An Amazing Past

Before 1600, the town did not exist. It is fair to assume that it was mainly bogland and covered with woods similar to the land by the river to the west of the current town. The Irish chieftains held all the land north and south of the river. The McCarthy’s were to the south with their main castle at Kilbrittain and the O’Mahony’s to the west with their castle at Castle Mahon later to become Castle Bernard. Changes in land ownership of the Bandon area took place in 1588 when the some 40,000 statute acres of lands belonging to the O’Mahony’s for their role as supporters in the Earl of Desmond’s rebellion were allotted to English undertakers. This was the time of the Plantations of Ireland.

The town itself was founded c.1604 as an English settlement for plantation settlers. In due course, a protective wall, which barely exists today, was built around the town. The town is a member of the 32 county Irish Walled Town Network. The town began to grow to the east of Castle Bernard at a crossing point in the river. The first settlers came mainly from Somerset. It is worth noting that many of the family names that appeared on the roll of the Mayflower in 1620 were identical with the names of the new inhabitants of Bandon. The town grew rapidly and by 1622 there were about 250 houses.

Surnames such as Beecher, Newce, Shipward and Archdeacon, while rarely found in the Bandon area nowadays were the founders of the town. Some years later, the town and much of the area was taken over by an English adventurer, Richard Boyle, later to become the first Earl of Cork. He is widely recognised as having one of the biggest influences in the development of the town. He built the walls and town gates which were completed by 1625.

Many of the buildings then existing have long been demolished and new buildings have taken their place. Christchurch, now the West Cork Heritage Centre, is one of the oldest if not the oldest church built for Protestant worship in Ireland. This building is now home to a feast of Irish memories as well as a database of the old records for births and deaths in the West Cork area. These walls and the Bandon militia formed the defence of the settlement. The circuit of the wall was about a mile; they were nine feet in thickness and from thirty to fifty feet in height. They enclosed an area of 27 statute acres.

To finance the building of these walls, a rate of 5 shillings per ploughland was struck on the counties of Munster. The wall had 4 regular gates, 6 bastions and 3 castles. It was Lord Cork’s boast that the walls of Bandon were stronger, thicker and higher than the walls of Derry. Boyle also funded all the public buildings and later made provision for a school. The town wall, while demolished in the most part still has sections in existence. Part of the wall around the southern section of St Peter’s church is believed to be that of the original town wall as well as some sections that divide the Riverview Shopping Centre and the rear of the Garda station.

In 1646 the government needed money very badly so they established a mint in Dublin and gave permission to other towns to do likewise. Bandon was one of the towns chosen. The Bandon coins were about the size of a farthing, made of copper and showed on the obverse the bridge and the words ‘The Corporation’ between a linear and a beaded circle. The reverse bore three castles and between circles ‘The Bandon Arms 1646’.

The Bandon River and its tributary, the Bridewell contributed to the development of the town by providing a clean water supply and a source of water power through a millwheel. The first bridge which was located just west of the present bridge, hence the name Bridge Street. This bridge not alone linked the two areas of the town but provided a focal point for trade.

Some of the settlers were shrewd businessmen while large numbers were skilled workers. Some contributed to the building of the town while others introduced various industries. The prosperous agriculture of the area provided opportunities for trade and raw materials for manufacture. It also promoted the town as an important market centre. Market areas were developed on both sides of the river and these were valuable outlets for local produce.

Many traders from Cork city were able to make a day trip to Bandon to source the best that West Cork could provide. (This is still the case) During the 17th century the industries of the town were mainly involved in providing for the needs of the townspeople and the surrounding area. Some products such as hides, leather and agricultural products were exported through the port of Kinsale. Wines, salt, spices, sugar and tobacco were imported. Over the years, this went full circle as Bandon proved to be a very good location for production as the brewing industry found out to their advantage. Allman’s distillery was a well known worldwide exporter of Irish whiskey.

From about 1750 the population and economy grew rapidly. Communications improved, the countryside was peaceful but long wars abroad in America and Europe created a demand for grain and other materials. Many corn mills were built in and around the town and flour, meal and dairy produce were exported in large quantities. Spinning and weaving took place in many workshops and other craftsmen were employed as tailors, cobblers, harness makers and coach builders. There were 15 tanneries in the town at one stage. Brewing and distilling were important industries also.

Buildings

In the late 18th century and the early 19th century there was much building activity at Kilbrogan Hill and Allen Square. The ‘Shambles’, which is unique in Ireland, was built in 1754 (1818 in Paddy Connolly’s Book). Castle Bernard (in ruins – see photo) and other large houses were built close to the town. Most of the retail shops in the South Main Street today date from the 19th century when they replaced the workshops of old. Many churches were built around this period. The Methodist
church built in 1822 preserves it’s original classical style. The present St. Peter’s Church of Ireland building opened in 1849 replaced an earlier church building. St Patrick’s Catholic Church was built between 1856 and 1861.

In the 1800’s the character of the town changed. There was a decline in the traditional craft industries. The main reasons were free trade, (after the Act of Union 1801) the industrial revolution in Britain and the coming of the railways. Local workshops could not compete with mass produced cheap imports. As a result, retailing replaced manufacturing as the main activity in Bandon. In the period of Catholic
Emancipation (1829), Catholic families were able, for the first time to become involved in the commercial life of the town, particularly in the retail trade. The growth of grocery stores gradually took over from the markets.

Production

Both the distilling and milling industries were very successful in Bandon in the 19th century. In 1825, George Allman and his sons began whiskey production at Monarone where the Bandon Mart is today. At times it employed about 400 people. The once famous but now closed down Allman’s distillery had once an output of over 600,000 gallons of whiskey per year. Much of this was exported but the industry suffered greatly from the ‘prohibition’ era in America and the ‘Depression’. The distillery closed in the 1930s. Brennan’s Mill, at the Weir was destroyed by fire in the 1960s.

The first half of the 20th century was one of decline. Not alone had the traditional craft industries disappeared but the commercial life of the town was weakened as a result of emigration and the depression in agriculture. World War II and its aftermath seriously reduced the supply of tradable goods and this had a major impact on most businesses.

However by the mid 1950s, in spite of the depressed conditions, there was a growing spirit of enterprise among the business and farming communities. This started with the foundation of the cooperative livestock mart which in its early days drew farmers and dealers from a very wide area. But it was the upturn of the Irish economy in the 1960’s and Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 that really laid the foundation of the modern development of the town.

Learning from history

People know that Bandon is a historical town; the economic importance of the town for the West Cork area is without question and people are slowly but surely finding out more about the interesting history of the town. The Bandon Historical Society (Cumann Seanchais Na Banndan) does a great deal of work in keeping local history alive. For anyone interested in local history, the Bandon Historical Journals are a ‘must have’.

Looking at the history of the town, it can be seen as one combining tradition and change. It teaches us that to continue to progress, the town needs to be open to change. History tells us that ‘Nothing stands still’ and things happen ‘in cycles’.

Bandon has seen and will continue to see many changes taking place. Who knows what the future holds for it but one thing is for certain… the people of the town will do their best to make it a success!