One of West Cork’s premier attractions has gone through more changes during its many years of existence but has somehow always managed to survive.
Blackrock, Seafield House or Bantry House as its name finally became,has been the home for two centuries of the White family throughout some turbulent periods of history and some personally challenging times.
The first representative of the family of whom there is any record at Bantry was one Captain Richard White, who was the son of a Simon White, originally from Limerick, who settled on Whiddy Island and prospered from the rich grazing lands, plentiful fishing and possibly the common practice of a little smuggling.
He invested in land and acquired property from the Earl of Angelsey who had acquired extensive grants of land in the area under the Acts of Settlement. Captain White’s son was born on Whiddy Island in 1701 and eventually became a barrister who was generally known as Counsellor White.
After making a considerable fortune at the practice of law, in about 1765, he moved to Bantry House which was known as Blackrock at the time. But in those days, it was a far different cry from the imposing residence that it is today. It was a typical mid 18th century Georgian country residence.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that it assumed its present form. Indeed, in 1840, J Windele of the Historical and Descriptive Notices of the City of Cork and its Vicinity described the house unflatteringly as a “plain, large and substantial building with little of aristocratic or architectural pretensions”.
But that austere judgment was to change and in December of 1796 in a terrible spell of wild winter weather, the French fleet under Admiral Hoche, appeared in the bay when Theobald Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen attempted to land the French Armada. They planned to expel the British and create an Irish Republic.
Richard White had heard of their plan and trained a militia to oppose the landing. He sent word to Cork; lookouts were posted at Mizen Head and Sheep’s Head. He gained the title of Baron and received a peerage. Subsequently he became a Viscount and then an Earl in 1816.
But in the end, the Armada never had a chance of landing and were defeated by the weather which was so severe that even ship to ship communications were impossible. 10 ships were lost, including the Surveillante, which remained at the bottom of Bantry Bay for some 200 years, until it was discovered in 1982.
Soon Lord Bantry was married to Margaret Hare, daughter of Lord Ennismore, one of Ireland’s wealthiest merchants. Lord Bantry promptly added two new wings to his house, extended the deer park, planted woods and improved the gardens he had begun to lay out.
The first Earl of Bantry’s eldest son, yet another Richard who was known as Viscount Berehaven, soon displayed an avid interest in the arts, and wanted to assert the dignity and standing of his recently ennobled family.
The first Earl carried on in robust health into his eighties, fishing, shooting and hunting. He died in 1851.
In the following years, Bantry House served as a hospital and as a base for the Bantry Garrison during WW2. It was the first Irish stately home to be opened to the public in 1946 and between then and the late Edgerton Shelswell White’s inheritance in 1978, suffered various setbacks and issues to do with maintenance and a lack of funding.
But somehow the house and gardens have shown a slow and steady improvement, despite the fact that the maintenance of such an enormous house and gardens, to say nothing of the proper care of its contents, is an endless battle.
When Edgerton’s wife, Brigitte Shelswell White, first came to Bantry House in 1978, she recalls plastic curtains and five buckets, placed at strategic points to catch the copious leaks from a decaying roof.
Brigitte lived in the big house for many years but recently moved into the much smaller — and more manageable — Gate House.
When did you move into the Gate House, Brigitte? And what was it like after having so much space?
Well you know, it was never as if we lived in the whole house. That would have been impossible. We had our own apartment on an upper level, so it could be difficult at times with young children. And there were times when I used the back stairs because the house was full of people and you didn’t always want to be looked at. Now my little Lodge is light, airy, it has a kitchen and a courtyard and you can walk from the kitchen into the yard, which is a novel experience for me. My daughter Sophie manages the house now, along with her husband, and my son Sam is living and working there as well now. But we all consult regularly.
What did you think when you first saw the place
To be honest, I thought it was beautiful, magnificent. But I thought it was too far gone. I wasn’t overwhelmed. But Edgerton’s mother died in 1981, and it became his responsibility, so we set to work. And I learned a lot along the way. There was very little money and so we had to do what we could ourselves. Edgerton was very focused. If he started a job he stuck with it until it was finished. It wasn’t until I’d lived there for a while that I appreciated what Edgerton’s mother had achieved. She lived there all on her own, which couldn’t have been easy, especially in summer.
What was it like bringing up a young family in what was essentially a museum?
Once the children came along, we were a family and it became a home, which was more than we could have expected. And once we started restoring the gardens, working the land, well, then that was really putting roots down. I was learning to do so many new things, all about the antiques and treasures, cooking for large groups. There was never a day when I was bored.
Now Bantry hosts weddings, festivals, a B&B, a cafe and the latest project, Shoeniversity. How do you decide?
We talk it over and come to a decision, always thinking about what’s best for the family and the House, and what we can do to raise money for its upkeep. We have many visitors from all over the world.
But that’s mainly in the summer.
Brigitte Shelswell White
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