The Fireworks in Birr in 1851: Optimism after despair. By Michael Byrne

What a marvel it must have been in Birr in the year 1851. The town and the country were barely emerging from the shocking catastrophe of Famine and the associated fevers and deaths. Emigration was everywhere and Irish towns presented a shocking appearance of want and degradation. The town’s historian, Thomas Lalor Cooke, had reflected on the quietness and lack of social life in the mid-1840s. Birr suffered many deaths, especially from fever in the late Famine years. Yet, a spirit of optimism was in the air and many improvements would follow in the 1850s including railroads, gas lighting and local government.

Birr drawing c 1830

Did the Birr fireworks of 1851 mark the end of famine and misery.
Did the Birr fireworks of 1851 mark the end of famine and misery? Perhaps it did but probably not intentionally so. There had been festivities in the previous twelve years involving fireworks on other landed estates such as that in 1839 for the De Vesci family; that for the Marquess of Kildare in 1840; for Kavanagh of Borris House in 1841 and at Moore Abbey in 1846 for the coming of age of the Marquess of Drogheda; at Blessington on the Downshire estate in 1849 for the marriage of the estate agent William Owen. A few of the new railway companies had also celebrated in this way. The display held at Birr Castle on 3 February 1851 may have been the first such fireworks in King’s County/County Offaly and was reported in the new local newspaper, the King’s County Chronicle (established in 1845) and in the Illustrated London News. Probably the same local reporter filed the reported for the London-based magazine.

1 Birr Castle fireworks
Image courtesy of Birr Castle Archives (Rosse Papers J/11a)

5,000 people in the demesne were treated to a brilliant and no doubt novel evening complete with rockets and fire balloons
The Chronicle mentioned the excitement in the town and the build-up, what with several postponements due to bad weather. A post-Christmas party had to wait a few weeks. A suitable day arrived on 3 February and from 12 noon people were arriving at the demesne to the all-ticket affair with admission from 5 p.m. and the fireworks at 7 p.m. The young Lord Oxmantown, just then ten years old, had the Programme of the Fire Works printed under his own name at an amateur printing press in the castle. For the 200 special guests the library and dining room were opened with a view of a Christmas tree and a refreshment table. The selected children participated in a lottery for the presents on offer. At 7 p.m. the estimated 5,000 people in the demesne were treated to a brilliant and no doubt novel evening complete with rockets and fire balloons. The report in The Illustrated London News talked of 20,000 at the event.

2 The third earl of Rosse (died 1867)
The third earl of Rosse, died 1867

The fireworks were made at the castle and set off by Lord Rosse. He was the third earl and better known as ‘the Astronomer Earl’. After casting the mirror for the great telescope 8 or 9 years earlier making the fireworks can have presented few problems for a man of such an enquiring mind. The Chronicle estimated the cost of the evening’s lights at £400, perhaps €50,000 now. A considerable sum but it would not surprise modern-day aficionados of such events. One letter-writer to the local press in February 1851, a Mr ‘B’ reckoned that the rockets had travelled almost 700 feet high and referred to an RIA paper of 1839 by Robinson for support. Others followed with estimates of 500 yards and bewailed the loss of Birr’s Mechanics Institute in John’s Mall, by then closed up.
Everything went off peaceably we are told but a look at the petty sessions in Birr that week had its usual stories of poverty and petty crime. One such story was of a young boy charged with absconding from the workhouse with a suit of clothes and receiving punishment of a month in jail in Tullamore and a whipping as well.

3 Fireworks Programme
Image courtesy Birr Castle Archives (Rosse Papers, J/11a)

A puff for the town of Birr and its landlord
In the meantime the prestigious Illustrated London News carried the story of the Birr fireworks and a picture of the illuminated castle. This periodical had run with other midland stories in that ten-year period including the casting of the mirror for the telescope, the sending of charcoal to the Crimean war from Tullamore and the manufacture of sugar in Mountmellick. The Fireworks report was in the nature of a puff for the town of Birr and its landlord. Lady Rosse is given much credit and perhaps all the excitement helped to speed up delivery of a young son a few days later. Only four of her 11 or 13 children survived to adulthood.

The account of the Fireworks in The Illustrated London News (18/2/1851)

FESTIVITIES AT PARSONSTOWN CASTLE. The most magnificent display of fireworks ever witnessed in Ireland was given, on Monday evening week, at Birr Castle. The Earl of Rosse had the féte prepared for the amusement of the people of the town. The fireworks were manufactured and altogether managed at the Castle, and it is said that fairer fingers than his Lordship’s were busied about the greater part of them. The Countess of Rosse felt much interest in getting up the festivities: nothing seems to gratify her Ladyship more than making her neighbours happy; and, indeed, nothing could have been more successful than the attempt to do so by the proceedings of Monday evening. After many disappointments had been experienced on account of the unsettled state of the weather, a propitious day (Monday) at length arrived. Notice was given that the fireworks, so anxiously looked for, would take place, and invitations were issued for a juvenile party, to which, however, old and young were requested to go. At five o’clock, carriages commenced arriving at the Castle, and soon a happy and delighted circle were enjoying the freely-given and cheerful welcome of its noble owners. His Lordship’s splendid library was appropriated to the reception, and was soon crowded, the children evidently not more expectant than the grown people. In short time the dining-room was thrown open, and the younger portion of the guests were gratified by seeing Christmas-tree, from the branches of which were suspended many and rare presents. A splendid entertainment was likewise provided. The Christmas-tree was a beautifully shaped fir-tree, placed in large wooden vessel, and illuminated by wax tapers, about fifty in number, and of different colours. This elegant and graceful-looking object, at one end of the dining-room, formed an exquisite ornament; and, although the viands and appointments on the refreshment table were such as might well distract the attention, it was evidently the universal attraction. Numbered tickets were drawn in a sort of lottery by the children, and corresponding numbers being placed on the presents on the tree, each happy possessor of the ticket claimed a prize at the termination of the evening. When seven o’clock arrived, all the guests left the Castle for the lawn, to witness the fireworks. The guests were about two hundred in number. But the multitudes that assembled in the demesne exceed belief; all the neighbouring towns and country must have contributed their share. Certainly, more than 20,000 persons had come together. . .

Improvements in Ireland from 1850 and clearances/ dinners held

Was the display out of sync with the difficult times? Certainly Ciaran Reilly thought so in his book on the Irish Land agent (Reilly, 2014, p. 164). On the other hand the year 1851 did see improvement in Ireland and, of course, it was the year of the Great Exhibition on which work had begun in August 1850. A dinner held in Birr for George Heenan, Lord Rosse’s land agent, was attended by 250 tenants in August 1851 to show gratitude, it was said, for lenient treatment in the previous few years. While one speaker referred to the failure of the Mechanics Institute in Birr, another said he believed that good times had come. Birr town and Ireland had passed through times of unexampled distress and the tenants were now assembled, not to complain of harsh treatment but to express their gratitude. It was a similar story in Tullamore in December 1851 when 100 tenants dined to welcome the third earl of Charleville to live among them in Tullamore after the family’s exile for seven years due to the bankruptcy of the second earl. A month earlier triumphal arches had been erected in Tullamore to celebrate the coming of the new third earl. One speaker noted ‘There was every reason to think the town was now passed the worst. The Poor Law had occasioned heavy taxation.. . [but] he saw many present who had exerted themselves well during trying times .

Birr main st Mark O'Neill
The main street of Birr by artist Mark O’Neill with thanks to Offaly Archives

In 1852 Birr streets were supplied with gas lighting and town commissioners established. Two years later the railroad had reached Tullamore.