As you know I live on a peninsula: a thin sliver of land jutting out into the Atlantic ocean with Dunmanus Bay on one side and the world-famous Bantry Bay on the other.
While I am, as I type, looking out at the blue-green waters of Dunmanus Bay, behind me and over the spine of the peninsula, is the much wider and much, much deeper Bantry Bay.
It was here that I witnessed what can only be described as a week-long festival of every feature that makes Ireland such a great place to live.
But first a bit of history for all those who are not aware of Bantry Bay’s incredible place in the nation’s story.
On a cold and stormy December night in 1796, 14,000 veteran French troops huddled in the damp, dark cargo holds of 43 naval vessels. Many were sick; all of them were cold and wet after enduring a storm-filled crossing from their bases on the west coast of France. The French ships suddenly appeared out of the darkness and made their way to their target and landing point, the town of Bantry at the end of the 22-mile long bay.
The French armada had successfully evaded the Royal Navy, sailed silently up Bantry Bay and were now dropping anchor over-looking the town and its sleeping inhabitants.
Ireland’s back door, so to speak, was wide open. This was better than anyone had expected. The closest English garrison that could have offered some opposition was over 50 miles away in Cork city. While the French troops were eager to get ashore and begin the liberation of Ireland, there was a problem.
The French fleet had broken up into smaller groups out in the Atlantic to avoid the Royal Navy and, while 43 ships had now rejoined in Bantry Bay, a few were missing. One of these missing vessels was the flagship Fraternité, and a very important passenger, the general commanding the French expedition, General Hoche.
With no one to take command, no one to give the order to land and the weather getting worse by the hour, the French army waited, like sitting ducks for all to see. It must have been some sight when the sun came up and there, anchored in the bay, was this easily reached giant target. When General Hoche and the Fraternité finally arrived, he took one look at the conditions (the worsening weather and the lack of any movement by his army) and called the whole invasion off. The French hauled up their anchors and began to make their way back up the bay towards the Atlantic and home to France. Never would Ireland and the English be so unprepared for an invading army again.
As the French fleet broke out into the Atlantic, a long boat known as a ‘Captains Gig’ was dislodged from one of the ships. This boat washed up on Bere Island, a small spec of land at the mouth of Bantry Bay.
The Bantry Bay Longboat, as it quickly became known, was taken to Bantry House where it stayed for over 150 years until it was moved, in the 1940s, to the National Museum in Dublin. This long boat is the oldest surviving vessel in the French navy and has gone on to inspire a festival of seamanship, which involves young people from across the globe. This summer, the Atlantic Challenge, as the festival is called, took place in Bantry Bay.
More than 300 participants representing teams from Indonesia, Canada, Russia, the USA and elsewhere spent a week in Bantry where they competed in various sea trials and generally had a whale of a time.
Bantry became a party town for a week; we had the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, on hand to officially launch the 2012 Atlantic Challenge and there was plenty to do both on and off the water.
Food, music, sailing, oh and an invasion by hundreds of pirates, all culminated in a spectacular fireworks display as Bantry said goodbye to the visitors at the end of the week.
And before I continue, when I say that there were hundreds of pirates in Bantry, you must remember that the people of West Cork are no strangers to pirates. In fact the town of Baltimore (the original Baltimore in County Cork) is only too aware of what a menace ‘real’ pirates can be.
More history. Back in 1631, on another dark and stormy night (we get a lot of those around here), the entire coastal town of Baltimore was sacked by pirates who took all the men, women and children to Africa where they were sold into slavery. Of the 108 people captured only three made it back to Ireland alive.
Back in Bantry, during the summer of 2012, the town was overrun with eye patches, wooden legs, muskets and even parrots, all enjoying a day-long party in the town square. However, it was far from treasure maps and plundering the high seas these lads and lasses were reared as most headed for the candyfloss and the bouncy castles.
There were also prizes for the best-dressed pirates. Fears that someone would be forced to walk the plank when it turned out that the prizes were pineapples and not treasure chests were short-lived but the presentation of the prickly fruits did cause one or two muskets to be drawn.
As the festival came to a close, it reminded me that while I spend most of my time enjoying all that Dunmanus Bay has to offer, you can very easily miss all the other beautiful and interesting communities and locations outside of my world on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.
It’s time to get out and see more of West Cork I think.