Offaly Towns, Villages & Places of Interest
On the River Camcor, a small tributary of the River Shannon in the south-west of the county, Birr is Offaly's most attractive town. With formal, tree-lined avenues and Georgian terraces, Birr retains much of its 18th and 19th-century character. Many traditional shopfronts survive along Connaught and Main Streets, and all the main roads converge on Emmet Square, where a statue of the duke of Cumberland (victor of the Battle of Culloden) stood on the central column until 1925. In one corner is Dooly's Hotel dating from 1747, formerly a coaching inn on the busy route west. The buildings around Emmet Square are attractive and the central area of the square surrounding the column has been repaved. The square, however, would still benefit from some trees.
Birr Castle & Demesne
Most visitors to Birr come to see the castle and grounds, which are among the finest in Ireland. Most of the present structure dates from around 1620 when Sir Laurence Parsons was granted the estate. A later Laurence presided over alterations to the castle in the early 19th century, which left it almost exactly as you see it today. In 1820 the castle was fortified again after a local Protestant woman, Mrs Legge, convinced her brethren that the Catholics were going to rise up and kill them in their beds.
The demesne, which runs north from the castle, consists of 50 hectares of magnificent gardens set around a large artificial lake. The gardens hold over 1000 species of shrubs and trees from all over the world. Of particular interest is the collection from the Himalayas and China, brought back from the 6th earl's 1935 honeymoon in Peking. You will also find the tallest box hedges in the world, which were planted in the 1780s and now stand some 12 metres high. A catalogue of the plant collection is available at the entrance.
Today the castle is the private home of Lord and Lady Rosse and is not open to casual visitors, although group visits may be possible if arranged well in advance. Enquiries should be directed to: Estate Office (0509-20056), Rosse Row, Birr, County Offaly. The gardens are open May to September from 9 am and 6 pm daily, and for the rest of the year from 9 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 5pm daily.
The castle grounds hold one of the most impressive and extraordinary structures in Ireland. The third earl of Rosse, William Parsons (1800-67), wanted to build the biggest telescope in the world. The resulting 'leviathan of Parsonstown', a 72-inch (183-cm) reflector telescope completed in 1845, remained the largest in existence for 75 years, attracting astronomers and scientists from all over the world. The instrument was used to map the surface of the moon, and made a multitude of discoveries including the spiral galaxies. Amazingly, the telescope was built in Birr using local engineering and materials. The Science Museum in London now has the telescope's huge 72-inch reflector, but the massive walls, 22 metres long and 16 metres high, remain. The telescope's 18-metre wooden tube is 2.5 metres in diameter and was controlled by an impressive mechanism of pulleys and cables, none of which remain in place. A detailed model is on hand, though. Also within the enclosure is a small exhibition on the history and achievements of the telescope, with a five-minute recorded talk by the British astronomer Patrick Moore.
This remarkable family (all of whom were educated at home) were not just stargazers. The next earl of Rosse, Lawrence Parsons, was just as bright as his father, and built a device to measure the heat given off by the moon. Charles Algemon Parsons, Lawrence's brother, invented the steam turbine for the earliest British iron battleships, while their mother, Mary Rosse, the third earl's wife, was a pioneer in 19th-century photography.
The Distillery, which is near town, was established in the year 1805, and is built of solid limestone. The works are approached from the high road by a carriage drive or avenue, which runs for some distance along the river bank; a handsome stone archway, draped in ivy, gives access to the buildings.
The principal Grain Warehouses are situated on the opposite bank of the river, in an inclosure, entered by an old-fashioned pair of gates. Here are two Grainaries of five floors each, which contained 5,000 barrels of grain, and two Drying Kilns; the sub-ground floors are used as Bonded Warehouses. The corn is here delivered and weighed before being sent to the various Corn Lofts.
In the Distillery buildings there are altogether eight Grain Lofts, and the Mill contains two pairs of stones and a set of Malt Rollers. The Grist Loft, which adjoins the Mill, is above the Mash Tun; for supplying hot water there are four coppers. The Mash Tun is of the ordinary sizc arid description, and near to it are four sets of three-throw Pumps. The six Washbacks have a capacity of 18,000 gallons each, and the Intermediate Charger is in the Still Room. In the Running Room there are five Receivers and the Safe. The Wash Charger is fixed on the roof of an annexe of the building.
