China in Your Hand
Belleek Manor, or Belleek Castle as it’s now called, is unique and we don’t apply that word obliquely. Surely it must be the only example of 19th century Gothic Revival meets 20th century Medieval Revival in the country. Certainly it’s the only case of this hybrid style in Ballina, County Mayo. Two distinct (in era and nuance) building extravaganzas by two extraordinary (in talent and obsession) characters come together in this west of Ireland setting.
First glimpse is of baronial grandeur. After a long drive through forestry, the house is revealed behind a balustraded forecourt propped above a grassland bowl. Sir Francis Knox-Gore set out to impress his wife who came from Lissadell, the neighbouring county’s most palatial country house. He lavished £10,000 on their John Benjamin Keanes designed marital home; hopefully Her Ladyship approved. His descendants must have: the Knox-Gores lived here from 1831 to 1940. After being used as a tuberculosis hospital, it lay empty until Marshall Doran bought the house and its immediate 20 acres.
Marshall, who died in 2007, was a Great Gatsby type adventurer. Born Jack Fenn, the Liverpudlian ran away to join the American Merchant Navy, changed his name and made a fortune which he invested in transforming Belleek Manor into Belleek Castle. It only cost £5,000 to purchase but that was just the start of the spending spree. Jack Fenn’s Courtyard Café in the former stables – anyone for deconstructed scone or spicy avo and egg? – is named in his honour. His son Paul now runs the hotel. There are 10 guest bedrooms. But hang on. The interior! Wow! Where to begin?
It’s definitely the sole instance where, under one roof, we’ve come across Spanish Armada salvage, Cistercian abbey pieces, Venetian caryatids, samurai armoury, woolly mammoth tusks and Grace O’Malley’s fourposter. It all makes the taxidermised last wolf of Connaught look almost commonplace. As we wander through the rabbit warren of labyrinthine museum rooms, subterranean Aladdin’s Caves, taking in the visual feast we leave it up to the story boards on the stone walls to continue the narrative, the story of how a manor became a castle:
“Tall, handsome, barrel chested and powerful, young Marshall was an accomplished athlete and earned under 18 championship medals in boxing and swimming. At 16, Marshall already radiated charm and was most enthusiastic about girls. He fancied a gypsy trapeze artist from the circus and so signed on to be a highflyer. After a few exciting moments on the high wire and a fallout with the gypsy, Marshall thought it prudent to reposition his career, and moved to a shooting gallery at the fair.”
“To supplement his earnings he went on the ‘knock’ calling door to door, buying gold and silver. This triggered a lifelong passion for things old – antiques to fossils, and everything in between. Still 16, in Liverpool, Marshall stowed away on a ship bound for America, the first of countless ocean passages. In 1998, then aged 82, Marshall took part in a survey for The Geological Curator magazine.”
“Marshall’s passion for antiques required that he find a place to store them. He attempted to buy Rozel Fort, a beautiful property dominating the cliffs at Rozel in Jersey, but was gazumped. So he decided to build his own castle at Flicquet Bay in Jersey. In 1961, Marshall decided to buy a second castle, this time in Ballina, County Mayo. He commenced the monumental task of converting the former manor house into a fine hotel and medieval museum – Belleek Castle. As an avid collector he threw away nothing, everything was of value.”
“In 1961, Marshall bought Belleek Castle. Visitors would find him swinging hammer and chisel on immense blocks of timber, a red bandana tied around his again against the perspiration, holes in his trousers and worn shows from toes protruding. He worked alongside other stonemasons, and taught his tradesmen proper adze technique, and how to use a drawknife to age and fashion wood in the medieval style.”
“On his time off, he combed Europe’s auctions and shops, amassing what is thought to be the finest collection of armour, weaponry and fossils in Ireland. As an avid collector he could never pass up a bargain. Some of these bargains remain in this room today where he left them – he called it his Junk Shop.”
“Fortunately for us today, many of his original papers survived and his collection of books remains intact. Many treasures have been discovered, from the original sales catalogues to the receipts for payment. On 30 April 1973, Marshall attended an auction at Christie’s in London. He bought 16 items that day all of which are listed in this catalogue as being from a sale of items from the Tower of London.”