As its name indicates, Belle Isle is an island located at the very top of Upper Lough Erne, County Fermanagh. Inhabited since the 12th century, it was originally called Ballymacmanus an abode of the MacManus family from which they controlled fishing and trade on the lake. In the 15th century, one of their number Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa, who was not only a chief but also a cleric, was principal compiler of the Annals of Ulster (the original manuscript of which is now in the collection of Trinity College Dublin).
In 1610 Ballymacmanus was part of the estate granted to Paul Gore, a soldier who had come to Ireland some years earlier: in 1622 he was created a baronet. It was his great-grandson Sir Ralph Gore, fourth baronet, who built the core of the present house on the island and renamed the place Belle Isle in recognition of its natural beauty. The latter was much enhanced by his younger son the sixth baronet also called Ralph, who was born on Belle Isle in 1725. For much of his life a soldier, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-General, in 1788 he became Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. Over the previous decades he had been created Baron Gore, Viscount Belle Isle and finally Earl of Ross. Between his military duties he found time to improve the island, employing Thomas Wright on the design of the grounds, and building a temple, a grotto and a thatched hermitage, described by Jonathan Fisher in his Scenery of Ireland (1795) as being ‘a handsome cottage with a kitchen and other conveniences, in a sweet retired part [of the demesne].’
Arthur Young had likewise been full of praise for the site, writing in August 1776, ‘To Belleisle, the charming seat of the Earl of Ross. It is an island in Loch Earne, of two hundred Irish acres, every part of it hill, dale, and gentle declivities; it has a great deal of wood, much of which is old, and forms both deep shades and open, cheerful groves. The trees hang on the slopes, and consequently show themselves to the best advantage. All this is exceedingly pretty, but it is rendered trebly so by the situation. A reach of the lake passes before the house, which is situated near the banks among some fine woods, which give both beauty and shelter. This sheet of water, which is three miles over, is bounded in front by an island of thick wood, and by a bold circular hill which is his lordship’s deer park; this hill is backed by a considerable mountain. To the right are four or five fine clumps of dark wood – so many islands which rise boldly from the lake; the water breaks in straits between them, and forms a scene extremely picturesque. On the other side the lake stretches behind wood in a strait which forms Belleisle. Lord Ross has made walks round the island, from which there is a considerable variety of prospect. A temple is built on a gentle hill, commanding the view of the wooded islands above-mentioned, but the most pleasing prospect of them is coming out from the grotto. They appear in an uncommon beauty; two seem to join, and the water which flows between takes the appearance of a fine bay, projecting deep into a dark wood: nothing can be more beautiful. The park hill rises above them, and the whole is backed with mountains.’
John Claudius Loudon in his Encyclopedia of Agriculture of 1825 remarked that Belle Isle was ‘charmingly diversified by hills, dales and gentle declivities, which are richly clothed with old timber through which gravel walks are constructed, and a temple erected, from which a panoramic view is obtained, not only of this but all the other wooded islands of the lough.’ It is interesting to compare these observations with those made in by Jonathan Binns just over a decade later in The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (1837): ‘Belleisle, the property of the Rev. Gray Porter, is situated on the higher lake, and in addition to its beauty, is remarkable as being the first grant made in Ireland after the confiscation. It contains upwards of 300 acres, and was originally the property of a Lord Ross, who from this island took the title of Lord Belleisle. It descended by marriage to Sir H. Hardinge, who sold it to the present proprietor. The house, once famed for its hospitality, is now a ruin.’ An explanation for these circumstances is easily provided. The Earl of Ross had died in 1802, predeceased by his young heir. The estate accordingly passed to his only surviving child, an illegitimate daughter Mary who married Sir Richard Hardinge. The couple had no children and following the death of Lady Hardinge in 1824, and that of her husband two years later, the estate was left to the nephew of Sir Richard, the Rev. Sir Charles Hardinge of Tonbridge, Kent who seems to have had no interest in owning a property in Ireland. Accordingly in 1830, he sold the Belle Isle estate for £68,000 to another cleric, the Rev. John Grey Porter of Kilskeery, County Tyrone whose father had enriched himself while serving for over twenty years as the Anglican bishop of Clogher. Descendants of the Porter family would remain thereafter resident at Belle Isle until 1991.
While much work had been carried out on the island’s grounds over the previous century, the house bought by the Rev. Porter remained predominantly the modest two-storey lodge built in the early 1700s by the fourth Gore baronet. At some point during the brief Hardinge era a bow-fronted drawing-room had been added to the left-hand end of the original range, and a new staircase added to its rear, lit by an octagonal lantern. John Grey Vesey Porter, who inherited the estate on his father’s death, added the stable courtyard in 1856 and at some date in the 1880s further extended the house and altered its appearance to resemble what Mark Bence-Jones described as ‘the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; the plain English Tudor manor-house style made popular by Norman Shaw and his disciples; producing a gabled entrance front with mullioned windows, a projecting porch and a tall church-like, battlemented tower.’ Meanwhile, inside ‘arches were opened up between the staircase hall and the rooms on either side of it…and oak staircase with barley-sugar balusters replaced the original stairs; the walls were panelled in oak or decorated with half-timbering.’ Yet more work was undertaken in the first decade of the last century when the architect Percy Richard Morley Horder was employed to extend the entrance front with a wing in the Tudor style; this holds a long high chamber with timbered roof, elaborate chimneypiece and overmantel, and a minstrels’ gallery, the balustrade of which it has been suggested contains woodwork dating from the late 17th century or early 18th century woodwork and brought from elsewhere. Thus as seen today Belle Isle represents an amalgam of the tastes of some three centuries, harmoniously brought together within its setting. Twenty-five years ago the last of the Porters to live here, Lavinia Baird, sold the estate to the fifth Duke of Abercorn who with his wife has since undertaken an extensive programme of refurbishment to house and grounds alike, with different sections serving as a cookery school or available for weddings, sporting activities, events and self-catering holidays. Today Belle Isle amply lives up to the name bestowed on it by an earlier owner.