Bantry Bay is one of the deepest natural harbours in the world. Local tradition has it that the first settlers in Ireland landed at the point where the Mealagh River enters the Bay.
The Battle of Bantry Bay was fought on 11th May 1689 between a French fleet commanded by François Louis de Rousselet, Marquis de Château-Renault and an English fleet under newly appointed commander-in-chief Admiral Arthur Herbert; it was the first time the two navies had met in fleet action since 1545.
The French, endeavouring to supply King James II‘s campaign in Ireland in furtherance of his alliance with King Louis XIV, had been prevented from using Kinsale, and were forced to anchor in Bantry Bay, where they managed to unload 1,500 men with money, arms and ammunition. As they were doing so, Herbert’s fleet came into view. Initially the two fleets stretched up the bay in parallel lines but Château-Renault, enjoying the weather gauge, drove Herbert from the bay into the open sea.
The ensuing battle – which in total lasted four hours – was somewhat inconclusive: contemporary accounts describe a deal of pointless manoeuvring and bad-seamanship. The French are believed to have won a marginal victory. The English had 22 vessels and lost 96 killed 269 wounded, the French fleet was 28 vessels and they lost 40 killed 93 wounded.
Château-Renault returned to Brest on 18th May, seizing on the way seven Dutch merchant vessels bound from the West Indies, while Herbert reached Spithead on 22nd May, where his ships remained for two months of repairs (during which time the Irish waters were completely uncovered). Despite the disappointing outcome of the battle, King William III elevated Herbert to an Earldom, knighted two of his captains, John Ashbyand Cloudesley Shovell, and ordered a gratuity of ten shillings a head for the seaman.
The battle was important in terms of Ireland’s Williamite War, but is primarily remembered as part of Europe’s Nine Year’s War / War of the Grand Alliance (of Augsburg), mainly centring on the Netherlands. Subsequently, Anglo-Dutch squadrons patrolled the south coast to prevent further French supplies reaching Ireland, and the French were unable to prevent Admiral Rooke from relieving the Siege of Londonderry on 10th August, or forestall Marshal Schomberg‘s army landing near Carrickfergus on 23 rd August.
In the winter of 1796, a French Armada of 50 warships carrying 15,000 soldiers set sail from Brest for Ireland under the command of Admiral Hoche and with United Irishmen leader Theobald Wolfe Tone on board. The invasion fleet met huge storms off Sheep’s Head and had to turn back. Ten ships were lost, and the Frenchmen who made it ashore were promptly arrested by the local Yeomanry commanded by Richard White and handed over to General Dalrymple when he and his troops arrived from Cork.
One veteran ship, the Surveillante, survivor of many battles against the British, and victor of more than one, was too storm-damaged to make the return passage to France and was scuttled off Whiddy Island. Her location on the seabed was identified in 1985, and she is now a National (underwater!) Monument.
The only vessel to make landfall on the ill-fated Wolfe Tone expedition was a longboat that was captured on Bere Island. It was kept in Bantry House until the middle of the last century, and now sits in the NMI at Collins Barracks in Dublin. The boat is today the oldest surviving vessel of the French navy, and was recognised by the 1988 founders of the Atlantic Challenge as an ideal vessel with which to train young sailors in the skills of traditional seamanship. July 2012 will see teams from 16 countries coming to indulge in tests of seamanship in replicas of the same longboat.
The British authorities decided to fortify Bantry Bay with two batteries on Whiddy Island and other defences positioned around the Bay, especially Bere Haven, which went on to become an important harbour for the Royal Navy’s Atlantic Fleet. After the USA joined the WWI Allies in 1917 the American Navy based some vessels in Castletownbere and installed a seaplane base on Whiddy Island.
Bantry, Glengarriff, Adrigole and Castletownbere were for many years joined by a ferry service.
Bantry (Co. Cork / Southwest)
Bantry (Beanntrai) (pop. 3500) is a very attractive market town and fishing port at the head of Bantry Bay, with some great pubs, good places to eat and stay.
Bantry House dominates the town view from all directions. It has been described as “a perfect metaphor for the bafflingly beautiful and original character of this part of Ireland“. Arguably the country’s principal stately home, it is a masterpiece of eccentricity, well worth a visit for its magnificent gardens, but full of other marvels too.
The original house, a five-bay three-storey building called Blackrock, built by Samuel Hutchinson around 1720, forms the nucleus of the present mansion. In 1746 it was acquired by Richard White, a farmer from Whiddy Island who had amassed a fortune from pilchard-fishing, iron-smelting and (probably) smuggling. Through a series of purchases, he acquired most of the land around Bantry including large parts of the Beara Peninsula – estates which were further enlarged by his grandson Richard White (1767-1851), who raised a militia against the disastrous French invasion of 1796, arresting the few unfortunate who saved themselves from drowning, and placed his home, then called Seafield, at the disposal of General Dalrymple, for which he was ennobled, eventually becoming the 1st Earl of Bantry.
