Bantry’s magnificent house and maritime rebellion
My new book, ‘50 Gems of West Cork’ (Amberley Publishing, 2019) explores 50 well-known gems of that beautiful region. Below is an abstract from two of my favourite sites – Bantry House and Bantry Bay.
The elegant Bantry House defines the character of the adjacent local town. The house inspired the town’s development and the pier and vice-versa.
The Archaeological Inventory of West Cork presents research excavations carried out in 2001 in an area directly west of the present house. Here the remains of a deserted Gaelic medieval village and a seventeenth-century English settlement were discovered.
Excavations revealed the foundations of the gable end of a mid-seventeenth-century house. This was in turn overlain by a more substantial and better-built rectangular structure, interpreted as a timber-built English administrative building.
A palisade trench, dug late in the sixteenth or early in the seventeenth century, immediately pre-dated this building. According to the excavator, this had presumably created a stockade foundation around the early plantation settlement.
Sixteenth-century cultivation ridges were also uncovered. These had cut into the foundations of a fifteenth/sixteenth-century Gaelic domestic structure. The area seems to have been abandoned in the middle of the seventeenth century and all available cartographic and documentary evidence indicated that no subsequent building or landscaping had taken place.
The narrative of the old sites fell out of memory. The earliest records for the next phase of the site date from circa 1690 and describe land deals between Richard White and the Earl of Anglesey, which established the basis of the Bantry House Estate. The records, which are in the archives of the library of UCC, include information about the ownership of land and property on the family's Bantry, Glengarriff, Castletownbere and Macroom estates.
The Whites built a detached five-bay two storey country house over a basement, circa 1710. In 1816, Richard White was created first earl of Bantry. Prior to his marriage, he toured extensively on the continent, making sketches of landscapes, vistas, houses and furnishings, which he later used as inspiration in expanding and refurbishing Bantry House.
The White family throughout the nineteenth century intermarried with other well-known landed families including the Herberts of Muckross House, Killarney, and the Guinness family of Dublin. Inspired by his travels and contacts, in 1820 Richard invested in the construction of new six bay two bow ended additions to the old country house as well as adding elaborate landscaped gardens complete with outbuildings, stables and gate lodges. In 1845 new bow-ended wings were also added.
William White, the 4th and last earl of Bantry, died in 1891. Ownership of the estate then passed to his nephew, Edward Leigh, who assumed the name of White in 1897. His daughter, Clodagh, inherited Bantry House and estates on the death of her father in 1920, and in 1927, she married Geoffrey Shellswell, who assumed the name of White.
Clodagh Shellswell-White died in 1978 and the ownership of the house and estate passed on to her son, Egerton Shellswell-White.
Today the house and gardens still belong to the White family and are open to the public to explore and engage with.
Information panels on Bantry’s town square champion Ireland’s nationalist past and define the layout of the square and which history a visitor engages with first.
The panels describe the collective memory of the campaign of Theobald Wolfe Tone in the interests of the United Irishmen and their quest for independence of this country.
He journeyed to Paris at the beginning of the year 1796 to court the French to help with rebellion against the British in Ireland.
There he met General Hoche, the brilliant French commander. On 16 December, a fleet of 44 vessels and 15,000 men under General Hoche and Admiral Morard-de-Galles set sail from Brest. The expedition was ill-fated from the start; it was only a day at sea when the frigate Fraternite carrying Hoche and Morard-de-Galles, got separated from its companions and never reached the Irish shore.
A dense fog arose, and Bouvet, the Admiral-in-Command, found he had only 18 ships in his company. Two days later, however, he had 33, and he steered direct for Cape Clear Island. Land was sighted on 21 December, and though a rough easterly breeze was blowing, 16 vessels succeeded in reaching Bantry Bay.
Twenty ships remained outside battling hopelessly against the gale and were eventually driven off the coast. A landing was impossible and Wolfe Tone, aboard the ship Indomitable, spent his cold Christmas on the Bay.
On the night of 25 December an order came from Bouvet to quit the assault and put to sea. It was decided to land in the Shannon Estuary, but rough weather was increasing. The squadron put to sea and returned to France. It was 27 December and the end of the Bantry Bay expedition.
Of the 48 ships that left Brest on 16 December 1796, only 36 returned to France. The rest were either captured by the English Navy or wrecked.
The ship La Surveillante was considered unseaworthy for the return journey and was scuttled by its crew in Bantry Bay. Its crew and all 600 cavalry and troops on board were transferred safely to other French ships in the fleet.
According to the National Wreck Inventory, the three masted La Surveillante was built in Lorient in 1778 and carried 32 guns. The vessel had successful naval engagements with British warships during the period of the American War of Independence (1775–82).
The wreck of La Surveillante was discovered in 1981 during seabed clearance operations following the Betelgeuse oil tanker disaster. One of La Surveillante’s anchors was trawled up by fishermen and put on display in Bantry.
In 1987 two 12 pound cannons were raised from the wreck, and in 1997 the ship’s bell was lifted, which is now currently on display in Bantry Armada Centre, at Bantry House.
Happy Christmas to all readers of the column.