Birr is well known for its Georgian streetscape, mighty telescope and castle, however it might be a surprise to learn of the number of burial grounds to be found in and around the town. A total of nine burial grounds can be found within a short distance of the town.
While this blog post does not claim to contain the definitive history of each burial ground, as such a work would be several volumes of books, it does however hope to make the reader aware of the number of burial grounds in the town and give some interesting information about each.
- St. Brendan’s Old Graveyard
This graveyard contains the ruins of old parish church of Birr, which was used up until 1816, when it was replaced by the new St Brendan’s church which was built on Oxamantown Mall. The burial ground which surrounds the church ruins has been used for centuries by the town’s people of Birr. It was in the early to mid 19th century when the burial ground began to become over crowded and a solution had to be found. A solicitor to Parsonstown Town Commissioners commented about the burial ground in the King’s County Chronicle:
‘The old churchyard cannot be dug up for opening a grave without human remains being exhumed and cast about; this is horrible and revolting, and it cannot be denied that it is a disgrace to civilisation’.
The burial ground was formerly closed for new interments in 1879, however people with plots could still be buried here. The last interment was Desmond Parsons in 1937.
2. Bully’s Acre
A new burial ground located in Drumbane, a short distance from the town was opened around 1815 on land which had been granted by the Earl of Rosse. This burial ground appears on the old 6 inch ordnance survey named ‘New Church Yard’. The name Bully’s Acre is probably a bit of a misnomer as the burial ground catered for all the people of Birr including the British Military Barracks in Crinkill. However the burial ground was used to used inter people who had died from cholera on at least three separate occasions. It was only in later years that neglect, overcrowding and fear of ‘offensive matter’ reaching the water pump in Seffin (as the burial ground was on higher ground) resulted in its closure. Today the burial ground it is easy to miss being located in the middle of High Gate housing estate.
3. Birr Military Cemetery
The only military cemetery in Offaly, Birr Military cemetery opened sometime between 1851 and 1855, it was used by soldiers and their families who were stationed in the barracks. While there are only 55 memorials, over 200 named burials have been identified here, with a significant number belonging or connected to soldiers of the Leinster Regiment, their depot being Birr upon the regiment’s creation in 1881. A notable feature of the cemetery is the memorial obelisk, which names the soldiers of the 3rd (Militia) Battalion, who died in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The monument was originally located in front of the Garrison Church but was moved here after the burning of the barracks.
4. Clonoghill Cemetery
With a dire need for a new burial ground in Birr, Clonoghill cemetery opened for use in 1869. The first person to be interred in the cemetery, Catherine Julian however had died in 1865! She had been exhumed and moved here from the graveyard at Seir Kieran, this shows that the town’s people were being buried outside of Birr so bad was need for a burial ground in the town.
At the time of opening Clonoghill was very much a classed based burial ground which can be seen from adverts of the time, from the King’s County Chronicle
‘The Ground has been divided into two plots to afford separate accommodation for Protestants an Roman Catholic interments’.
At the time of opening class one plots cost £8, class two cost £2 and the lower classes were 5 shillings. A walk around the cemetery can see the various memorials inscribed with familiar names from the town. The cemetery is still in use today, and an extension was opened across the road in recent years.
5. Workhouse Cemetery
The workhouse in Birr opened in 1842 and closed in 1921. The opening date for the cemetery is unclear and there are no records of internments, but it is likely that thousands of inmates were interred here. Former Birr librarian Violet Doolin had a cross erected on the site of the burial ground which acknowledges its former use.
6. Quakers Burial Ground
Located on High Street, which was formerly known as Graveyard Street for obvious reasons was the burial place of the Quaker community in Birr. The headstone from the burial ground were relocated to Rosenallis, County Laois. The burial ground has been cleaned up by Birr Tidy Towns and now contains a small garden.
7. Presbyterian Burial Ground (Crotty’s Church)
Located behind Crotty’s Church, most of those interred here were people of the Presbyterian faith.
8 and 9. Parish Priests’ and Nuns’ burial grounds
To the north of St Brendan’s Catholic Church is the small burial plot for the former parish priests taking the form of stone Celtic crosses, also the grave of parish priest Fr John Egan (1848-1870) is located inside the church. To the west of the former convent (now council offices and library) is the burial ground for the nuns from the convent. The burial ground can be accessed from behind St Brendan’s Church. Most of the markers in the nuns burial ground are simple wrought iron markers.
Stephen Callaghan is currently finishing his second book for publication, an extensive history of the Military Cemetery in Crinkill, which served Birr Barracks as its burial ground for 67 years. In 2016 he co-authored the beautifully produced ‘Heart and Soul: a History of St Brendan’s Graveyard in Birr’ with Caimin O’Brien. ‘Heart and Soul’ is available to buy from Offaly History online or in our bookshop on Bury Quay, Tullamore.