Birr has been referred to as Umbilicus Hiberniae, the navel or centre of Ireland. For many years it was also known as Parsonstown taking that name from its then proprietors, the Parsons family, earls of Rosse. That it is the centre of Ireland is often disputed but few will deny the accuracy of yet another appellation that of the ‘model town’. The late and much loved Jim Dooly, who was chairman of the town council in the mid-1960s, appeared on a Frank Hall programme in 1971 to defend Birr’s claim. He was no lover of television as can be seen in his performance, now viewable on the Frank Hall Archive of RTE on Youtube (‘Dead Centre of Ireland’).
Leaving aside the claims of Daingean or Philipstpwn, Birr is the oldest urban centre in County Offaly, and from the early seventeenth to the early nineteenth century was the largest of the county’s urban centres. As early as the 1640s it was suggested that it be the county town. Although there is ample evidence of urban development at Birr in the early seventeenth century when the population may have been close on 1,000 it was only after 1800 that urban growth really took off. The tradition of careful and grand town planning was set in the seventeenth century (see Cooke’s history of 1826), followed in the mid-eighteenth when Emmet Square was laid out and brought to full fruition in the nineteenth under the supervision of Laurence, the second Earl of Rosse (1758-1841). It would be useful to study the 1691 map with that of 1838 to assess the growth nodes over the 150 year period.
Argumentative, but popular, Laurence Parsons, at one time auditor of the College Historical Society in T.C.D. and member of parliament came back to reside in Birr following the Act of Union in 1800, the passing of which he had opposed. Nonetheless, he soon accepted public office and was appointed joint postmaster general in 1809. This office he held until 1831. It was he who approved Francis Johnston’s design for the GPO in 1814. It was an office that his neighbour in Tullamore, the earl of Charleville, had sought but was unable to obtain. Thus was laid the basis of the Rosse hold on public offices in the county until 1899. It was only in the latter year did we see the move of county government to Tullamore with the formation of the county council and the development, thereafter, of a new bureaucracy with growing powers.
Many of the principal streets of Birr, especially Oxmantown Mall and John’s Place, were erected during the life time of the second Earl who died in 1841. Of course, the period between 1785 and 1815 was one of remarkable town growth in Ireland, but there are indications that this growth continued at Birr long after 1815 and possibly up to 1835. The building of an infantry barrack in 1809 near the town, sufficiently large to accommodate 1,100 men, must have been a tremendous stimulus to town growth. It was during this period that the gothic-style entrance gates to the landlord’s demesne were erected (some suggest as late as mid-1840s) and at the eastern end of Oxmantown Mall, St Brendan’s Church of Ireland church. This is a beautiful planned feature. At the other side of Emmet Square near Oxmantown Bridge the foundation stone of what is decidedly one of the finest of the early Catholic churches in the country was erected in 1817, and opened some seven years later. In John’s Place the second earl had an ionic-style temple erected in 1833 in memory of his second son, John Clere Parsons, whose death brought a dark cloud over his father’s life.
Foley’s third earl
The making of the architectural achievement that is John’s Place epitomizes the concern that the well-to-do people of Birr felt in regard to the appearance of the town. When in 1868 it was decided, at the behest of the chief justice, to erect a monument to the distinguished astronomer, William, third earl of Rosse (1800-67), a great deal of thought preceded the handsome result now to be seen in John’s Place. In March 1868 a meeting was held at Birr to receive subscriptions for a monument and ‘in a matter of minutes’ £600 was subscribed. Within ten days the figure had doubled. By May of the same year £1,500 had been collected. J.H. Foley (1818-74) was given the commission and his estimate for the statue was £1,200. Foley had been awarded the O’Connell monument commission a year earlier. Foley was busy. In 1864 he completed Trinity’s Oliver Goldsmith monument and that of Burke in 1868 with Benjamin Lee Guinness following in 1873. Foley wished to have the Rosse monument erected in Oxmantown Mall but eventually had to accede to the wishes of the Birr Town Commissioners. Foley completed the work just before his death and the monument was unveiled at Birr on 21 March 1876 by the Countess of Rosse. The statue is considered to be a very good likeness and was based on paintings at Burlington House, London and Birr Castle. The figure is represented in the robes of Chancellor of Dublin University. (A portrait as chancellor hangs in the dining hall in T.C.D.) The right hand clasps a book to his breast, while the other rests on a globe representing the earth. It is about 8 ft. 6 ins. tall including the plinth, upon a pedestal of about the same height and is formed of solid bronze, weighing about three tons and a half.
