The focus of the town is a large square, formed partly by infilling of the shallow inner harbour. In former times, this accommodated regular cattle fairs; after modernising as an urban plaza, it now features a colourful weekly market and occasional public functions. Bantry is in the Cork South–West constituency, which has five seats.
As with many areas on Ireland's south-west coast, Bantry claims an ancient connection to the sixth-century saint Breandán (Naomh Bréanainn) the Navigator. In Irish lore, Saint Breandán was the first person to discover America.
In past centuries, Bantry was a base for major pilchard fisheries and was visited by fishing fleets from Spain, France and the Netherlands. It was still a very small town in 1689, when it was described by the Jacobite army officer and future author John Stevens as "a miserable poor place, hardly worth the name of a town", consisting of "seven or eight small houses, and some mean little cottages". Wolfe Tone Square in the town commemorates Theobald Wolfe Tone. Dublin-born Tone led the republican United Irishmen in what he had hoped would be a local re-run of the recent French Revolution; this was to be achieved with the help of French Republicans in overthrowing British rule (see 1798 rebellion). The ill-fated French invasion fleet arrived in Bantry Bay and Berehaven Harbour in 1796, but its purpose was frustrated by unfavourable winds. For his efforts in preparing the local defences against the French, Richard White, a local landowner, was created Baron Bantry in 1797 by a grateful British administration. A Viscountcy followed in 1800 and in 1816 he became the 1st Earl of Bantry. The noted mansion and gardens in the Bantry House demesne on the outskirts of the town testify to the family's status; the estate includes the "Armada Centre" devoted to the historic event.
During the Irish War of Independence, the 5th Cork Brigade of the Irish Republican Army was very active in Bantry, and many members remained so during the Civil War that followed. Action by British forces included the punitive firebombing of several buildings in the town. The names of those who died between 1920 and 1923 "In Defence of the Republic" are listed on the wall of the former court house in Wolfe Tone Square.
Sheltering the head of the bay is Whiddy Island, site of an important oil terminal, originally owned by Gulf Oil. On 8 January 1979 the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded, killing all 42 crew members, as well as seven employees at the terminal. The jetty was seriously damaged, but the storage tanks were not affected. Nevertheless, 250 employees at the terminal, one of the largest employers in the region, lost their jobs. There was also significant environmental impact and the local fishing industry was affected. Local interests subsequently initiated mussel-farming in the sheltered waters between Whiddy and the town and this industry has since enjoyed considerable success.
In 1986, Gulf Oil surrendered its lease on the site to the Irish government. State investment in the 1990s restored part of the terminal and the Irish Government arranged for oil to be stored there during the First Gulf War in case of disruption to oil supplies; it currently holds one third of the national strategic petroleum reserve. The facility passed from state ownership in 2001 with the proviso that it would remain operational for at least 15 years. It has since been owned and operated by US oil companies Tosco Corporation, ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66.
In February 2015, Zenith Energy Partners, an international liquids and storage company headquartered in Houston, Texas, acquired the terminal from Phillips 66. At the time of the announcement, the facility directly employed 30 people and supported up to 100 contractors. It has a storage capacity of more than eight million barrels of crude oil and refined products.
The terminal saw a 15% decrease in oil traffic during 2015, according to figures released by the Port of Cork which operates the Bantry Bay port.
The town is a service centre for a large catchment area, including the Beara Peninsula. It is no longer a major fishing port, mussel-farming having replaced the traditional trawling. Tourism is now a major part of the economy, exploiting the coastal scenery of the region, and the town contains numerous hotels and guesthouses. Bantry made headline news in 2007 when a major cocaine-smuggling conspiracy was foiled on the nearby coast.
Bantry became a Fairtrade Town in 2006.
Bantry hosts two significant cultural events each summer - the West Cork Chamber Music Festival and the West Cork Literary Festival. These feature musicians and writers of international stature, with performances at various venues in the town.
Bantry held the Atlantic Challenge International Contest of Seamanship in July 2012 in which 15 nations competed.
Bantry is accessed by the N71 national secondary road. Scheduled bus services connect the town with Cork city, Killarney, Castletownbere, and some smaller local centres.
Bantry has its own small privately owned airfield called Bantry Aerodrome, though the nearest large international airport is Cork Airport. Cork Airport may be accessed by direct Bus Éireann bus in the summer tourist season; at other times of year, it is necessary to change buses in Cork.
Bantry Town railway station, the western terminus of the Cork, Bandon and South Coast Railway, opened on 22 October 1892, but finally closed on 1 April 1961.
Bantry Town Council has nine members. These members are elected by the town's residents every five years. The members elect a mayor and deputy mayor annually.
The local Gaelic Athletic Association are the Bantry Blues. The area also has a golf club (Bantry Bay Golf Club), a sailing club (Bantry Bay Sailing Club),a soccer club (Bantry Bay Rovers afc), rugby union and rowing clubs.