BANTRY, a beautiful harbour town on the wild Atlantic Way, has a population of over 3,300, and among them is Deirdre Fitzgerald, who feels fortunate to have always called it home.
She is a tutor with Cork ETB and has recently completed a degree in Business Enterprise and Community Development.
She also volunteers as chairperson of the Bantry Project Group, which brings together the town’s main stakeholder groups, meeting with local Cork County Councillors and the senior executive engineer in Bantry. Its aim is to explore projects for the Bantry area then source funding to progress them to completion.
Recognising her efforts with that group, she was recently nominated for Community Person of the Year at Cork County Council’s Mayor Community Awards.
A recent example of work done through Bantry Project Group is the renewed streetscape on Main Street, while the group is currently working on the restoration and renewal of Bantry Peace Park, a community space in Newtown.
“We’ve installed a sensory garden and a MUGA (multi-use games area) so the kids can play basketball or 5-a-side safely. We’ve also included biodiversity planting and we’re finishing off the walkway around the park at the moment”, she explains.
For further recreation, head out a little further along Newtown and you’ll hear the cheers of children coming from the playground, next to Bantry Blues GAA headquarters, while at the other side of town there’s the Beicin walk right next to the sea, which also features exercise equipment along the route.
Friday is a busy market day, with stalls lining the square, and multiple food trucks to choose from when the hunger pangs set in.
Needless to say, most restaurants have modified their businesses to meet the takeaway needs of the Covid-era and there’s been huge local support for the likes of The Brick Oven and The Fish Kitchen.
A new option for refreshments is the recently opened Piccolo Coffee bar at the beautiful craft and design store, Forest and Flock, while a new pizzeria is set to open at the site formerly occupied by the Bakehouse.
Deirdre has more good news for outdoor diners: “There’s a new dining area going in at the Quays area, with a raised platform and glass screening all around it. There’s a similar plan for New Street.”
Meanwhile, if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare, you can seek sanctuary at Bantry Library on Bridge Street, an iconic piece of modernist architecture. Sit on a bench outside and listen to the river flowing beneath you, leading to a massive mill wheel, from which there are hopes to one day generate electricity to power the library.
Bantry is now utilising the fabulous natural amenity of the sea to its full advantage with the creation of a few new businesses in recent years. With Bantry Boat Hire, you can hire kayaks at the old railway pier and enjoy the wildlife up close by going out to Chapel Island or the Airstrip (yes, you can land an aircraft in Bantry!) and find yourself in the company of whales and dolphins. There’s also the option to go at sunset for an alternative version of the stunning vista.
Another company making the most of the sea is Bantry Bay Charters, recently featured on Nevin’s Irish Seafood Trail on RTÉ.
“You can go out with them and see the resident sea eagles in the bay. These are quite rare. They were reintroduced in a programme via Killarney but they spread out to Bantry and they stayed here. You can go on a marine wildlife tour with them and you’ll see harbour seals, grey seals, porpoises, dolphins, humpback whales and basking sharks. Or you can go on a sea-angling trip as well”, says Deirdre, who is already keen to book her next trip.
Whiddy Island is only a short ferry ride away and is a great spot to explore by bicycle, available to hire from The Bank House Bar. The island’s newly renovated Old Schoolhouse hostel is due to open when restrictions allow.
Meanwhile, the Goats Path Farm and Pod Park will be a quirky new glamping attraction opening on the Sheeps Head Way on June 1. These new additions will add to the already considerable accommodation options in the Bantry area.
A big fan of the outdoors, one of Deirdre’s favourite spots for a hike is the Corrycommane Loop Walk, an outing enhanced by a stop-off for coffee and cake at Mannings Emporium in Ballylickey en route.
“Park at Coomhola Bridge”, she advises, “then it’s all uphill for 20 minutes but when you get to the top you’re overlooking Bantry Bay and Whiddy Island, you see the full stretch of the Sheeps Head, you’re looking right into Sugar Loaf mountain and you’re looking right into the Priest’s Leap valley. You can see for so far around.”
If you do find yourself at that side of Bantry, it’s also worth taking a spin into the village of Kealkil to find the impressive stone circle, an example of megalithic architecture in Ireland. It’s another steep walk but the rewards are worth it — and you’ll have burned off the calories from the aforementioned cake!
Bantry is an excellent base for all kinds of breath-taking scenery, most famously perhaps the Sheeps Head on the Western side of the town, or Garnish Island as you head to Glengarriff, not to mention the glorious views from Bantry House and Gardens. The superbly appointed stately home’s tea room is open for takeaway (currently Thursday to Sunday, with hopes to expand opening hours by late May) and they can also provide an extra-special treat with picnic baskets of goodies to enjoy from their gardens (ordered 24 hours in advance) on the days the tea-room is open.
Deirdre expresses gratitude for the house’s owners, the Shelswell-White family, who allowed outdoor access for free this past winter for those lucky enough to live within 5km.
“It shows how caring the people of Bantry House were for the local population during the Lockdown when they opened up their extensive grounds during a very difficult period”, she says.
Deirdre feels that the pandemic has made people appreciate their area more.
“The restriction encouraged us to look at the fabulous amenities that were available close to us.
“Before, we’d all hop in the car and go for a spin somewhere else, but this forced us to open our eyes to the beautiful walks, topography, coastal walkways, beaches and wonderful marine life that are actually on our doorstep here.”
Next week: Martina visits Cobh.