According to many ancient Irish books such as, the Book of Lacan, Keating, Leabhar Gabhala and the Annals of the Four Masters the first to inhabit Ireland arrived in Bantry Bay forty years before the deluge. Cesaire (a niece of Noah) with 150 handmaidens and 3 men are said to have landed at Donemark in the parish of Kilmocomogue, barony of Bantry.
Wave after wave of immigrants arrived in Ireland, many through Bantry Bay, during the following centuries, the Fomorians, the Nemedians, the Firbolgs and the Milesians to name but a few. Many arrived here as early as 4000 BC and were a nomadic people living off the land by hunting, fishing and collecting berries. They used tools and weapons fashioned from stone and made shelters of animal hides. Very little trace of these early settlers are to be found except for the occasional polished stone axe head and arrow and spear heads also fashioned from stone. Little change took place in the way people worked and lived for another 2000 years.
Then a new race arrived in Bantry attracted here by the abundance of copper to be found in our hills. They brought with them the skills of mining and processing copper. They manufactured tools and weapons such as axes, spears, knives and daggers. To harden the copper they imported tin from Cornwall. This race left tangible and mysterious evidence of its culture in the form of bronze tools and weapons which are often found during land tillage and excavations.
Dotted around the hills and valleys of Bantry can also be seen their stone circles, standing stones, stone alignments and burials.
The Irish name for Bantry is Beanntraige. The name came from a son of Conor MacNessa called Beannt. Conor MacNessa was one of the kings of Ireland at the time of Christ. The ending 'raige' in the name means the people or territory of "Beannt".
Bantry Bay is one of the finest and safest harbours in Europe and is situated in a strategic position on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Being very deep with no dangerous or sand banks and sheltered from most winds by the mountains which surround it, from earliest times it has been used as a haven by fishermen and merchant ships.
For centuries the fleets of England, Spain, France and Holland fished in the bay, paying harbour dues and fishing tax to the O'Sullivan Clan who controlled the bay. From Bantry ships sailed loaded with recruits for the French, Spanish, Austrian and Dutch armies.
In March 1689 a French fleet sailed into Bantry Bay with 7000 soldiers, arms, ammunition and money for James II in his war with William of Orange. Many of the soldiers fought and died at the battles of Derry and the Boyne.
As the French sailed down Bantry Bay returning to France an English fleet, under Admiral Herbert, entered the bay searching for them. In the battle which followed the French outmanoeuvred the English and made their escape. Many ships were badly damaged and a number from each side were killed. Both sides claimed victory!
In 1697 William of Orange’s troops of were landed in Bantry.
On 15 December 1796 Bantry once again became the destination of a French Fleet. 43 ships and 15,000 men set sail from Brest in support of the Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone. Tone, a founder member of the United Irishmen, was determined to establish an Irish Republic by armed rebellion. Easterly storms off the Irish coast dispersed the fleet and while some succeeded in anchoring in Bantry Bay, most were scattered in the Atlantic.
On 27 January 1797 the order was given to abandon the attempted invasion and the few remaining ships in the bay that were seaworthy sailed for France.
More than a century and a half later, in 1969, a fleet of the largest ships ever build made Bantry its regular port of call. The Gulf Oil Co. established a Crude Oil Tank Farm on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay. The giant tankers brought the crude oil from Kuwait to Bantry via the Cape of Good Hope for transhipment to European refineries in smaller tankers.
Prior to 1600 Bantry was only a small hamlet of maybe 20 houses surrounded by thick forest, with a few scattered small farms in the area. The people of the hamlet depended on fishing and grew their own crops. The few farms in the area were self-sufficient and had very little contact with the town. The town was isolated from Cork and other large towns. Dermot O'Sullivan, a local chieftain, founded a Franciscan Abbey west of Bantry in 1460. The Abbey survived for almost 200 years though there is no evidence that it encouraged further settlement. All that remains now are some stones which have been fashioned as an altar in the graveyard known as the 'Abbey' which is the main cemetery for the Bantry district.
About 1600 English settlers arrived in the Bantry area enticed there by reports of vast shoals of Pilchards which were found in the bay. (Pilchards are like herring only shorter and rounder!) Unlike the poor fishermen they had the finances to rig out new boats with ropes, nets, and gear which were required for the task. The fishing was a great success financially and more English settlers arrived on the scene. The population of the Hamlet expanded rapidly and by 1725 there were numerous 'Fish Palaces' around the harbour. After the failure of the 1641 Rising the Cromwellian soldiers were rewarded with grants of land in the Bantry area, the Earl of Anglesey receiving 96,000 acres. Many of the settlers became disenchanted with the lonely farming life and the lands granted to the Earl and his officers were bought by a member of the White family. The Whites engaged in farming, clearance of the forests, iron ore smelting etc. and prospered. Because of the assistance which he gave to the British establishment and military during the French Invasion of 1796 Richard White was made Baron of Bantry in 1797, Viscount Bantry in 1800 and Earl of Bantry in January 1816.
In the early 1800's Bantry prospered. The Napoleonic Wars created a huge demand for all agricultural produce and the Bantry fishing boats employed 1,162 men in 1821 out of a total population of almost 4000.
In 1831 the population totalled 4,275 while 10 years later it had dropped to 4,082. It is not known exactly how many died during the Famine years.
With the collapse of the fishing industry, mining, milling, hide and butter market, together with the mass exodus of emigrants to the States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand the population dropped drastically to about 1200.
From the turn of the 20th century, Bantry as a rural town just managed to survive especially through the Wars even though Bantry Bay was the base for the Atlantic British Fleet and the resulting commerce it generated. After WW2 the town fell into further decline and most of the young people emigrated to foreign parts to find work. The notorious Black Fifties was a time of mass emigrations. With the upturn of the Irish economy in the early '60's a number of small industries were established in Bantry and with the gradual improvements in the local economy Bantry began to revive itself especially during the building of the Crude Oil Terminal on Whiddy Island when Bantry became a boom town. This revival was short lived. The tanker explosion and the closure of the Terminal was a severe blow to the economy of the town with its loss of some 250 jobs.
In more recent years, Bantry has revived to become a leader in Mariculture with mussels the main product. It is now a vibrant market town and popular tourist destination, looking to the future but aware of its heritage.