The first bicycle to be sold in O’Loughlin’s shop on Main Street in Belleek was bought by Annie McGorran in 1922.

She worked in the pottery factory and the price agreed for this new mode of transport was £7 and 10 shillings.

Proprietor Tommy O’Loughlin created a credit system that allowed Belleek Pottery workers to pay off their purchases every fortnight in line with when they were remunerated.

Seven years ago, when the pottery celebrated its 160th anniversary, Joe O’Loughlin (now 91) recalled how his father kept a record of every transaction that was made.

This included the name of the buyer and the frame number of the bike. It was especially useful if bikes were stolen and the police were involved.

Joe’s knowledge of his homeplace reflects his deep-rooted affection for it, combined with a lifetime of forensic research.

In 2022, he received a BEM for his services to World War 2 history in County Fermanagh.

A native of Boa Island, he quipped that his ancestors may have come over with the Vikings, but more likely arrived from County Clare, initially to Belcoo where his grandfather was a hedge schoolmaster in the 1820s.

As we walked across the bridge at the bottom of the wide main street in Belleek in the shadow of the imposing slate-grey pottery headquarters, he explained why this is the gateway to a unique place.

The name ‘Belleek’ means ‘ford of the flagstones’, and this area is where Ulster meets Connacht.

Halfway across the bridge, geographically it’s possible to have one foot in County Donegal, and one foot in County Fermanagh.

The present bridge was completed in the 1950s as part of the Erne Hydroelectric scheme and replaced the earlier stone structure, which was built at the start of the Nineteenth Century.

The main street itself occupies two townlands – Rathmore on one side, and Finner on the other.

The street is particularly wide, and was designed by the Caldwell family from nearby Castle Caldwell.

Belleek also has the uncommon distinction of featuring as a word in the Webster dictionary, where it’s defined as ‘thin, fragile pottery’.

The original thatched cottages, the big house that was built in 1832 as a dispensary for the local General Practitioner, the courthouse and the police barracks have given way to 21st Century shops and buildings that nod respectfully to the proud heritage of this fascinating village.

Some 175 years ago, two things happened to ensure that the most westerly part of the United Kingdom would become famous throughout the world for the manufacture of fine porcelain.

In 1849, John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited the estate from his father, with lands stretching from the village of Belleek to Boa Island.

After the Famine, the estate was in poor financial shape, and in an effort to turn the family fortunes around, the amateur mineralogist ordered a geological survey to be carried out on the land.

He was keen to investigate other means of creating income and employment for his tenants, and at one stage toyed with the idea of making cement or bricks.

Crucially, the land survey discovered good amounts of feldspar – vital in the manufacture of porcelain.

Clay, kaolin, flint and shale were the other ingredients needed, and serendipitously these were also found in the mineral-rich soil.

A chance meeting in a shop in Dublin with Robert Williams Armstrong, an architect based in London though originally from Longford, subsequently led to a three-way partnership with Dublin businessman David McBirney.

The deeds that created Belleek Pottery were signed in 1857, and the pottery was established at a cost of £40,000 (equating to approximately £6million in 2024).

Some 12 decades later, in 1978 Fergus Cleary joined the now thriving business as a young graduate from the Belfast College of Art.

A former head of design, in recent years he has mentored a team of young designers working across the pottery’s product ranges, including the contemporary collection, Belleek Living.

His links with the pottery go back generations, and on my tour of the factory in 2017 he was an expert and engaging guide.

A process known as 16 pairs of hands starts on the production floor. It is peculiar to Belleek, and literally means the number of hands that the pieces manufactured here pass through on the way to the warehouse.

The first stage is the mould, which begins as a drawing, from which a model is made in plaster of paris.

This is like a case with a hinge, and is 15 per cent bigger than the finished product, to allow for reduction in the firing process.

Once the pottery is dried, it ends up in the casting department, and is then ready to be dispatched.

Table after table, shelf after shelf was laden with the various pieces of this Belleek puzzle, creating a symmetry in which the key players took on the guise of regimental china soldiers standing to attention as we walked past.

There was a feeling of harmony too in the alliance between the village and the pottery.

Since the outset, it has been a symbiotic relationship which has seen one develop with the other and adapt to changing market patterns.

From time to time, women like Ina O’Loughlin, Nancy Keown, Mary Heron and Celine O’Loughlin meet at Warke Hall beside English Row at the top of Main Street.

Their memories of when they began work at the pottery – but more particularly, when they left – shine a light on a very different time and place.

Our lively conversation revealed that between them, in the 1950s and 60s, their tenure included just about every job going at Belleek Pottery.

They talked about the rascality that happened before ‘targets’ were heard of, and about ‘going in’ when they started, and ‘having to leave’ when they got married.

At that time, there was little option for women who got married, and they admired their successors who fought and won the right to stay in employment when their status changed.

The women thought nothing of cycling three or four miles to work every morning. Everyone walked or had a bike, but at the dances there was always “the luck of getting home on the bar of the bike with a fella”.

Pauline Gilmartin now runs the gift shop on the main street that her family established in 1979.

It was one of the first places in the village to sell the pottery that was made on the doorstep by skilled craftsmen and women.

Her father worked in the factory, and thought it was high time that the internationally sought-after pieces should be available locally.

As a youngster, she would find any excuse to be in the shop, and thought where she lived must be the centre of the universe, because so many visitors came from all over the world.

On occasions the international travellers might have heard the hooter that went off first thing every morning to call the workers to their posts, and again at one o’clock to signal the lunch break.

The grocery store and newsagents was operated by Michelle Rooney’s granny. During the long lunch hour, between one and two o’clock, she remembers the shop being especially hectic.

She came home from the local primary school at half-past 12, ‘wolfed’ her dinner, and returned to school very quickly before business became brisk.

Joe’s daughter-in-law, and Tourism Development consultant in Belleek, Teresa O’Loughlin, is acutely aware of the significance of the pottery and the story of the village.

She believes that as a major tourism asset for the village, the focus should now be on how the community can celebrate their heritage and history to create a memorable experience for visitors from near and far.

Initiatives such as the recent installation of two Ronan McHugh murals are making their own mark on connecting the story of the pottery to the village.

One depicts a potters’ scene, which visitors are encouraged to be part of, while the other showcases the River Erne and waterfalls that once existed, commemorating a landscape from years gone by.

The intention is to develop Belleek as a heritage village and a must-see destination on the tourist trail.

It's located within the Cuilcagh Lakelands Geopark, a designation that celebrates the geology of the region.

Belleek and its pottery is a striking example of natural terrain inspiring industry whilst supporting the community.

Perhaps this has always been true of the village that could only have given birth to the pottery that only exists because of the landscape from which it is made.

In this unique corner of Fermanagh, it is the combination of place, people and pottery that has created and will sustain a treasure of invaluable worth.

Anne Marie McAleese is a broadcaster, writer and author who considers Fermanagh as one of her favourite places. You can listen to her every Saturday morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s, ‘Your Place and Mine’, 8am-9am.