15 Interesting Facts About Bantry, Ireland

by Janis on April 18, 2017

In June we plan to visit the coastal town of Bantry, located in West Cork County, Ireland. Our first visit to this part of Ireland will be via a 14-day Celtic Kingdoms cruise.

15 interesting facts about Bantry, IrelandThe town of Bantry, we learned, has a population of less than 3,500 people. It’s located at the head of Bantry Bay, a deep water, wind-sheltered harbor on the Atlantic Ocean with an interesting history.

15 Interesting Facts About Bantry, Ireland

The European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus)

The European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus)

1. Bantry was a small, self-sufficient hamlet of farmers and fishermen until the start of the 17th century when significant numbers of English settlers began arriving, drawn to the area by reports of vast shoals of pilchards in the bay. (Pilchards are also known as “sardines that are more than six inches long.”)

2. With the financial success of fishing, Bantry expanded rapidly with numerous ‘Fish Palaces’ around the harbor by 1725.

3. Meanwhile, the Earl of Anglesey and Cromwellian soldiers received land grants more than 96,000 acres in the Bantry area as a reward for their role in defeating the 1641 Rising. Disenchanted with farming, however, many of the newcomers sold their granted land to the White family. The White family, in turn, prospered by clearing forests, farming and running iron ore smelting operations.

This hand-colored etching by James Gillray, called 'End of the Irish Invasion' or 'the Destruction of the French Armada' depicts the French expedition to Bantry Bay, at the end of 1796.

This hand-colored etching by James Gillray, called ‘End of the Irish Invasion’ or ‘the Destruction of the French Armada’ depicts the French expedition to Bantry Bay, at the end of 1796. Pitt, Dundas, Grenville, and Windham are the four winds which blow up the storm to destroy the invaders. Charles Fox, as the carved figure at the head of the Revolution, is represented as influencing the United Irishmen. The crew of the jolly-boat are Sheridan, Liberty Hall, Erskine, M. A. Taylor, and Thelwall, who, it is insinuated, were all approvers of the Irish rebellion.

4. On December 15th, 1796, a 50-ship French Armada headed to Bantry from Brest with thousands of men in support of the Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone. Tone, a founder member of the United Irishmen, was determined to establish an Irish Republic free of British rule in Ireland.

5. Local landowner Richard White — who was loyal to the British crown — had heard about the planned invasion, and had trained a militia to oppose the landing. He provided storage for British munitions at his Bantry House estate.

6. Thanks to storms off the Irish coast, the French Armada never had a chance of landing in Bantry. As many as 10 ships sank. One of these, the ‘Surveillante‘ remained on the bottom of Bantry Bay for almost 200 years. The French mission failed and the remaining seaworthy ships returned to France.

Anchor from the French frigate "La Surveillante," part of the French Armada force in 1796, which sank near Bantry, Ireland. The anchor was discovered and recovered in 1981.

Anchor from the French frigate “La Surveillante,” part of the French Armada force in 1796, which sank near Bantry, Ireland. The anchor was discovered and recovered in 1981.

7. For his efforts in helping repelled the French Invasion of 1796 at Bantry Bay, Richard White was made Baron of Bantry in 1797, Viscount Bantry in 1800 and the 1st Earl of Bantry in January 1816.

The Bantry House is the ancestral home of the White family who became the Earls of Bantry. Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna.

The Bantry House is the ancestral home of the White family who became the Earls of Bantry. The home has been open to visitors since 1946. Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna.

8. Bantry prospered in the early 1800’s as the 1803–1815 Napoleonic Wars created a huge demand for fish and other agricultural products. By 1831, the population of Bantry had grown to 4,275 people, with many involved in fishing.

A Curtiss H-16 flying boat of the US Navy, used at the U.S. Naval Air Station Whiddy Island near Bantry, Ireland during the final months of World War I.

A Curtiss H-16 flying boat of the US Navy, used at the U.S. Naval Air Station Whiddy Island near Bantry, Ireland during the final months of World War I.

9. Whiddy Island, near the town on Bantry, became the site of U.S. Naval Air Station Whiddy Island during the last months of World War I. Bantry Bay Station was used for anti-submarine patrols by Curtiss Model H flying boats. These air crews patrolled shipping lanes for submarine activity south of Kinsale, Ireland.  (This area where the RMS Lusitania had been sunk by German submarine in May, 1915.) The aircraft took off and landed in Bantry Bay; they were pulled up a concrete ramp for servicing and storage. The short-lived seaplane base became operational on September 25,  1918 and closed in February 1919 after the war ended.

10. Following the Irish Potato Famine between 1845 and 1852 — during which more than a million people in Ireland died and another million left the country for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — the population of Bantry dropped drastically to about 1200.

11. The 5th Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army was active in Bantry during the 1919 -1921 Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.

Names of those who died “In Defense of the Republic” between 1920 and 1923 are listed in Wolfe Tone Square, Bantry, Ireland12. Names of those who died “In Defense of the Republic” between 1920 and 1923 are listed in Wolfe Tone Square in Bantry.

Whiddy Island viewed from the south shore of Bantry Bay, Ireland. Photo by Pam Brophy.

Whiddy Island viewed from the south shore of Bantry Bay, Ireland. Photo by Pam Brophy.

13. In 1969, the Gulf Oil Company established a crude oil tank farm on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay. A fleet of giant oil tankers brought the crude oil from Kuwait to Bantry via the Cape of Good Hope for re-shipment to refineries throughout Europe. Bantry became a boom town, but this revival was short lived.

14. On January 8, 1979,  the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded in Bantry Bay. The explosion and resulting fire claimed the lives of 50 people. The Oil Terminal closed, costing Bantry economic hardship and the the loss of more than 250 jobs. During the use of sonar sweeps during the cleanup effort, the French frigate “La Surveillante,” part of the French Armada force in 1796, which sank near Bantry was discovered and recovered in 1981.

15. In more recent years, Bantry has become Ireland’s leading area for mussel-farming.  Fishing remains a key industry with herring, hake, whitefish, salmon, lobster and crab. The town is also a popular destination for tourists and surfers.

Learn more about the history of Bantry and Ireland with these resources:


A Bay of Destiny: A History of Bantry Bay and Bantry


The French Are in the Bay: The Expedition to Bantry Bay, 1796


The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone 1763-98: Volume II: America, France, and Bantry Bay, August 1795 to December 1796 (Volume 2)

Have you visited Bantry, Ireland? What interesting fact can you add?

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