The families and streets of Birr in 1821

While many are now familiar with the value of the 1901 and 1911 censuses for family history, less use has been made of these documents for social history and population studies. Great excitement was created when the censuses were made available free online through the good offices of the Irish government and the people of Mumbai in India who transcribed them for us at no great expense. Now the department of heritage proposes to make the 1926 census available by again outsourcing the work to a far country. However, we will have to wait until 2026. How much more excitement there is for some places where the 1821 census survives. This is the case with Birr and the entire barony of Ballybritt.

4 030725 Old houses on the bridge over the Brosna, Birr

Houses on the old bridge at Birr

Some years ago some 16,500 entries were indexed by Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society and can be consulted for a modest fee on Roots Ireland as part of the promotion of Irish family history and the families of Laois and Offaly. This site caters for the DIY family history enthusiast. In time, the entire Ballybritt census will be published and in doing so it will be utilised for social, economic and population history as was done with the County Cavan material some years ago in a published volume.

So much for being able to trace back one’s family for 100 years, when the opportunity is available as it is for Birr town and district to go back 190 years. Family members of a great age in 1821 bring us back two to three generations further. The oldest person in the town at the time seems to have been Ellen Egan of Graveyard Street. If the census had also survived for Clonlisk barony the Kearneys of Obama connection who left Ireland by 1851 could have been looked at in even closer detail.

Castle Street, for example, was then a crowded place with some 32 occupied houses and over 200 people.  Probably the principal business there was the distillery of Arthur Robinson (later the Woods brewery and in the 1980s the Williams Waller business). But in the same street lived a horse breaker, comber, bakers, a chandler, a hatter, jeweller, a copper smith, publicans and labourers. The story of the street can be put together from that time and even back to the leases of the 1740s and beyond.

On the northern side of the town in Cumberland Street (now Emmet Street) lived the soon-to-be local historian then fresh from his controversies over Fr Crotty (who would later have a church in Castle Street), none other than Thomas Lalor Cooke. He published his first history of Birr in 1826.  Cooke was then 31 years old and living on 28 May 1821 with his wife Lucinda (26) and sons William (1) and Richard (5). There were several other families in the town of the same surname. Lucinda was connected with the legal family of Antisell and her mother, also Lucinda (48) lived with them – at least on census night. Working in the house were a servant boy, cook, nurse and servant maid.

The streets of the town were densely populated. It was not until the 1900s that one saw the development of new suburban housing for the working classes. Prior to that people were crammed into the lanes and courts behind the bigger houses and paying 6d to 1s per week. In 1821 the details of the housing were provided for each street in a Dublin newspaper along with that of Tullamore.

5 030654 Castle Street Birr 19101910

Castle Street, about 1900 with the former Robinson distillery and behind that Birr Castle

The street names, number of houses in each street and total population for each street will be of interest to those studying urban history. The study of the urban history of Birr is greatly enhanced by the estate records, parish records and from the 1830s the mapping and valuation surveys. The Atlas of Birr published some years ago by John Feehan and Alison, Lady Rosse, must make the study of the town so much more enjoyable.

2 030665 Emmet Square, Birr 1910

Cumberland/Emmet Square, Birr about 1900

The Census of Ireland

Population of the Town of Birr in 1821 and number of houses in each street

Street                                                                              Houses                   Inhabitants

Pound Street                                                                         39                            197

Charles Street                                                                       39                            200

Melsop Street                                                                       34                            137

Love Lane                                                                             6                              30

Burke’s Hill                                                                           50                            243

Cumberland Street                                                              35                          234

Old Bridge Street                                                                 33                            182

Davis’s Close                                                                           2                              12

Moor Park Street                                                                  87                            488

Old Post Office Lane                                                            23                            111

Walcott Place                                                                        10                             52

Back Lane                                                                              47                            249

Burke’s Lane                                                                          14                             81

William Street                                                                        5                              43

Langton’s Lane                                                                      8                              33

Duke Square                                                                         13                             84

Duke Street                                                                          13                             80

Pig Market                                                                             3                              17

Main Street                                                                          67                            439

Graveyard Street                                                               124                           639

Mount Silly                                                                            4                              23

Lower Eden                                                                          41                            190

Upper Eden                                                                          37                            189

Turf Market                                                                           9                              51

Castle Street                                                                         32                            203

Spinner’s Lane                                                                     30                            150

Mill Lane                                                                               21                             62

Church Lane                                                                         25                            128

Chapel Lane                                                                          11                             74

Connaught Street                                                                 35                            109

New Bridge                                                                           76                            366

The Green                                                                              38                            203

Oxmantown Place                                                                  5                              34

The Castle of Birr                                                                   0                              19

1027                         5429

[1016]                       [5352].

Sq brackets indicate the published figure in the 1821 published census.

1 030371 John's Mall Terrace, Birr

John’s Mall, Birr about 1900
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