After paying for the statue the balance of the total amount collected was about £306 and, after much discussion, it was decided to have an oval-shaped enclosure about the monument to be surrounded with a heavy spiked chain supported by ornamental pillars. The existing railing in the vicinity of the monument was retained. Four ornamental lamp-posts were to be placed at intervals. The work was completed by August 1878 but it was necessary to have two oval grass plots at either side of the monument because of objections to connecting them up. Four three-light gas lamps were provided and it may be regretted that these have not been retained in a full state of preservation. The question of the oval plots was not without controversy as was clear from a meeting held in Birr in August 1876. The discussions have a contemporary ring and the solution found seems to have pleased all.
The sense of spaciousness in John’s Place is no less important than the splendid houses and one complements the other. If only we could find a place for the motor car there is no doubt but that many towns could do that was achieved at Birr over a century ago. Writing of Birr in Country Life in the 1960s Mark Girouard remarked that Birr ‘epitomises the peculiar charm of a small Irish town at its best. It is a charm deriving not so much from the quality of the individual buildings as from the way in which they are put together – an aquatint spaciousness still scarcely soiled…’ Is Birr still in tune with Girouard?
 See entry in Dictionary of Irish biography, vol. 7, pp 1100-02. Entry by Patrick Geoghegan and James Quinn.
 Ibid., pp 1109-10 – entry by W. Garrett Scaife.
 See his Life by Rebecca Minch in Dictionary of Irish biography, vol. 3, pp 1041-43.
 King’s County Chronicle, 31 August 1876: ‘THE ROSSE MEMORIAL STATUE
The adjourned general meeting of the subscribers to the Rosse Statue was held in Dooly’s Hotel, on Friday last, when the following were present—Captain Garvey, R.N.., Adam Mitchell, Wm. O’Meara, J.P., James Connolly, Henry Davis, George Dooley, John Graham, and Toler R. Garvey, hon. sec.
On the motion of Mr Mitchell the chair was taken by Captain Garvey.
Mr. Garvey explained the object of the meeting, he said it would be remembered that at the last meeting of the subscribers the committee submitted their plan for their proposed improvements on John’s Mall in connection with the statue of the late Earl of Rosse. That plan was not adopted, as some of the subscribers resident on John’s Mall objected strongly to the road and footpath at the rear of the statue being partially closed, as was suggested. Accordingly it was agreed that the meeting be adjourned, those who then objected undertaking to prepare a plan of their own in the meantime. The only persons he saw in the room who were interested in John’s Mall was Mr. O’Meara and Mr. Mitchell, and he would be glad to know if they had any plan prepared for the meeting. Mr. Mitchell said that Mr. Stoney and his son were amongst those who most strongly protested against the plan then proposed, but he was not aware that they suggested any other.
Mr. Garvey—they did, what they called an oval around the statue, and he promised to have a plan prepared for today.
Mr. Mitchell said he was afraid that in any event they could not carry out the committee’s plan, he for one was much disposed in its favour, but he hardly thought it was feasible.
Mr. Dooley—could we not go back to Captain Garvey’s original plan by moving the statue back, including the ground around it, within a nice semi-circle railing?
Mr. Mitchell if it could be done there is no question but it would be the nicest now that we must abandon the other.
Mr. Davis-It certainly should be one of the two plans.
The chairman said that this present plan practically disposed of the footpath, while the original one proposed by him, only lengthened it by very little.
Mr. Mitchell-But if you move the statue, as Mr Dooley suggested, how will you provide for an entrance to John’s Hall?