Birr, County Offaly
Birr, one of the finest Georgian towns in Ireland is considered to be the Irish town at its best. Sometimes known as the model town it was likened by Provost Mahaffy of Trinity to the town of Armagh and for Mark Girouard writing in the early 1960s it 'epitomises the peculiar charm of a small Irish town at its best.' For some time known as Parsonstown after its owners, the Parsons family, it is situated on the Camcor River, a tributary of the Little Brosna.
The seventeenth-century ecclesiastic and antiquarian, Archbishop Usher, said that Birr was considered the centre of Ireland and Sir William Petty, the seventeenth century land surveyor and map-maker marks the old church at Birr with the words 'Umbilicus Hiberniae'. A present-day reminder is the Seefin Stone a large boulder said to mark the navel of Ireland and now to be seen at Oxmantown Mall in the centre of the town.
A monastery was founded here by St. Brendan of Birr in the sixth century. Brendan was associated with St. Columba of Iona and features in the life of Columba by Adamnan.
It was at Birr in 697 that the Cain Adamnan was proclaimed. The Cain or laws were intended for the protection of women and children in wartime. At the Bodleian Literary, Oxford may be seen the Book of Birr or Macregol's Gospel, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Birr in the late eighth century.
Birr is situated in the lordship of Ely O Carroll and from the fifth century was peopled by the Eile - a family grouping which as to the area of modern day north Tipperary and south Offaly were known as Ui Chearbhaill or O Carroll. The O Carroll family were overlords of the area until the colonisation of the territory by soldier-settlers from England in the early seventeenth century.
Birr castle was a stronghold of the O Carroll and it together with several thousand acres of land was granted by the English crown to Sir Laurence Parsons, a brother of Sir William Parsons who was Surveyor General and Commissioner for Escheated Estates in Ireland. Sir Laurence with possession of Birr c. 1620 immediately set about improvements such as would introduce 'English civility'. He and his successors, especially the second and third earls of Rosse had an enormous influence on the pattern of own development. Laurence Parsons set about erecting Birr into the manor of Parsonstown. He obtained a patent to hold a weekly market and two annual fairs.
The physical development of the town began in 1620 with the granting of sixty leases. A sessions house was erected in 1623 and the church repaired. This church still stands at William Street and its square belfry tower was used as a defensive outpost of the castle in the sieges of 1643 and 1690. The cemetery with some handsome tombstones including that to the Synge family of Syngefield was closed to burials in 1879.
Among the new leaseholders was Abraham Bigo who developed a glassworks at Clonoghill which is said to have supplied Dublin with drinking glasses and window glass.
The town of Birr had in the 1620s a fishing weir and two grist mills. In 1626 Sir Laurence made Manor court ordinances to cover such items as:
The early development of Birr
took place on what is now the western side of the town in the vicinity
of Castle Street and the old church. The town was besieged in 1642 and
again in 1643 when it fell to General Preston, as also did Banagher. The
town was retaken by Cromwellian forces in 1650. Surviving poll-tax returns
of 1660 puts Birr firmly at the top in population size in County Offaly
with c. 700 of a population.
This early effort at planning in the town was consolidated in the period from the 1740s to the 1830s. Emmet Square once called Cumberland Square was developed in the 1740s and 1750s. A latter Sir Laurence Parsons erected a monument to the victor of Culloden, the 'Bloody Duke' of Cumberland in 1747 while Doolys hotel dates for the same period. The statue of the duke dressed in the robes of a Roman senator is gone but the perfectly proportioned column remains. At the southern end of the main street is a monument to three Fenian heroes, the 'Manchester Martyrs'. One a statement of solidarity with the Union the other a declaration of defiance.
A striking example of town
planning are the two Georgian malls on the east and west side of the main
street. Oxmantown Mall on the western side is the finer of the two stretching,
as a virtual linear park, from the gothic entrance to the castle demesne
at one end to the new Church of Ireland church of St. Brendan dating to
1815 at the other. On the north side of the mall are some of the town's
finest houses dating from the 1820s.
A map of the town in 1822 shows that the general layout and infrastructure of the town was already in place. Infill only was required. The town did not have the advantage of a canal connection as did Edenderry, Daingean and Tullamore but it did secure a large military barracks at Crinkle in 1809 at the height of the Napoleonic wars. This barrack was extensive and could house up to 2,000 soldiers. The village of Crinkle grew around it and the trade of Birr greatly depended on it. Crinkle Barracks was destroyed by Republican forces in July 1922 during the Civil War. The town had two fine distilleries in the 1820s and trade directories of the period indicate that it was an extensive service centre with a more affluent settled urban base than Tullamore, Edenderry or Banagher.
The population of Birr in 1841 on the eve of the Famine was 6,336 persons with another 554 in Crinkle. However the next eighty years saw a long period of decline such that over the period 1861 to 1926 the population fell by 44.6 percent or from 6,146 to 3,402. The decline was exacerbated by the closure of the military barracks in 1921 and in the same year the workhouse (erected c. 1840) was closed and amalgamated with Tullamore.
The town's infrastructure was largely determined before the Famine years. Even the great telescope completed in 1844 was partially dismantled in 1915. The castle, a centre of scientific life over the period from the 1840s to the First World War, could do so little to halt the decline. Its owner, the fifth Earl of Rosse was killed in the First World War leaving his Successor, a young boy, to face the changed political realities in the new Irish Free State. The Castle had been damaged in a fire in 1919 and garrisoned by the new Free State Army in 1922-23.
Ample remains survive of the town's three old distilleries at Castle Street, Elmgrove and at Mill Island Park but arising from a fire in 1889 the best of the three, that at Elmgrove closed. Notwithstanding the town's decline some infill did take place such as the completion of John's Mall in 1880s; the laying of the foundation site of the Presbyterian church in 1885; the opening of St. Brendan's Street in 1887 (a continuation of Castle St. to the east) and the erection of labourers cottage at Cappeneale by Lord Rosse in the 1870s and 1880s. Oxmantown Hall on the mall of the same name was constructed in the mid - 1880s.
Over the period 1926 to 1971 the population of Birr increased by 13.3% The towns slow progress has meant the survival of the Georgian town largely intact. Its conservation for tourism combined with new development outside the urban core makes for encouraging planned progress in the future.
Birr Urban Development Schedule
Birr Castle; the old
castle was demolished c. 1778 save the gatehouse and the entire building
beautifully remodelled in the early nineteenth century.
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