He and his descendants travelled extensively, and brought back many treasures from abroad – chests from the Indies, urns from the orient, paintings by the Great Masters, fireplaces from Versailles, French and Dutch tapestries saved from the sack of the Tuilleries and reputed to have belonged to Marie Antoinette, others of the Duc d’Orleans, in addition to only slightly less exotic period furniture and various objets d’art.
The magnificent blue dining room has two extraordinary gigantic built-in sideboards. The rose drawing room has vast floor-to-ceiling windows framed brilliantly in long mirrors, reflecting the views of the balustraded park and bay and mountains beyond. The fascinating library has French doors that look out on the Italian garden, with a stone “stairway to the sky” that rises up as far as the eye can see. Upstairs the peculiar rooms, some on different levels, are oddly decorated with family furniture and paintings, including a portrait of the present owner blowing his own horn (literally). The overall feeling of the house is a combination of wild romanticism and amiable pottiness.
During WWII, the house was the headquarters of the Irish Army’s Second Cyclist Squadron. Plaques on the north wall of the house honour members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who died when their plane crashed into the sea off the Fastnet Rock.
A 2001 University of Ulster archaeological survey found remnants of a medieval Gaelic village and a deserted C17th English fishing settlement on the west lawn.
House Tours are available, and there is an interesting French Armada Exhibition Centre in the courtyard stable block.
Very pleasant but expensive B&B accommodation is on offer, and the Gate Lodge is available for self-catering holiday rental.
The current owners are bass trombonist Egerton Shelswell-White and his wife Brigitte, who host an annual chamber music festival and occasional classical and traditional concerts.
Bantry Abbey, now the site of an atmospheric graveyard, was a Franciscan monastery founded by the local O’Sullivan clan chieftain c.1460 AD. A substantial complex, it suffered many occupations by both Irish and English armies up to 1652. Over the following century the stones were removed to build the stables of Bantry House and the Fish Palace on the north side of Bantry’s main square. Little now remains except for a few stones and parts of stone carvings incorporated into a small altar in the cemetery. A contemporary report states that a 40ft2 ditch in one corner already held almost 1000 pauper corpses from the local Workhouse by mid-1847, half way though the Great Famine. Several WWII German airmen are also buried in this graveyard.
The Great Famine
Bantry was the subject of a report from Dr Stephens to the Board of Health on 20th February, 1847, at the height of the Great Famine:
“…. Language would fail to give an adequate idea of the state of the Fever Hospital; such an appalling, awful, and heart-sickening condition as it presented I never witnessed, or could think possible to exist in a civilised or Christian community. As I entered the house, the stench that proceeded from it, and prevailed through it, was most dreadful and noisome; but oh, what scenes presented themselves to patients lying on straw, naked, and in their excrements, as light covering thrown over them; in two beds, living beings beside the dead, in the same bed with them, and dead since the night before. I saw a woman who had been delivered but four days, almost expiring, with her wretched infant nearly suffocated; I administered at once wine, and had warmth applied, as there had been no medical attendant appointed during the illness of Dr. Tisdall, one of the medical men of the town, I was told had been there two days before; no medicine, no drink, in dirt, no fire, the unhappy beings who were able to express their wants crying out for drink, water, water, asked for, but no one to give it to them; others crying out for something to eat, as they said they were starved; many imploring to be taken out of it as they were not sick, but weak; thirty soon were found fit to be removed. The prevailing disease is dysentery, rendered highly contagious from the fetid state of the several wards. The wards are saturated with wet and ordure, the walls -marked with the same. No nurses in the house except one of the paupers, totally unfit for the duties, every person being afraid to enter what was considered a pest-house; it is useless to enlarge or dwell further upon this revolting subject. I directed the clerk of the union to bring to the board room any guardian or guardians he could find; three came, and in the presence of the chaplains of the house, and the master and matron, I laid before them the state of things I had just witnessed, with feelings I will not attempt to describe, and stated to them what should be done to arrest the frightful evil so widely spreading. In the yard, filthy beds and bedding were heaped up and allowed to remain there; the same state of things in thethe same state of things in the infirmary, where dysentery was almost universal.”
A sworn enquiry was held, the master and matron were dismissed and the physician was asked to resign.
The church of St Brendan the Navigator (CoI), designed by English architect Henry Edward Kendall and completed in 1828 to serve the parish of Kilmocomogue, stretching from Durrus to Castletownbere, contains some fine wood carvings.
The former Methodist Chapel (1842) is now a medical centre.
St Finbarr’s church (RC), erected in 1846, features sculptures by Seamus Murphy and also has beautiful stained glass windows.
The Convent of Mercy (1861) has a spectacular chapel designed by SF Hynes, completed in 1878.
Bantry Courthouse (1836) features several memorials and monuments to Republican history. Bantry saw as much activity as the rest of West Cork during The Troubles.
