Bantry Bay Harbour in southwest Ireland is about 35 kilometers long. About ten kilometers wide at its mouth, the Bay narrows to about four kilometers at its head. The town of Bantry lies on the Bay’s southeast coast near Whiddy Island. Four industries dominate the local economy: transshipment of oil, tourism, export of stone, and aquaculture.
The town of Bantry at the head of Bantry Bay Harbour is important to the region’s economy. A favorite vacation spot known for its great beaches, fishing and harvesting mussels are economic mainstays in Bantry Bay Harbour. About three thousand people live in the town of Bantry, and another 12.5 thousand live within 16 kilometers of the town.
Bantry Bay Harbour is surrounded by mountains and valleys that took thousands of years to form through volcanic forces. It is believed that Bantry Bay Harbour was carved during the second ice age. Foreign peoples from the south visited Bantry Bay Harbour in prehistoric times, leaving many megalithic monuments, 500 of which still stand. The ancient Irish Annals report that more than a thousand people lived in the Bantry region in 1000 BC.
Hermit monks escaping Egypt brought Christianity to the Bantry Bay Harbour area in the 5th Century AD. One of their new settlements was on Whiddy Island which became known by locals as Holy Island. Two types of Christianity struggled, and while the Roman Church endured, the earlier teachings still live.
The Vikings came to Bantry Bay Harbour in the late 9th Century. They plundered Christian settlements and native villages and constructed bases at Dursey Island, Loneheart Harbour, and Dunamark. Some of their language is still part of the local tongue. A native tribe finally defeated the Vikings in a seven-day battle.
After the Vikings were driven out of Bantry Bay Harbour, local tribes fought for land, cattle, and women until the Anglo-Normans arrived from England and Wales in 1094. Lack of cooperation between the Irish tribes afforded the Anglo-Normans an easy conquest of most of Ireland that lasted until 1261. Local tribes joined together in a battle in the valley of Callan about 15 kilometers from Bantry to defeat the Anglo-Norman knights.
Knowing the Irish tribes could win battles, the Anglo-Normans began to build stone castles to protect their conquered lands. The Irish followed their example, and there were more than two thousand castles in Ireland between the 12th and 16th Centuries. The Bantry Bay Harbour region had more than 200 castles from which each local chieftain ruled his territory. They used the castles as a base for smuggling and piracy during the 16th and 17th Centuries until English Rule crept into the country.
Bantry began to grow during the 17th Century, fed by farming and fishing. Merchant vessels visited the harbor often to transport the cured and salted catch to France, Italy, Spain, and the West Indies. This trade fed an ever-growing population and expanding development of the town.
When the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, pirates and Welsh and English settlers came to the Bantry Bay Harbour area. Bantry soon became a center for pirates. After the 1602 English defeat of the Irish, they pursued Irish soldiers to Bantry. An English army of six thousand camped outside of town. They all but brought an end to the local piracy.
The war between England and France brought English pirates to Bantry Bay Harbour who attacked every French vessel that came near the area. A French invasion fleet arrived at Bantry Bay Harbour in 1669 to help the Irish throw the English out. The French were not greatly welcomed by the locals, and the English sent their ships to stop the French.
The Battle of Bantry Bay became the first clash between the English and French in the Irish Wars. The English were forced to retreat after only six hours, but the French allowed their ships to return home, ultimately losing their chance to take Ireland.
Over the next century, Bantry Bay Harbour grew more prosperous. Ocean-borne trade added wealth, complementing local tanneries, grain and wool mills, and breweries. However, in the late 18th Century, the previously rich pilchard fisheries failed, bringing a major blow to the economy. The fishers were then forced to seek the seasonal herring, shellfish, mackerel, or cod.
Many Bantry Bay Harbour residents left for the New World during the Famine of the 1840s. When the Famine began, about 9.5 thousand people lived in Bantry. A cholera epidemic wiped out over three thousand. With emigration and the epidemic, the long population decline left about 1200 people in Bantry by the 1930s.
From the beginning of the 19th Century, Bantry Bay Harbour was the western base for Britain’s Navy, particularly in the years before World War I. As many as 40 warships anchored in Bantry Bay Harbour during the war, and their crews added greatly to the town’s population when they came to town, stimulating the appearance of many pubs. With the English Navy there, work was plentiful. It is said that the first German submarine sunk by an airplane was sunk at the mouth of Bantry Bay Harbour.
Before World War II, the English Navy had left Bantry Bay Harbour. The regional economy spun downward. After the war, however, the Spanish fishing fleet entered the area, bringing a revival to the town’s economy.