The Still House contains two old Pot Stills, and adjoining there is a Spirit Store. In the yard there are thirteen Bonded Warehouses, which contained some 3,000 casks. We noticed a capital Cooperage, Stables, Engineers' and -Carpenters' Shops. Forty men are employed upon the premises.
The following is a brief description of the arrangement of the Distillery. The centre court is called the Square Yard ; the buildings on the north side are devoted to the Back House and Cooling Lofts, as also the Mill, worked by a powerful breast water-wheel, which discharges its waters over the Cooling Pipes, which are laid in the bed of the mill race, and over these pipes is the Worm Tub, fixed on an elevation of substantial stonework; those on the east, to Still House, Tun Room, Spirit Store, and Racking Room; on the west, Maltings and Kiln, Corn Floors for selected grain, Malting Steeps, and Bonded Warehouses; on the south side are Corn Stores and Bonded Warehouses.
The Whisky is produced from pure malt and grain; the annual output is 200,000 gallons, which obtains a ready sale in the principal cities and towns of Ireland and England, and shipments have been made to the Colonies.
South-east of Birr between Kinnitty and Roscrea (in Tipperary) are the remains of Leap Castle. It lies in one of the few areas of Offaly rich in pre-Christian ring forts and burial mounds, and the site has some good views of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. The castle was originally an O'Carroll family residence, watching over a crucial route between Munster and Leinster, and was renowned for a 'smelly ghost'. It was said by locals to be one of the most haunted castles in Europe. The castle was destroyed in 1922 during the Civil War. The ruins consist of a blocky central tower sitting between two later lower wings.
Sleive Bloom Mountains
The Slieve Blooms in the south-east of the county are little visited and have moorlands, pine forests and hidden river valleys. It's a lovely journey from Birr to the hamlet of Kinnitty, the jumping-off point for the mountains. There's a good trip over the hills to Mountrath (County Laois), and a pleasant drive around the northern flanks of the hills between Kinnitty and Mountmellick (also in County Laois). For more details see the County Laois section.
River Shannon & the Bogs
The River Shannon forms the border between Offaly and Galway until it veers off west to Lough Derg south of Banagher, and it dominates the region geographically and commercially. Towns like Banagher grew up beside the river when it was a busier highway than it is today.
The Grand Canal also threads its way through the county, entering to the east near Edenderry and passing through Tullamore before joining the River Shannon at Shannon Harbour, just north of Banagher. Offaly has two extensive peatlands: the Bog of Allen in the east and Boora Bog in the west. The Bog of Allen is an enormous brown expanse that stretches over into Kildare and which along with many Offaly's other bogs - is being harvested by the huge machines of the Bord na Móna (Irish Turf Board) for potting compost and briquettes for fuel. Some of Offaly's bogs, however - most particularly Clara Bog - are remarkably untouched, and these are internationally recognised for their plant and animal life.
Banagher & District
The riverside town of Banagher, 12-km north of Birr, is one of the few crossing points of the River Shannon in this area. Going north, the next crossing point is at Athlone, Banagher has some pleasant pubs and restaurants and a busy marina, but is otherwise quiet.
Anthony Trollope was a post office clerk here in 1841, and wrote his first novels here. Charlotte Brontë spent her honeymoon here, and her husband, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, spent the rest of his life here after she died in England. Cuba Ave is named in honour of a local boy, George Frazer, who became governor of that island. There is a tourist information desk (0509-51458) in Crank House on Main St. The post office is farther up Main St near the Brosna Lodge Hotel.
A narrow bridge crosses the river at this point into County Roscommon. Shannonbridge is an unremarkable little village except for a 19th-century fort on the west bank just up from the bridge, where heavy artillery was placed to bombard Napoleon, if he was cheeky enough to try to invade via the river. Part of the road north towards Clonmacnois runs along the top of the esker on which Clonmacnois is also built.
Just south of Shannonbridge, a 45-minute train tour on the Clonmacnois & West Offaly Railway takes you through the Blackwater section of the Bog of Allen on the narrow-gauge line which used to transport the peat. During the 9-km trip, the bog landscape is explained in detail, with an emphasis on its special flora. The journey begins near the Bord na Móna Blackwater peat-fired power station which is visible for miles.
Ireland's most important monastic site is superbly placed, overlooking the River Shannon from a ridge. It consists of a walled field containing numerous early churches, high crosses, round towers and graveslabs. Many of the remains are in remarkably good condition and give a real sense of what these monasteries were like in their heyday. The site is surrounded by low marshy ground and fields known as the Shannon Callows. These are home to many wild plants and are one of the last refuges of a seriously endangered bird, the corncrake.
