The town of Bantry is a thriving and optimistic place these days, with the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way increasing tourism and visitors to this vibrant market town beautifully nestled at the end of Bantry Bay.
It has not always been so suffering from isolation in the South West corner of Ireland. It has much going for being at the end of a 19 mile deep water bay and with a mild temperate climate augmented by the Gulf Stream effect and the shelter of protective mountain ranges giving profuse and varied vegetation. Its economy has been hit by a number of economic setbacks, the closing of the British Naval base at Berehaven in 1938, the closure of the West Cork Railway which had its terminus in Bantry in 1961 and the explosion of the oil tanker Betelgeuse in 1979 which killed 50 people and led to the closure of the Whiddy Island Oil Terminal and the loss of over 350 well paid jobs locally.
But the town of Bantry is resurgent today after Covid put life on hold for two years and both people and businesses are celebrating the revival of cultural life and the return of tourism, most spectacularly demonstrated by the cruise ships seen visiting in the bay. The festivals have returned and there are many welcome (and famous!) visitors to the Literary Festival, Music and Choral Festival and the Master's of Tradition all of which spill over into the town in venues, bars and lovely restaurants. Indeed over the last two years many of these businesses have embraced outside dining and this has given a welcome continental lit to the street life from old favourites such as the Box of Frogs, the Stuffed Olive and the revamped Fish Kitchen to new favourites such as Floury Hands and Uncle Pete's Pizza. Variety is the key to the revitalised streetscape of Bantry.
Welcome too are lovely new retail offerings such award winning Forest and Flock showcasing Irish Craft and design not to mention the great O'Keefe's Supervalu on the Railway Pier at the water's edge showcasing the great produce of West Cork. Indeed it is such a striking building that locals refer to it as the "Bantry Guggenheim!" With its new Marina and smart hotels in the Maritime and West Lodge the town has come into its own. The Whiddy Island Ferry brings you to a different world and pace of life just 10 minutes from the town and Bantry Bay Charters and Boat Hire offers tremendous trips down this wonderful and beautiful natural feature.
At the heart of town life and the festivals is Bantry House which has been home to the White family since 1739 and was open to the public in 1946. Today visitors can explore the house and formal garden, have tea in the tearoom or even stay the night in the B&B located in the East Wing. The estate is unique since it is still lived in and managed by the Shelswell-Whites family. They are very much part of the community in Bantry and West Cork and are highly respected for all they have achieved in preserving the house and contributing to the vitality and artistic creativity of our special part of the world.
For many visitors and natives the time to see Bantry is when the town is "en fete" every Friday morning for Bantry Market with fascinating stalls, bric-a-brac and artisan food producers. The first Friday of the month is "Bantry Fair", a larger version of all the above. While walking around Bantry try some of the excellent Cafes, browse in my own favourite Kate and Marnie's lovely bookshop "Bantry Books" and stroll up to the lovely library building incorporating the water wheel which once provided electricity to the town. Buy above all sense the history and sense of place in Wolf Tone Square (Originally the harbour for sailing ships) and imagine the great might of been of Irish History when 31 French ships with 15,000 Marins appeared here in 1796. At the seaward side of the square is the statue of St. Brendan the Navigator who is reputed to have left from here and have reached the mainland of North America with stops in the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland on the way .
Today Bantry still looks out to sea soothed by the balmy weather of the North Atlantic Drift and with its amazing history behind it looks firmly to the future.
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