Marking the Wonderful World and Tragic Death of Mary Ward on the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s first recorded road fatality in Birr in 1869.


How many people have died in road fatalities since the first to occur in Ireland at Birr in county Offaly (then known as King’s County) on 31 August 1869, just 150 years ago next week? Few of us have not been touched by some sad incident involving collision with a motor vehicle. That in Birr involved a steam-powered carriage possibly constructed by the fourth earl of Rosse, a brother of Charles Parsons, later famous for his steam turbine. Perhaps the making of the engine was the work of the two brothers. The fatal accident occured at the corner of Oxmantown Mall and the junction with Cumberland/Emmet Street near the church and close close to where the theatre is today. It was here that the young Mary Ward, then aged 42, a woman of talent and a mother of a large family (11 pregnancies), was killed on the last day of August 150 years ago.

Born Mary King, at Ballylin, Ferbane on 27 April 1827 she was the youngest among three daughters and one son of the Rev. Henry King (1799–1857) of Ballylin, and Harriette King (née Lloyd), of Gloster, King’s County. Her maternal grandfather, John Lloyd, was MP for King’s County, 1768–90. Mrs Harriette King died in 1847 when Mary was just 20 years old. Her sisters married in 1853 and 1857. Her only brother was John Gilbert King who was High Sheriff of King’s County in 1852 and last Conservative M.P. for King’s County in 1865–68. Mary Ward takes her place alongside the Rosses, Jolys and Stoneys in the King’s County/Offaly people of science gallery and is today acclaimed for her work. Her contribution to microscopy and astronomy has been the subject of many studies since the 1980s and was marked at an exhibition at Birr Castle in 1988 and again in 1991.

Mary Ward jacket jpg
Mary Ward’s first book reprinted thanks to Creative Ireland

To mark the launch of the reprint of Mary Ward’s first publication Sketches with the Microscope,   Offaly History, Birr Historical Society and Birr Castle invite you to a special afternoon to commemorate her life and work on the 150th anniversary of her death. Beginning at the Castle end of Oxmantown Mall at 3.30 p.m. on 31 August 2019 Brian Kennedy of Birr Historical Society will lead a walking tour marking the last journey Mary Ward made from the Castle to the site of the fatal steam-car accident near St Brendan’s Church. The tour will continue to Emmet Square and to the former premises of F. H. Sheilds, the printers who published Sketches with the Microscope in 1857. Brian Kennedy will continue the tour to St Brendan’s graveyard and to the Rosse vault where Mary Ward is interred before leading the group to the Courtyard Café in Birr Castle where Offaly History’s new reprint will be launched with the Earl and Countess of Rosse and members of the Ward family Castle Ward, Mary Ward’s descendants, in attendance. The Wards were on a visit to Birr Castle at the time and had been staying there about a week when the accident took place.

Birr Castle

The facts of her death were the subject of a public inquest, held, as was the fashion of the time, very soon after Ward’s death. It was Charles Dickens, himself the subject of a near death incident involving a train derailment, who made the holding of an inquest into a great Victorian institution. Dickens would have employed a Boz to portray the steam carriage exiting from the castle with Mr and Mrs Ward, the two sons of the late earl and their tutor on their fateful tour down the mall. Dr Woods, a resident of the mall, and himself the author of four editions of a book on the great telescope in the grounds of Birr Castle, was immediately on the scene, but he could do nothing other than receive the body. A sudden jolt when the carriage was rounding the bend at St Brendan’s Church and threw Mary Ward to the ground where she was crushed by one of its heavy wheels and died almost instantly. Mary Ward’s death was one of those sad accidents, and so violent for one who spent all her life enthralled by nature.


The account of the inquest on the death of Mary Ward has within it all the shocking awfulness of every fatal motor accident since that time. The people of Birr had local press accounts of the accident the following evening from the King’s County Chronicle. Thankfully, we recall her now through the contribution she made in her lifetime and not her sad ending.

Appalling accident: sudden death of the Hon. Mrs. Ward ‘prematurely hurried into eternity’. Inquest held in Birr Castle next day.

On yesterday the people of Parsonstown (Birr) were much excited and grieved at the sad accident which occurred in the town. In the afternoon of yesterday the Hon. Captain Ward, his wife, the Hon. Mrs. Ward, The Hons Clere and Charles Parsons [later of the famous steam turbine], and Mr [Richard] Biggs the tutor to the young gentlemen, were on a steam carriage which has been built by Lord Rosse. The vehicle had steam up and was going at an easy pace, when on turning the sharp corner at the church, unfortunately the Hon. Mrs. Ward was thrown from the seat and fearfully injured, causing her almost immediate death. The unfortunate lady was taken into the house of Dr Woods which is situate nearly opposite the scene of the unhappy occurrence, and as that gentleman was on the spot everything that could be done was done, but it was impossible to save her life. The utmost gloom pervades the town, and on every hand sympathy is expressed with the husband and family of the accomplished and talented lady who has been prematurely hurried into eternity. The deceased lady was the sister of J. G. King, Esq., Ballylin, and the untoward occurrence will plunge several noble families into grief. The body was last night taken to Birr Castle, where it awaited the coroner’s inquest which was held to-day. The deceased lady and her husband had been for the past week on a visit with the Earl of Rosse. The Hon. Mrs. Ward was a lady of great talent, and accomplished in literary and scientific pursuits. A very interesting book of hers, “Sketches with the Microscope,” was published at this office some years ago. The work displays persevering research, and sets forth scientific facts in an attractive dress.

