Monday 11 December 2017

Bantry: A truly magical marketplace

Bantry House
Bantry House

CONOR POWER

The first time I saw Bantry was in 1994. All I knew of it then was that it was a place that was famously celebrated in song -- in more than one song, too. Therefore, I thought, it must be magical, beautiful ... the sort of place that grabs a hold of you and won't let you go until you've taken out a mortgage and bought yourself a house there.





As it turns out, that's more or less what happened to me in the interim. But the first impression I had of Bantry was not as I had imagined it.

It's not really a resort and it's not one of those disarmingly charming fishing villages à la Dunmore East or Mullaghmore. Bantry is, you see, a market town on the West Cork coastline.

And what a market town it is too. Every Friday, the sprawling sandstone Wolfe Tone Square gets bedecked on all sides by a magnificent market of the type I thought only existed on the Continent.

On the first Friday of the month, there's an extra-large version that spreads to the recently reclaimed car park by the inner harbour and into the streets of the town itself.

The stalls, stands, tables, chairs and car boots heave with a dazzling variety of crafts, clothing, antiques, fruit, fish and artisan foods of every mouth-watering variety and of the highest quality.

It's a colourful fiesta of open trading and eclectic atmosphere that is, according to trader Toby Simmonds of the Real Olive Company, a result of accidental legislation.

A stand-off between local government and local traders resulted in a loophole where an ancient law allows for a traditional open market of the sort that has been in existence in Bantry for centuries.

But it's all good news for visitor and resident alike. The effect it creates in terms of ambiance is something a thousand tourism committees couldn't come up with if they were forced to at gunpoint. In Fáilte Ireland-speak, it's an elaborate and authentic tourism product of considerable added value.

The square is surrounded on three sides by mostly 19th century buildings, with the final end facing on to Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island.

There's a statue of Wolfe Tone standing with proud, quiet defiance, his hands behind his back and his eyes staring intently at the scene of his failed attempt to bring a fleet of 43 ships from France carrying 15,000 troops here in the winter of 1796. Back then the square named in his honour was the inner harbour.

At the other end of Wolfe Tone Square, a statue of St Brendan the Navigator stands in a boat clearly too small to accommodate him, his hands aloft in praise of Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island before him.

Gaelic football fever hits this part of the world on an annual basis, and brave local volunteers always manage to climb up and dress St Brendan in Cork colours.

The town itself disappears behind Wolfe Tone Square in a maze of narrow streets that wind up the hills behind the town.

Here is a place conducive to wandering, and where the traditional Irish pub still thrives. Ma Murphy's on New Street is a case in point.

It has everything: a narrow street front with an interior that stretches a good distance away from the regular world outside; a combined shop counter that extends into a pub counter, complete with a full range of basic necessities such as chocolate bars, Tayto crisps and pints of milk; an excellent range of terrestrial and maritime bric-a-brac attached to the walls and suspended from the ceiling; a real completely enclosed snug; a back room with a fireplace ideal for sing-songs; and finally, a chirpy quirky owner, Bill, a Welsh-born true son of West Cork.

Farther out on the road to Bantry cemetery (where the departed repose on a hillside with heavenly views) and past the recently-built Maritime Hotel, the entrance to Bantry House beckons through its large wrought-iron gates.

Once part of an estate that extended over much of Bantry town, Bantry House and Gardens still occupy a sizeable site.

It's worth climbing the stone staircase behind the house to get the stunning views from the top, looking out over Bantry House, Bantry Bay, Whiddy Island and the brooding hulk of landmass that is the Beara Peninsula.

Inside Bantry House, family life for the latest generation of the Shellswell-Whites, who've been there since 1796, continues amidst the tourists that stroll through this historic mansion, or the classical music fans who come to hear recitals during the annual West Cork Chamber Music Festival in July.

The only vessel to make landfall on the ill-fated Wolfe Tone expedition was a longboat that was captured on Bere Island.

The boat is today the oldest surviving vessel of the French navy and it sits in the National Museum at Collins Barracks in Dublin.

Until the middle of the last century, however, it was kept in Bantry House.

As fate would have it, this July will see teams from 16 countries coming to Bantry to indulge in tests of seamanship in replicas of that same longboat.

The Atlantic Challenge began in 1988 when a couple of boating enthusiasts realised that an 18th-century French naval longboat was an ideal vessel with which to train young sailors in the skills of traditional seamanship.

Over the intervening years the competition has grown and this year, the Bantry Longboats will make a triumphant return to the scene of their origins.

A fun-filled invasion not to be missed.

GETTING THERE

www.bantry.ie - smart website with tourist and other information

www.bantry2012.com - has full information and news on the Atlantic Challenge

www.westcork music.ie - website with programmes and booking info and news on the Chamber Music and related cultural festivals

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