The Belleek Tradition
By Liam Hughes
Every once in a while my grandmother would declare, “I think it’s time for a proper cup of tea.” This particular comment activated my mother and aunts into a ritual that only took place once or twice a year.
Grandmother would put her shiny copper kettle on the stove like she did several times a day, but rather than pulling out the usual tea mugs, my mother and aunts would disappear into the dining room. There, they would drag the oak chair from the table to the sideboard. One of the sisters would step up on the seat and reach for the glass cabinet resting atop grandmother’s sideboard.
Behind the glass was grandmother’s Irish Belleek tea set…ivory with green shamrocks. The cabinet door was carefully opened, and one by one, the pieces were handed down. As my aunts carried the dishes close to their bosom to the kitchen, an announcement was made that banished the children from the house. “Now, go outside and play,” they would insist.
We’d always protest, not because we didn’t want to go out, but because we wanted to get a close up look at the tea set. Normally, it was perched high above the dining room and behind glass. With it locked away, we’d look up at it, much like we stared at the diamonds displayed in the little window at Bolenz Jewelry on Main Street.
“It’s worth a million dollars,” I remember telling my younger sister Elizabeth of both the tea set and the diamonds.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened and she said, “Mrs. Valenti has one of those.” Mrs. Valenti was known as the Diamond Lady. She arrived at mass every Sunday shimmering with costume jewelry loaded with diamonds the size of gum balls – bracelets and necklaces, earrings and broaches. We thought she was the fanciest, richest lady in town. I was sure that although she was Italian through-and-through, she too had an ivory teapot covered in shamrocks holding court in her dining room.
One year, when I broke my arm, I was allowed to stay in the house after the tea service was taken down from the cabinet. From over the arm of the green velvet sofa, I could see the women gathered around the table sipping their tea as the afternoon sun came through the leaded glass window.
They were carefree and talked in low tones and would often hide their smiles behind the teacup before taking a sip. At one point, my brother did what one of us always did during the tea party; he tiptoed in the front door as if he might catch a glimpse of some secret ritual.
“Do you need something?” my mother called out.
“I just have to go potty,” he announced before walking extra slow toward the bathroom. He was working carefully to take in the scene, which he would later report back to my siblings and cousins… disappointed there wasn’t more action.
After their second cup, the women looked into their empty vessels and sighed. On cue, they swept into action, carefully moving each piece to the sink. The process of washing the Belleek was by far the most diligent. Each sister had a specific role, and the cups and saucers were handed between the women with the greatest of care.
They held the delicate china so close to their chests, the fronts of their blouses absorbed as much water as the cotton flour sack dishcloths they used to dry. After the careful hand drying, the entire set was marched piece by piece to the china cabinet. Before the first dish was returned to the shelf, the entire case was wiped clean and the window glass was washed. Then each piece was carefully returned to its exact location.
My family’s reverence for the Belleek tea set stayed with me my entire life. I remember a trip to Ireland in the 1970s when I saw a Belleek store display. It was the first time I had seen so much Belleek china not locked in my grandmother’s china cabinet. It was a shock that I could just walk up and hold a piece.
As I held a vase, a store clerk approached and asked if I needed help.
“My grandmother had this set,” I told her.
“It’s lovely; isn’t it?”
It must have been clear that I was remembering the day I watched my mother and aunts sipping tea at grandmother’s house, because the clerk said, “It’s a very popular pattern,” before she disappeared, and I was left running my fingers over the green shamrocks.
Now, I have a few of my own pieces of Belleek on display in my own home. And much to the horror of my aunts, I actually break pieces of brand new Belleek intentionally to turn it into my china shard jewelry.
Breaking china gives me a unique understanding of how much variation there can be between manufacturers. France’s Haviland Limoges is among the most brittle and the USA’s Lenox china is nearly unbreakable. Meanwhile, contemporary Parian Belleek holds its own as one of the most durable while still remaining quite thin and light.
Even though the pieces I break are brand new and readily available, I still feel a tinge of guilt each time I shatter a piece of Belleek. Thank goodness that guilt fades slightly when my shard jewelry finds a good home and becomes a conversation piece for those who wear it.
Fortunately, every single piece of my grandmother’s Belleek tea set is still in perfect condition, and every once in a while my aunts reunite to take it out of the cabinet and enjoy a that proper cup of tea.
Listen to our podcast about Belleek Pottery at www.irishfireside.com/58belleek.htm
Information about Belleek Pottery can be found at www.belleek.ie
Liam’s shard jewelry can be found at www.lamplighterstudio.com