The Inquest
On this day at 10 o’clock John Corcoran, Esq., coroner, held an inquest at the Castle on the body of the Hon. Mrs. Ward. The Resident Magistrate, H. G. Curran, and James Rolleston, J.P., were in attendance. The following respectable and intelligent jury were sworn [all well-known names in Birr and mostly merchants] : – Messrs. B. W. Fayle, (foreman), James Connolly, Henry Davis, R. Goodbody, John O’Meara, John Meara, John Murphy, George Dooly, Matthew Keane, Thomas Hornidge, Stephen Matthews, Wm. Paxton, Wm. Fitzpatrick, Wm. Boyne, and Wm. Delany.

Mr. Richard Biggs was the first witness examined. I knew the deceased, the body now viewed is that of the Hon. Mary Ward; have known her for about a week. There were, on yesterday, five people on the steam carriage, of whom Mrs. Ward was one; she was sitting on the corner of a raised seat; next to her was Captain Ward her husband; I was guiding the engine; at the corner of Cumberland Street and Oxmantown Mall on yesterday, at about half-past 3 o’clock; had just turned into Cumberland Street when I felt a slight jolt and saw Mrs. Ward fall; I jumped off immediately; I cannot give any reason for the jolt. The Hon. Clere and Charles Parsons were also sitting; Hon. Charles was on the back of the engine; I jumped off at once when I saw the deceased fall, and found her already in the hands of two men; there was no sign of life in her then.

To a juror – The jolt could not have been by catching in the curb stone.

Mr. Rolleston said he was present and saw the engine turn the corner outside the curb stone.

Mary Magrath deposed as follows—l was in my mother’s house in Cumberland Street yesterday at about 20 minutes past 3. I saw the engine coming and called a friend of mine who never saw the engine before; I saw the lady fall; saw the engine “rise” at one side; saw the lady fall off; the wheel was raised at the opposite side to Dr. Woods’; the engine was just turned at Mr. Goodbody’s side; the wheel hit the lady and pushed her on one side; I assisted her into Dr. Woods’; she appeared to try to grasp something and had nothing to catch; a man was up to the lady at the same time, he is man named Flannery; the lady was bleeding at the time; she bled from her mouth, nose, and ears; she afterwards worked like as if in convulsions as we were carrying her into Dr. Woods’; I believe the affair to be an accident.

Mr. Biggs (to a juror) – Under ordinary circumstances there was no danger in the machine. Could have stopped the engine in a very short time.

Mr. James Rolleston, J.P. deposed as follows: – On yesterday 1 left the castle door at the same time that the engine left: the Hon. Randal Parsons walked along with me to the lodge gate where we overtook it; it went at a moderate pace; we kept near it till it got near the centre houses of the Mall; we had it in view till it turned the corner of Cumberland Street, near the church; it appeared to me to go slowly round the corner; the noise of the engine ceased shortly after it turned the corner; I saw people running. I do not think the engine was very dangerous; the front wheels from the excellent management gave great stability to the engine; the engine was going about from 3½ to 4 miles an hour.

Dr. Woods deposed, I saw the deceased about two minutes after the accident occurred; she was then merely breathing, with slight spasm of the tongue; she died in about one minute after I saw her; her neck was broken and her jaw bone greatly fractured, she was bleeding a good deal from the ears which showed that there was a fracture of the base of the skull: she was a good deal bruised about the face and her lirs [ears or eyes] cut: these injuries were the cause of her death.

The jury without retiring gave in a verdict, that the deceased came her death by an accidental fall from a steam engine on which she had been riding in the town of Parsonstown on the preceding day. The jury begged to express their sympathy with the Hon. Capt. Ward in his sad bereavement and also that there was no blame attaching to any person in connexion with the occurrence.

The Parsons brothers who were on the steam engine on 31 8 1869.

Now, one wonders was the steam engine of that day the invention of the young Charles Parsons (1854–1931) who was then aged 15 and went to TCD in 1871 and later to Cambridge. On graduation he took the ‘surprising step’ for an earl’s son of becoming a premium apprentice at an engine and ordnance works in England and would soon develop a high-speed steam engine. His older brother, the fourth earl (1840-1908) was also an astronomer like his father and was not known for an aptitude with steam engines. The young Charles Parsons was at the back of the steam powered vehicle and was sitting, as were three of the other passengers. Poor Biggs was said by himself to be ‘guiding’ the vehicle and was the only person directly concerned who gave evidence.

030500 old St Brendens Church and graveyard,Birr
The old cemetery in Birr where Mary Ward was buried

Perhaps the apocryphal remark of Captain Ward, supposedly as to where his wife should be buried (in Bangor or Birr), ‘You killed her, you keep her’ has more resonance than we like to think. Mary Ward was buried in the old cemetery in the Parsons vault. In the same year the cemetery was closed to all save families with burial rights and that at Clonoghill opened.