Bantry House, West Cork

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | July 17, 2017 0

How lovely it was on a beautiful West Cork day to return to Bantry House after an absence of 40 years.

When I was there before there was a great question mark over its survival, the two wings were derelict the main part of the house was in poor condition with the roof leaking. Still lived in by the original White family who at one stage as Earls of Bantry owned pretty much everything for miles around they have fought back and done much to conserve the house and its contents. The title lapsed in 1891 but the house is still owned and lived in by the direct descendants of the 1st Earl of Bantry.

Now managed by Sophie Shelswell – White the house is open to the public, is the centre of various festivals and musical events started by Sophie’s father Egerton and is the most wonderful B & B in the restored West Wing where guests have the run of the house. The West Cork Chamber Music Festival and The West Cork Literary Festival are largely centred on the house and this year in August “The Masters of Tradition” music festivals and workshops are taking place. Also, open air theatre productions take place in the lovely Italianate gardens overlooking Bantry Bay. Bantry House hosts a number of events including classical and traditional music festivals, product launches, food festivals and outdoor theatre and is a popular location for television and films.

Bantry House and Garden is a stately home situated on the Wild Atlantic Way overlooking Bantry Bay in the south west of Ireland. It houses an important private collection of furniture and objects of art. It 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 family.

Bantry House (originally called ‘Blackrock’) was constructed in about 1700 on the South side of Bantry Bay. In 1750, Counsellor Richard White bought Blackrock from Samuel Hutchinson and changed the name to Seafield. The Whites had settled on Whiddy Island across the Bay in the late 17th century, after having originally been merchants in Limerick. The family prospered and considerable purchases of land were made in the area surrounding the house. By the 1780s, Bantry House comprised some 80,000 acres (320 km²) (though much of this would not be arable). The gardens to Bantry House were developed by the second Earl of Bantry and his wife Mary. Inspiration was taken from their travels across Europe. The gardens contain seven terraces; the house is located on the third. One hundred steps are located behind the house and are built to appear to rise out of a fountain and are surrounded by azaleas and rhododendron. The gardens are constantly tended and maintained. By 1997 the grounds of Bantry House were suffering from neglect and overgrown. A European grant was obtained to start the restoration process. Funding ceased in 2000. The restoration work is still ongoing. So far the statues, balustrades, 100 Steps, the Parterre, Diana’s Bed and the 14 round beds overlooking the sea have been restored.

Bantry House is totally charming, privately owned and managed to this day by the Shelswell-Whites, descendants of the Earls of Bantry (through the female line) since the 1760’s. It was the first stately home to be opened to the public in Ireland in 1946 and has been delighting visitors ever since. What’s unique about this property, apart from its scenic coastal location, magnificent Italian gardens and eclectic collection of antiques and artefacts from around the world, is its accessibility. Being privately owned and still lived in it practically talks to you…albeit of a grandiose lifestyle, that’s sadly long gone, yet it still can fire the imagination of an elegant and adventurous past. How many drawing rooms do you know that were furnished from a dispersal sale of Louis Phillippe, the King of France’s possessions in 1851? Hence the fine Abusson tapestries and Savonnerie carpets in the Gobelins & Roses drawing room with a fireplace from the Petit Trianon in Versailles.

During the aborted invasion of 1796, part of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Bantry House was used for the storage of munitions by the defenders. In 1796, Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen attempted to land a formidable French armada, commanded by Admiral Hoche, in Bantry Bay. It was intended to expel the British and establish an Irish Republic. The armada consisted of 50 naval warships and 15,000 men. Richard White, having heard about the invasion had trained a militia to oppose the landing as he and his tenants were loyal to the British crown. Munitions were stored in Bantry House for safe keeping. Look outs were posted on Both Mizen Head and Sheep’s Head to send warning of an invasion. In the end the French armada never had a chance of landing. The weather was too severe, and even ship to ship communication was too difficult. 10 ships were lost. One of these the ‘Surveillante’ remained on the bottom of Bantry Bay for almost 200 years.

The ship was discovered in 1982. In 1985 it was declared a national monument and work began on the excavation, preservation and exhibition of the ship and its contents. The Armada Centre showcased the story of the attempted French landing in West Cork and contained items excavated from the wreck in Bantry Bay as well as a 1 to 6 scale model of ‘The Surveillante’. The centre also told the story of Theobald Wolfe Tone, with extracts from his log and a life-size statue. Visitors could also enjoy the individual sound tour of the Armada Centre. The centre was run by a separate trust with Bantry House providing the building. After 15 years the centre closed but it is hoped to revive it as a visitor attraction in the future.

The town of Bantry is a thriving and optimistic place these days, with the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way increasing tourism and visitors. 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. Bantry House itself was hit by the downturn in tourism after 9/11 seeing its visitor numbers plummet from 80,000 a year to 25,000.The the Shelswell-Whites have kept the house going on a wing and a prayer selling off artworks in the 1930’s and land to the council in the 1980’s to keep going. In recent years the family have engaged on a restoration plan and have developed a plan to increase Bantry House’s footfall as a visitor attraction capitalising on the marketing success of the Wild Atlantic Way. Money is still a struggle and in 2014 the family cancelled plans to auction most of the house contents, but Bantry House without its unique collection would be a hollowed out shell. 

The family 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 known as West Cork. When I was there today the house was playing host to the West Cork Literary Festival with Dame Marina Warner giving a talk in the library. Bantry House was recently featured on Country House Rescue the Channel 4 production where it received very favourable reviews and has prompted many to revisit the House and Garden as well as first time visitors.

The lovely tearoom is worthy of special mention and to have their delicious scones and tea on the loggia overlooking Bantry Bay, Whiddy Island and the Caha Mountains across the Bay on the Beara Peninsula is a fine thing indeed.

Visit, or even better, stay there soon.

2017 Opening dates:

14th April to 30th April , May , September , October 10am – 5pm

Tuesdays to Sundays Open Bank Holiday Mondays

June , July , August – 10am – 5pm . Open 7 Days.

Refer to the website for admission rates.


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