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Ireland Gazeteer
Birr in 1835

BIRR, or PARSONSTOWN, in the Kings County in Ireland, situated in the parish of Birr and barony of Ballybritt, on the Birr or Comcor river, close to its confluence with the Little Brusna, a considerable stream flowing westward from the Slieve Bloom mountains to the Shannon. It lies sixty-eight Irish, or eighty-seven English, miles from Dublin. The parish contains, according to the Down Survey , 4,995 acres, 3 roods. Birr is not a borough town: the only parliament in which it has ever been represented was that of James II in 1689. From its central situation it has been distinguished by the title of Umbilicus Hiberniae , or navel of Ireland; and a hollowed stone used to be shown here as the identical spot referred to by the appellation, which is as old as the time of Girald Cambrensis. Parsonstown is at present the authorised name of the place, and seems to have been recognised as such occasionally since 1621; it has, however, been known as Birr since the middle of the sixth century, when Brendan, a disciple of Finian of Clonard, founded the monastery here, which first distinguished it from its surrounding localities. Birr is also the name most commonly in use, as well as that best known in history. During the ninth century, the most disastrous in early Irish annals, Birr was considerable enough to afford frequent spoils, both to the contending native factions, and to their common invaders the Danes. In 1162 it was burned down, and before the beginning of the next century was granted by Henry II to Theobald Fitzwalter, Pincerna Hiberniae , ancestor of the great Irish house of Butler. Its original possessors had been the chiefs of Ely O’Carrol, in which territory it is situated, and they disputed the tenure so successfully with the new proprietors and their lessees, that, after frequently changing hands, as the forces of either party prevailed, Birr, along with the surrounding district, came at length by royal patent into the possession of William O'Carrol, chief of Ely O'Carrol, in 1557. But the native owners soon forfeited their hardly-vindicated title; and in 1612, Ely O'Carrol, being confiscated anew, was made shire-ground, and disposed of to British undertakers by James I. Sir Laurence Parsons, a gentleman of good family from Norfolk, became the new proprietor in 1620. The castle was then standing, as also the neighbouring hold of Ballybritt; both of which had probably been erected by the early conquerors. On the first plantation of Leix and Ofaly, Birr had been considered as lying in Munster, nor does it seem to have been included in the King's County until after 1604. In the hands of Sir Laurence Parsons, however, it soon attained to the eminence of a county town, and became important as a stronghold of British interest thenceforth to the Revolution of 1688. Many new streets were built during his time; he added flankers and a barbican to the castle; and it appears by inquisition that at his death there were in the town five water-mills. When the civil wars broke out in 1641, Birr was held for the English by its proprietor and governor, Captain William Parsons, but after a rather severe siege he was obliged to surrender to General Preston for the Catholic Confederates in 1642, and they in turn were dispossessed by Ireton for the Parliamentarians in 1650. Captain Parsons, having ultimately sided with the popular party, was restored to his wasted estates two years after, and the town of Birr seems to have recovered so rapidly from its disasters as to have become a place of some note again before the restoration. Some of the merchants issued their own coinage during these times; and in 1682 the woollen manufacture, which was for a long time afterwards the staple trade of the town, was introduced. In the succeeding wars of 1689, Sir Laurence Parsons, being suspected of disaffection, was directed by the government of James II to render his castle of Birr to his own agent, one Oxburgh, who had raised a royalist troop of horse, as it is said, out of the rents of his employer, and now enjoyed the rank of colonel in the army. Sir Laurence, standing upon terms, was adjudged guilty of high treason, and condemned accordingly; but successive reprieves delayed the execution of the sentence until the next year, when the battle of the Boyne gave him his liberty, and restored him once more to the possession of his estates. Birr castle had still to endure another siege by Sarsfield, but was so well defended by Sir Laurence's lieutenants in his absence, that the Irish broke up their batteries after the first day's cannonade. The town and castle were then occupied by William's army, and by them surrounded with earthen ramparts.

The quarter-sessions of the peace are held here, and in the sessions-house is also held on the first Monday in every month the Court Baron of the manor, before a seneschal nominated by the Earl of Rosse. Five officers of health are appointed annually, whose province extends as well to the cleansing of the streets and general purification of the town as to the superintendence of its establishments for the relief of the sick. The chief object of architectural interest in Birr is the castle, the residence of the Earl of Rosse, built upon the site of the old tower held by the O'Carrols, and still embracing some of the walls battered by Sarsfield's cannon: here are some curious tapestries, and a few good pictures; but Birr Castle is mainly distinguished by an observatory, amply furnished with the best astronomical apparatus, added by the present Lord Oxmantown, eldest son of the proprietor. The great telescope is said to be larger than the famous one of Herschel. The new church is a rather fine-looking building, in the Gothic style, with a tower 100 feet high: the whole cost was about £8,000. The old church has gone to ruin, and in 1826 was quite dismantled; the old chapel is also in a very decayed state, but the new Roman Catholic chapel is a handsome Gothic structure of cut stone, with a spire 124 feet in height: the first stone of the foundation was laid by Lord Oxmantown in 1817, and Catholics and Protestants subscribed with equal liberality to the erection: the chapel is dedicated to Saint Brendan. The court-house, jail, and excise-office are in the chief street; Duke Square, in their vicinity, is ornamented with a column about fifty feet high, supporting a statue of the Duke of Cumberland, raised by subscription in 1747 to commemorate the battle of Culloden. Here are a mendicity-house, a fever-hospital, and a dispensary, supported by voluntary subscriptions and county presentments. There is also a charitable association for the relief of distressed housekeepers. Birr contains from thirty to forty streets and lanes, and has three bridges over the Birr and Brusna rivers. Its population in 1821 was 5,406 persons, and in 1831 amounted to 6,594; but, as the adjoining villages of Seffin, Crinkle, Ballindarra, and Ballyloughnane lie so close as almost to constitute suburbs, the place at large is in reality much more populous. Birr was formerly a town of some manufacturing importance, but the woollen trade has yielded to distillation, which has latterly been its chief support as a commercial town. The linen trade has also been encouraged, but the situation of Birr is not likely to admit of much commercial prosperity, as it lies too far from the Shannon to benefit by water-carriage, and is still so near other towns possessing that advantage, as to prevent its becoming an independent inland market. The barracks, built to accommodate 2,000 men, lie about half a mile from the town, and have sixty acres of land attached for holding reviews. The mendicity free-schools are supported partly by subscription and the liberality of the Earl of Rosse, and partly by the government. There were, in 1824, in the town and suburbs, 20 schools of various kinds; and in the parish of Birr at large, 31 schools, educating about 600 males and 400 females. There is a public reading-room, but no regular library. The neighbourhood is rich and well cultivated, and the gentry and proprietary in general resident.