Friday, 7 October 2016

Island 355 - Whiddy Island, Bantry, County Cork

Whiddy Island (Oilean Faoide in Irish) is located in Bantry Bay 1.5 miles west of the town of Bantry in County Cork.  It is about 3 miles long by 1 mile wide and the highest point is Middle Battery at 50 metres above sea level.  In 1841 before the Great Famine Whiddy Island had a resident population of 729.  This had fallen to 259 by 1901 and in 2011 it was  just 20. 

The island is in a strategic location in Bantry Bay which has deep water anchorages.  The British built three batteries on the island in the 19th century to deter the French from invading.  In September 1918 the US Navy established a seaplane base at the eastern end of  Whiddy Island.  A seaplane crashed in October 1918 and one man - Walford August Anderson - was killed.  In 2014 a memorial to him was unveiled on Whiddy Island.  I think it by the jetty where the ferry comes in but I completely failed to notice it.

There was a national school on Whiddy Island by 1837.  The current building was built in 1887 but closed in 1947 due to the decline in pupil numbers.  It is currently derelict but there is no door, so I had a look inside.  The classroom was still full of brightly painted blue desks and benches and, dust apart, it looks as though the pupils have just left for their lunch break.

A large oil terminal was constructed on the south west side of Whiddy Island from 1967-9 by Gulf Oil.  A sheltered deep water anchorage just off the island meant that supertankers sailing from the Middle East could berth at a specially built offshore jetty.  However at about 1am on 8th January 1979 a French tanker called the Betelgeuse exploded at the offshore jetty on Whiddy Island, while it was unloading its cargo of crude oil.  Much of the crude oil on board ignited and after a series of explosions the ship broke into two.  Firefighters were unable to get near the vessel but managed to prevent the fire from spreading to the storage tanks on the island.  All 42 people on board the ship and 8 terminal workers were killed and a Dutch diver died during the subsequent salvage operation.  An official report into the disaster found that the ship had been in a poor physical condition, mistakes had been made in the sequence of unloading the cargo, which led to sudden and fatal cracking of the vessel's hull and the fire fighting and rescue equipment on the vessel and on the jetty was inadequate and poorly maintained.  The incident became known as the Whiddy Island Disaster or the Betelgeuse Incident or Disaster.

In 1986 Gulf Oil surrendered its lease on the Whiddy Island Oil Terminal to the Irish Government. They sold it to the Tosco Corporation in 2001 and it was later operated by ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66.  In 2014 it was sold to Zenith Energy.

A passenger ferry from Bantry to Whiddy Island makes 3-4 journeys a day all year round.  The journey time is about 10 minutes.  Tim O'Leary, who operates the ferry, also runs the island's pub, the Bank House, with his partner. 

On the day I visited in September 2016 there were only 3 other visitors - an elderly couple and a lady from the Cork Tourist Department who was organising a forthcoming treasure hunt on the island for a large group of employees from a particular company.   The weather was grey but dry for the first hour or so of my visit and then it began to drizzle, followed by more persistent rain. 

There is a well waymarked 3 mile loop walk around part of the island.  The waymarks and stiles had recently been renewed, in honour of my visit no doubt!  The route passes Kilmore Lakes, the ruined chapel and graveyard and the oil storage terminal.  I took the optional signed detour down to the beach and picnic site at the seaward of the two Kilmore Lakes and the optional unsigned detour down the oil storage terminal perimeter road to look at the quay at Whiddy Point West.  There is also a signed detour up to Middle Battery, which I did too, although you can only walk round the outside of Middle Battery at present. On a clear day the short walk up the hill to Middle Battery would be well worth it for the views alone.  However it was pouring with rain, so the views weren't great and I soon headed back down the hill to the pub, which thankfully was open.  Tim made me a very welcome hot coffee and a delicious cheese and tomato toastie and I sat and chatted to him and the 3 other visitors until it was time for the ferry to depart.  As he is also the ferryman, we didn't have to worry that we were going to miss the ferry!

An occupied house on Whiddy Island

Abandoned Farmhouse

Kilmore Lake meets the sea

Stone age picnic site
At least it won't get blown away or stolen!

Ruined Chapel and Graveyard

New Ladder Stile

Oil Storage Terminal

Another new ladder stile near Oil Storage Terminal

Keep Out!

Quay at Reenaknock


No entry


Old Whiddy Island National School

Classroom inside the National School
Ruined Cottage on the way to Middle Battery

Middle Battery Entrance - Danger, Keep Out

Bank House - Pub - open!

Whiddy Island Ferry - Lantern II

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