When I told people I went/was going to Birr in County Offaly, the general response was a look of utter confusion, and “why?????”. I said that I saw a nice picture, and that it was a good way to make a circle back to Galway.
Birr, as a whole, did not disappoint! There were a couple rough patches, but overall, I have no regrets about stopping in Birr.
So. Birr. What’s the deal. It’s been around forever basically. The castle in Birr was built in medieval times. 1208 specifically. It was controlled by many different groups until it was handed over to Sir Laurence Parsons. The castle and 1,277 acres of land. Times were a bit sketchy when the castle was besieged in 1642 and 1690, but Birr came back to be a huge player in scientific discovery. There is a GIANT telescope built in the 1840s. It remained the world’s largest telescope for 70 years. It was monumental in discovering the spiral nature of certain nebulae which were later found to be galaxies. Intense for the 1800s. The steam turbine engine was also created in Birr by the telescope maker (The Third Earl of Rosse)’s son. His wife was a pioneering photographer. Successful family overall, I’d say!
Today, Birr is home to the Birr Vintage Week and Arts Festival – one of Ireland’s most popular festivals.
Birr is also quite tiny. The tour map that includes two different walks around the town can be combined to create a 2.3km loop. It covers some beautiful buildings and landscapes and leaves plenty of time to check out Birr Castle, should you wish to do so.
St. Brendan’s old churchyard
The Cumberland Pillar, built in 1747 is at the heart of Emmet Square. There used to be a statue of the Duke of Cumberland on top of the pillar, but it was removed in 1915 because it became unpopular and dangerous. “Tiltingly dangerous” to be specific.
In Market Square, the Maid of Erin commemorates the Manchester Martyrs, three nationalists executed in England in 1867.
Some shots of Mill Island, a park surrounded by the Camcor river.
St. Brendan’s Roman Catholic Church. It was opened in 1826. There is another church in Birr – a Christian church – by the name of St. Brendan… Why have two churches with the same name? I don’t know, but it’s evident that St. Brendan was popular in Birr.
Birr castle is something to see. Not exactly the castle itself though. You see, the castle is still a private residence of the Parsons family. The grounds, however, are open to the public and they do not disappoint.
There is a fee to access the grounds (around 12 euro if I remember correctly), but in my opinion, it was worth it. Should you ever find yourself in Birr, plan a day, and bring a picnic. There are 50 hectares to discover and explore, and the visitor’s guide suggests three different loops to check out, depending on your time allowance and how much walking you want to do. I opted for the telescope walk – the medium one, but took my time to stroll around it.
“For God and King”? Maybe? Not 100% sure, but that’s what Google tells me.
The actual Birr castle – home to the Parsons family.
Ireland’s oldest iron suspension bridge, designed by the family in 1810 – no surprise there, really.
The infamous telescope.
The lake on the grounds, created in the 19th century by diverting the river Camcor.
The box hedges – the tallest in the world – are over 300 years old. They are really, really tall.
In and around the formal gardens at Birr Castle.
After I checked out the castle grounds, I continued the loop around town. I found a very interesting fact about Birr. Did you know that the world’s first automobile fatality occurred in Birr!?
I bet you didn’t!! When was it, and what on earth happened!? Well, let me tell you.
On August 31, 1869, shortly after 8:00pm, a steam powered carriage (designed by William Parsons (that famous super innovative family) left the castle gates at a walking pace, and turned a corner too sharply. The Hon. Mrs. Ward was thrown from the vehicle and “fearfully injured, caused her almost immediate death” as The King’s County Cronicle reported. The article continues as follows:
The unfortunate lady was taken into the house of Dr. Woods which is nearby opposite the scene of the unhappy occurence, and as that gentleman was on the spot, everything that could be done was done, but it was impossible to save her life. The utmost gloom pervades the town, and on every hand sympathy is expressed with the husband and family of the accomplished and talented lady who has been so prematurely hurried into eternity.
What a fantastic way to write. Long winded sentences, but the words are so expressive! It’s easy to tell this was a very important event in the community.
That night, I stayed at Dooly’s Hotel in Birr. Don’t go there. Just don’t. The service in the pub was awful, the bed’s mattress protector felt like vinyl, the fire alarm went off 6 times during the night because of the night club next door, the receptionist knew nothing of it in the morning, and the breakfast was less than sub par.
On a lighter note, William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse (inventor of the world’s greatest telescope) has a monument in Birr.
And just like that, my little road trip was over, and I was headed back to Galway.