3-km east of Clonmacnois, near Clonfinlough Catholic Church, is a curious limestone boulder half buried in the ground. Its surface is engraved with crosses and markings resembling human forms. They are thought to date from the Stone Age and the patterns resemble similar ones found in Spain and France. Some suggest the carvings depict a prehistoric battle. To get there find Clonfinlough Church; a rough path behind leads over fields to the stone.
Tullamore, Offaly's county town is situated on a nice stretch of the Grand Canal. Charleville Castle and the Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre are among the attractions. The market square and some of the old houses are attractive. Founded in 1750 by the Bury family of Limerick, Tullamore soon superseded Philipstown (now Daingean) as the county capital. In 1785 a hot-air balloon crashed and started a fire that consumed most of the town!
The great Gothic structure of Charleville Castle sits in a large estate a mile to the west of the town centre on the Birr road. What some call a 'Gothic fantasy castle' with its spires and turrets was the family seat of the Burys, who in 1798 commissioned the design from Francis Johnston, one of Ireland's most famous architects. From the entrance on Charleville Rd, south of town on the road to Birr, there is a 1.5 lane (take the right fork after you enter the gate) to the castle itself. The castle's interior has deteriorated although some of the rooms have been maintained and furnished. The Hutton-Burys are the present owners and intend to restore the property and turn it into a classy hotel.
8-km west of Tullamore at Rahan are the ruins of two old churches with fine Romanesque carvings around the doorways. The Protestant church nearby is still used. Rahan is thought to be one of the earliest Christian sites in Ireland, founded by St Camelacus or St Cartage in the 7th century.
There is a lovely 8-km walk from Rahan along the Grand Canal to Tullamore. About 3-km from Rahan you will see the mined remains of Ballycowan Castle and an aqueduct where the Brosna River flows under the canal.
St Colmcille (also known as St Columba) founded a monastery at Durrow Abbey in the 6th century, and the monastery's scriptorium later produced the 'Book of Durrow, a Latin gospel now in Trinity College, Dublin. The book was kept here for over 800 years until the 16th-century dissolution of the monasteries, when it fell into the hands of a local farmer. The book's bright illustrations survived being immersed in the farmer's cattle's drinking water to ward off evil spirits. In 1661 the local bishop handed it over to Trinity College. The 'Book of Durrow' fared better than the rest of the monastery. It was damaged in 1186 by Hugh de Lacy who literally lost his head in the process, a local man taking exception to de Lacy using the monastery stones for a castle. The castle was being built on the fortified mound nearby.
Today, the site's structures include a fine high cross, a holy well, a Georgian mansion and a derelict 19th-century Protestant church; on a gloomy day, the bedraggled ivy-clad walls and gravestones do have a certain atmosphere. Some high kings of Tara are said to have been buried here including Donal (who died in 758) and a grandson of Brian Ború, Murcadh, who died in 1068. The ancient remains include St Colmcille's Well to the north-east of the church and a 10th-century high cross. On the east face of the cross are panels of King David, Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and the Last Judgement, while the west face includes soldiers guarding Jesus' tomb, and the Crucifixion. Durrow Abbey is 7-km north of Tullamore down a long lane west off the N52 Kilbeggan road.
Daingean, once known as Philipstown, is on the Grand Canal 14 km east of Tullamore, and was the administrative centre for Offaly (King's County) until Tullamore took over in 1834. Five km due north of Daingean near the village of Croghan is Croghan Hill, an extinct volcano, which offers fine views of the surrounding countryside, with some burial cairns and Bronze Age earthworks.
On the River Boyne bordering County Kildare and the Bog of Allen, Edenderry sprang to life with the arrival of the Grand Canal in 1802, but its origins go back the 14th century and the de Berminghams, whose mined Carrickoris Castle is 7-km north on Carrick Hill. Three km north-west on the Rhode road is the scanty monastic site of Monasteroris. It was built for the Franciscans by John de Bermingham in 1325 to quell his conscience over his father's massacre of 32 local chieftains 20 years before in Carrickoris Castle. The name Edenderry came from the oakwoods that once blanketed the hills around the town. The local O'Connor family used to harry the English and retreat into the bogs that cover the region. There is a pleasant walk from the town along the canal towpath out to the Downshire Bridge.
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