchen wares including dishes and mortars and pestles from the beginning. And they started developing the Parian china immediately. In just two years, Belleek was exporting products as far as Canada, the USA and Australia.
The company survived turbulent times. The battle for Irish independence, the Irish Civil War and two world wars did not create a market for luxury gifts. Belleek’s early customers included Queen Victoria and other British royals, and the porcelain was featured at the 1872 Dublin Exposition. After World War Two, as the economy recovered globally and technology improved, Belleek acquired new kilns and focused on their stunning Parian china. From the 1950s onward, Belleek has been a treasured collectable and among the most popular Irish gifts on the market.
The vision of a delightful, dazzling line of fine Parian china was there at the start of the company, and it endured. Today, the name Belleek is recognized around the world. It’s the wedding, anniversary or birthday gift that is always welcomed and treasured.