Written by Declan Kelly (Originally Published in Dec '15 - Jan '16 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
William Frederick le Poer Trench, future fifth Earl of Clancarty, was barely 21 years old when he married Belle Bilton, a music hall dancer, in 1889. The marriage caused a sensation at the time and is worth recalling both as an example of true love and as a reminder of a remarkable lady.
The fourth Earl was incandescent with rage and as the law of entail forbade him from disinheriting his son completely, he is said to have begun to have the timber on his estates felled in order to make them as worthless as possible. William Frederick le Poer Trench was forced to live off his wife`s music hall earnings with one newspaper noting that he was “no more capable of earning his living for himself than a cow is capable of composing a comic opera”. This process was halted when the illtempered fourth earl, collapsed and died in his library in London in May 1891.
The story handed down by all generations of townspeople tells how the new Earl and Countess arrived at Garbally and finding the gates locked against them, were obliged to scale the walls. It may seem unlikely, yet Belle Bilton was a remarkable lady who later reportedly performed a dance for the gentry of Connaught at Garbally House where she raised her right leg to the point where the big toe almost touched the lowermost light of a chandelier. They were scandalised and she was delighted.
Being light on her feet and a stage acrobat of sorts, she would hardly have found the scaling of a wall too troublesome. Matters did not end there and the keys of Garbally were only handed over after the fifth earl was driven to Coorheen House in Loughrea to remonstrate with his stubborn mother.
The new couple were held in disdain by Galway society to the point that at a hunt ball in 1893, most ladies left the floor when Frederick and his Countess began to dance. Despite this, Belle quickly became a firm favourite with the people of Ballinasloe and stories of her kindness to local people who were ill and her charity to the less well-off were in circulation until recent years. She even had her effigy cast by the wax museum in Dublin and won over the respect and affection of Queen Alexandra, the wife of King Edward VII. Belle was not long for this world, however, and after suffering from cancer for some years, died aged
39 on the last day of December 1906 at Garbally House, some 104 years ago!
As her funeral slowly made its way from Garbally to the place of interment in the precincts of St John`s Church on Knockadoon, the hearse was filled to capacity with floral tributes and the tenantry of the demesne bore the coffin the entire journey. Every business was shuttered and virtually every man, woman and child in the district lined the streets to bow, curtsey, sob or throw flowers as the coffin passed. The outpouring of grief was both genuine and extraordinary and despite Belle`s humble origins, those who followed the coffin included Lord Ashtown, Lord Clonbrock, the local magistracy and every merchant of note.
When the Gaelic League came to rename Victoria Street in 1946, they opted for `Duggan Avenue` in honour of the revered Bishop of Clonfert Dr Patrick Duggan. Had they chosen to rename it in honour of Belle Bilton, who lies within Knockadoon`s apex, there would surely have been few objections to honouring the memory of the simple but abundantly generous showgirl who danced her way into local hearts.