The Bantry Bay Hotel incorporates the town’s former RIC Barracks, burnt by the IRA in 1920.
Wolfe Tone Square, surrounded on three sides by mainly C19th architecture and opening onto the bay, is surprisingly large and has two statues, one of Saint Brendan the Navigator on his legendary C8th voyage to America, the other of Theobald himself. A Continental-style open air Market is held in the Square every Friday, and an extra big one on the first Friday of the month extends into the adjoining streets. To quote a recent Irish Independent report: “The stalls, stands, tables, chairs and car boots heave with a dazzling variety of crafts, clothing, antiques, fruit, fish and artisan foods of every mouth-watering variety and of the highest quality“.
O’Connor’s Restaurant in the Square is highly recommended for seafood.
Ma Murphy’s, a traditional grocery store / pub on New St, has been very warmly reviewed.
Bantry Pier & Harbour have a long tradition of fishing boats and commercial cargo vessels. A Ferry leaves here at regular intervals for Whiddy Island, and cruises of Bantry Bay are avalable in season.
Whiddy Island, near the head of Bantry Bay, is about 3.5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide. (Photo by Mitmount)
As late as 1880 Whiddy had a resident population of around 450, mainly engaged in pilchard fishing and small-scale farming. It currently has a permanent resident population of around 20 people, and there are many visitors in the tourist season.
The Bank House is a pub/restaurant on the island near the pier.
The island has its own microclimate, and abounds with beautiful red and purple fuchsia throughout the summer and autumn. Also found here is the Common Butterwort, one of the few carniverous plants in Ireland, and a South American “giant rhubarb” with leaves 2m wide.
Kilmore Lake is seasonally covered with yellow lillies that smell of brandy.
The most common animal on the island is the mountain hare; there are also seals, otters, mink, curlews, choughs and many seabirds.
Reenavanny Castle, a C16th Tower House built by the O’Sullivan Bere clan, collapsed in storm 1920.
The Reenavanny Redoubts were built c.1806 for 100 – 150 men and 8 – 12 guns.
WWI saw a US Navy’s Air Wing seaplane base established on the eastern end of the island, which became operational on 25thSeptember 1918 when the first two planes arrived. They controlled an area around Fastnet. One of the planes crashed on 22nd October 1918, killing one. The station was closed in January 1919. The “Cup & Saucer”, a drinking fountain made by American servicemen, marks the site.
Whiddy was developed by Gulf Oil as a Tank Farm in the 1960s. The first supertanker, Universe Ireland, arrived at Whiddy in October 1968.
On Monday 9th January 1979 at around one o’clock in the morning, the French supertanker Betelgeuse was discharging 220,000 tonnes of fuel oil at the Whiddy oil jetty when something went badly wrong. There was a huge explosion and the whole of the terminal was lost in a spreading pool of burning oil. Every manner of craft was launched from the piers at Bantry, but no survivors were found. Over the next few days the burned bodies of the dead were recovered from the land and sea, most of them unidentifiable. Many of the lost were never found. At least fifty people died in the Betelgeuse disaster, considered the worst in Irish maritime history.
The oil terminal has since been used by the Irish government to store the Republic’s strategic petroleum reserve, The facility was made available to USA military units during the two Gulf Wars, and is due for expansion.
A memorial to the dead of the 1979 Betelgeuse disaster stands in the St Finbarr’s graveyard, overlooking the Bay.
The ruins of St Anne’s Hydropathic Establishment stand on a hill above the town. A complex of “Roman Irish” or “improved Turkish” baths founded in 1856 by Dr Richard Barter and Scottish diplomat David Urquhart, the first of its kind in western Europe, this renowned health centre and hotel had elegant dining facilities, sun rooms, reading rooms, a theatre, an American bowling alley, tennis courts and manicured gardens. The Hydro received thousands of patients from all over Europe before WWI, and finally closed in 1956. See Irish Times article.
The beautiful mountain valleys east of Bantry, especially the Mealagh Valley, can be explored en route to or from Kealkill on ByRoute 4.
Ballylickey, situated at the head of Bantry Bay, has hotels, guesthouses and caravan parks offering beautiful vistas over the sea and mountains.
Reendesert Court is a fortified O’Sullivan Tower House destroyed at the time of the Cromwellian wars. It is said that an escape tunnel ran from the cellar under the road to the sea front.
The Ouvane Falls Inn has outside tables near the river, and the service is helpful and friendly. The food is good but on the pricey side. Some cyclists have complain of being made to pay in advance, which is a bit unusual in these parts.
Balllickey is within easy reach of Kealkill on ByRoute 4, more or less directly linked via the Cousane Gap to Dunmanway on ByRoute 3.
Snave and Coomhulla Bridge, at the western end of ByRoute 4, are connected by road to Kilgarvan on ByRoute 5.