History

our past has made us who we are

History of Bantry

our past has made us who we are today

The history of Bantry is rich and diverse, shaping it into the modern Irish town it is today.  Discover the history of Bantry through the years in the sections below and learn how the town has developed through the ages.  If you are interested in finding out more history of Bantry, contact the Bantry Historical Society.

EARLY HISTORY

According to many ancient Irish books such as, the Book of Lacan, Keating, Leabhar Gabhala and the Annals of the Four Masters the first to inhabit Ireland arrived in Bantry Bay forty years before the deluge. Cesaire (a niece of Noah) with 150 handmaidens and 3 men are said to have landed at Donemark in the parish of Kilmocomogue, barony of Bantry.

Dermot O’Sullivan, a local chieftain, founded a Franciscan Abbey west of Bantry in 1460. The Abbey survived for almost 200 years though there is no evidence that it encouraged further settlement. All that remains now are some stones which have been fashioned as an altar in the graveyard known as the ‘Abbey’ which is the main cemetery for the Bantry district.

Very little trace of these early settlers are to be found except for the occasional polished stone axe head and arrow and spear heads also fashioned from stone. Little change took place in the way people worked and lived here for another 2000 years.

During the following centuries, wave after wave of immigrants arrived in Ireland, many through Bantry Bay, the Fomorians, the Nemedians, the Firbolgs and the Milesians to name but a few. Many arrived here as early as 4000 BC and were a nomadic people living off the land by hunting, fishing and collecting berries. They used tools and weapons fashioned from stone and made shelters of animal hides.

Prior to 1600, Bantry was only a small hamlet of maybe 20 houses surrounded by thick forest, with a few scattered small farms in the area. The people of the hamlet depended on fishing and grew their own crops. The few farms in the area were self-sufficient and had very little contact with the town. The town was isolated from Cork and other large towns.

Then a new race arrived in Bantry attracted here by the abundance of copper to be found in our hills. They brought with them the skills of mining and processing copper.

These new settlers manufactured tools and weapons such as axes, spears, knives and daggers. To harden the copper they imported tin from nearby Cornwall in the UK.  This race left tangible and mysterious evidence of its culture in the form of bronze tools and weapons which are often found during land tillage and excavations and you find examples of these historical artefacts in The Bantry Museum.

Now dotted around the hills and valleys of Bantry you will find their stone circles, standing stones, stone alignments and burial grounds. 

THE 1600s ONWARDS

Bantry Bay is one of the safest harbours in Europe and is situated in a strategic position on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Being very deep with no danger of sand banks and sheltered from most winds by the mountains which surround it, from earliest times it has been used as a haven by fishermen and merchant ships.

For centuries the fleets of England, Spain, France and Holland fished in the bay, paying harbour dues and fishing tax to the O’Sullivan Clan who controlled the bay. From Bantry ships sailed loaded with recruits for the French, Spanish, Austrian and Dutch armies.

In March 1689, a French fleet sailed into Bantry Bay with 7000 soldiers, arms, ammunition and money for James II in his war with William of Orange. Many of the soldiers fought and died at the Battles of Derry and Battle of the Boyne.

As the French sailed down Bantry Bay returning to France, an English fleet, under Admiral Herbert, entered the bay searching for them. In the battle which followed the French outmanoeuvred the English and made their escape. Many ships were badly damaged and a number from each side were killed. Both sides claimed victory!

In 1697 William of Orange’s troops of landed in Bantry.

THE 1700s & WOLFE TONE

In the early 1700’s, about 1600 English settlers arrived into the Bantry area enticed there by reports of vast shoals of Pilchards which were found in the bay. (Pilchards are like herring only shorter and rounder!). Unlike the poor fishermen, they had the finances to rig out new boats with ropes, nets, and gear which were required for the task. The fishing was a great success financially and more English settlers arrived on the scene.

The population of the Hamlet expanded rapidly and by 1725 there were numerous ‘Fish Palaces’ around the harbour. After the failure of the 1641 Rising the Cromwellian soldiers were rewarded with grants of land in the Bantry area, the Earl of Anglesey receiving 96,000 acres.

Many of the settlers became disenchanted with the lonely farming life and the lands granted to the Earl and his officers were bought by a member of the White family. The Whites engaged in farming, clearance of the forests, iron ore smelting etc. and prospered.

On 15 December 1796, Bantry once again became the destination of a French Fleet. 43 ships and 15,000 men set sail from Brest in support of the Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone.

Tone, a founder member of the United Irishmen, was determined to establish an Irish Republic by armed rebellion. Easterly storms off the Irish coast dispersed the fleet and while some succeeded in anchoring in Bantry Bay, most were scattered in the Atlantic.

On 27 January 1797, the order was given to abandon the attempted invasion and the few remaining ships in the bay that were seaworthy sailed back for France.

 Because of the assistance which he gave to the British establishment and military during the French Invasion of 1796, Richard White was made Baron of Bantry in 1797, Viscount Bantry in 1800 and Earl of Bantry in January 1816.

More than a century and a half later, in 1969, a fleet of the largest ships ever built made Bantry its regular port of call. The Gulf Oil Co. established a Crude Oil Tank Farm on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay. The giant tankers brought the crude oil from Kuwait to Bantry via the Cape of Good Hope for transhipment to European refineries in smaller tankers.

THE 1800s

In the early 1800’s Bantry prospered. The Napoleonic Wars created a huge demand for all agricultural produce and the Bantry fishing boats employed 1,162 men in 1821 out of a total population of almost 4000.

In 1831 the population totalled 4,275 while 10 years later it had dropped to 4,082. It is not known exactly how many died during the Famine years.

With the collapse of the fishing industry, mining, milling, hide and butter market, together with the mass exodus of emigrants to the States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand the population dropped drastically to about 1200.

THE 1900s

From the turn of the 20th century, Bantry as a rural town just managed to survive especially through the World Wars, even though Bantry Bay was the base for the Atlantic British Fleet and the resulting commerce it generated.

After WW2, the town fell into further decline and most of the young people emigrated to foreign parts to find work. The notorious Black Fifties was a time of mass emigration in Ireland and Bantry was no exception.

With the upturn of the Irish economy in the early ’60’s a number of small industries were established in Bantry and with the gradual improvements in the local economy, Bantry began to revive itself especially during the building of the Crude Oil Terminal on Whiddy Island when Bantry became a boom town.

This revival was short lived. The Whiddy Island Disaster tanker explosion in 1979 and the closure of the Terminal was a severe blow to the economy of the town with its loss of some 250 jobs.

MODERN LIFE IN BANTRY

Today, Bantry is a very vibrant and bustling market town at the heart of West Cork which is looking to the future, but with an appreciation for its heritage and past. 

Now a very popular tourist destination and a town which has revived to become a leader in mariculture with Bantry Bay Mussels one of the main products which is exported all over the world.  

With thriving businesses and continual improvement of local amenities, Bantry is enjoying growth and it is a fantastic place to live or visit.

Bantry Museum

Bantry Museum is located off Wolfe Tone Square in Bantry and is well worth a visit.

Bantry Historical Society

If you have an interest in Bantry’s history, contact the Bantry Historical Society for more information.

Discover more history of Bantry

Heritage in Bantry

Learn more about Heritage in Bantry

Heritage Loop Walks

Discover five mapped heritage loop walks around the town and download a map.

Heritage Sites

Plenty of heritage sites in and around Bantry to discover.