Bantry House, County Cork

Bantry House is a theatrical place, full of drama and character. Standing at the foot of a steep terraced garden, it commands incomparable views across the waters of Bantry Bay to Whiddy Island and the Caha Mountains beyond. Its magnificent setting, like a Claude Lorraine painting, is matched by the many treasures of its interior - exquisite French furniture, tapestries and objets d'art - which give this remote Irish house the air of a continental baroque palace.

The original house, a five-bay three-storey building, was built by Samuel Hutchinson around 1720; called Blackrock, it forms the nucleus of the present Bantry House. In 1746 it was acquired by Richard White, a farmer from Whiddy Island who had amassed a fortune from pilchard-fishing, iron-smelting and probably from smuggling. Through a series of purchases, he acquired most of the land around Bantry including large parts of the Beare Peninsula - estates which were further enlarged by his grandson Richard White (1767-1851). The young Richard took little interest in social or political affairs, preferring to live quietly at Bantry, but in December 1796 he was unexpectedly thrust into the limelight when a French invasionary fleet sailed into Bantry Bay to join forces with the United Irishmen. White showed great initiative during the crisis by organising local defences and placing his home, then called Seafield, at the disposal of General Dalrymple who arrived with troops from Cork. Months after the would-be invasion, Richard White was created Baron Bantry in recognition of his 'spirited conduct and important service' during the crisis; in 1800 he was made a viscount and in 1816 became the Earl of Bantry.

Although some modifications appear to have occurred during the 1770s, most of the additions and alterations took place during the first Earl's lifetime. A two-storey addition with bowed ends and a six-bay front facing onto Bantry Bay were added in 1820, providing space for two large drawing-rooms and several bedrooms above. Many more substantial changes were made in 1845 by Richard, viscount Berehaven (1800-67) - a passionate art collector who travelled regularly across Europe, visiting Russia, Poland, France and Italy and bringing back shiploads of exotic goods between 1820 and 1840. To accommodate his new furnishings, the Viscount built a fourteen bay block to the rear of the old house consisting of a six-bay centre of two storeys over a basement flanked by four-storey bow-ended wings. No doubt inspired by the grand baroque palaces of Germany, he gave the house a sense of architectural unity by lining the walls with giant red-brick pilasters with Coade-stone Corinthian capitals, the intervening spaces consisting of grey stucco and the parapet adorned with an attractive stone balustrade. He also laid out the Italianate gardens, including the magnificent terraces on the hillside behind the house, most of which was undertaken after he had succeeded his father as the second Earl of Bantry in 1851. After his death in 1867 the property was inherited by his brother William, the third Earl (1801-84), his grandson William, the fourth and last Earl (1854-91), and then passed through the female line to the present owner, Mr Shelswell-White.

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