Fota Island was the private home of the Smith-Barry family for nearly 800 years until the estate was sold to University College Cork (UCC) in 1975. Family members were descendants of Philip de Barry, who arrived in Ireland from Wales as part of the Norman invasion (1160s-1170s). De Barry took up residence in Cork after being granted lands across the county, including Fota Island.
The family initially settled in Barryscourt Castle near Carrigtwohill before moving to Castlelyons, where they also held extensive properties. Fota House was originally a two-storey hunting lodge, used as a base for fishing, shooting and yachting, but the family made it their primary residence during the 1820s after architect Sir Richard Morrison was commissioned to create the current mansion.
The estate was sold to UCC following the death of Mrs Dorothy Elizabeth Bell, the last of the Smith-Barrys. Fota House is now managed by the Irish Heritage Trust, while the gardens and arboretum are under the joint care of the Trust and Office of Public Works (OPW).
The five-star Fota Island Resort is located nearby and its championship-standard golf course hosted the Irish Open in 2001 and 2002. For more, see www.visitfota.com.
The seeds of Fota Wildlife Park were sown in 1979 when the late Dr. Terry Murphy, the then Director of Dublin Zoo, proposed that a Wildlife Park be established in Ireland. Dublin Zoo had developed as much as it could at the time, and the Zoological Society of Ireland’s Council accepted the idea as a project that could mark its 150th anniversary. The Council set about examining suitable sites in Leinster.
Professor Tom Raftery, then Vice-President of University College Cork (UCC) and Director of the Fota Estate, became aware of the plan and contacted Dr. Murphy to suggest that the Park could be located at Fota. A delegation of Council members was sent to visit the site and included a Professor John Carroll, a former President of the Society who had actually been born and reared on the island.
A proposal to establish a Wildlife Park on 70 acres of land on Fota Island - to be provided without cost but under licence from UCC - received unanimous support from University’s governing body and was then formally agreed to by the Zoological Society’s Council in December 1979. All monies were raised by public subscription - driven by fundraising committees in Dublin and Cork - and the funds paid for the entire project, apart from a Bord Fáilte grant that covered the perimeter fence.
The Society’s Council and UCC accepted Dr. Murphy’s concept of an open and natural surrounding for animals - with no obvious barriers - and so it was the late Mr. Sean O’Donovan, formerly a Lecturer and Farms Manager with UCC, that supervised the initial works, which got underway in 1980.
Dense undergrowth was cleared from the site, the swamp had to be drained and was then formed into a lake and islands for the primates while roads around the Park were mapped out and built.
Buildings were erected as more funding became available and the first animals arrived in late 1982. The Park opened to the general public in the summer of 1983 and now welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.