Decline and resurgence in Birr, 1850-1922. Michael Byrne

All the south midland towns declined during the fifty-year period after the Famine with the exception of Clara where the Goodbody jute factory provided employment for 700 workers in the 1880s. The towns of Birr and Banagher were most severely hit. The decline of Birr was exacerbated by the final closure of the large military barracks in Birr in 1922. The previous year the Birr workhouse was closed and amalgamated with Tullamore. At a time of depression and scarce employment opportunities it was not surprising that the county capital, Tullamore, should seek to draw to itself whatever job opportunities existed in the public service sector, but it was to cause a good deal of resentment in Birr up to the 1950s.

Many people in Birr felt that the town was being victimised by the Free State administrators for not giving its unanimous and wholehearted support to Sinn Féin. Birr had the most vociferous unionist minority of any town in the south midlands (perhaps that was over by 1915 with the death of John Wright of the King’s County Chronicle newspaper), but it appears to have been underlying economic rather than political factors that led to its continued decline until the 1960s

030374 Manchester Martyrs Monument, Birr 1900

The great O’Meara Store in Castle Street was sold to D. E. Williams of Tullamore in 1898. By the early 1980s two of the shops formed part of the Quinnsworth chain. The large house and shop to the left of the memorial were rebuilt after a fire in 1897 and there were two more fires in 1920 and 1946. The Manchester Martyrs memorial dates to 1894 and is on the site of the first market house of the late 1620s.  The shops in the c. 1910 picture are Williams. Lee drapery and garage and at the covered archway Doolin’s. To the right is that of  Hogan and Dudley. For more on the Market Place and Castle Street see the blog on YouTubeOffalyhistory.

The overall change in the midland towns between 1861 and 1926 as shown in the accompanying panel hides the stark contrast between Roscrea and Birr in the period 1911-26. During that fifteen-year period Birr lost two service ‘industries’, the workhouse and the military barracks, while in Roscrea Fr Cunningham’s bacon factory project was increasing in importance and employing about sixty people by the mid-1920s. Roscrea was one of the few towns in the Free State, outside the Dublin area, to show an increase in population of 19 per cent between 1911 and 1926. In contrast Birr suffered a decrease in population of 16 per cent during the same period.

Population Changes in Some South Midland Towns, 1861-1926

TOWN                1861                        1926                      % INCREASE

                                                                                         /DECREASE

Tullamore        5,935                           4,930                           -16.9

Birr                  6,146                           3,402                           -44.6

Roscrea           3,727                           2,772                           -25.6

Edenderry      2,361                           2,092                           -11.4

Clara                1,020                           1,726                           +69.2

Banagher         1,426                           788                              -44.7

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Urban hierarchy

It was during the latter half of the nineteenth century that the present urban hierarchy in Offaly took definite shape. In more recent times it has changed again with the expansion of Edenderry. In a midlands setting Portlaoise, Athlone and Mullingar are now larger than Tullamore. In 1871 the population of Tullamore exceeded that of Birr for the first time, but only because the rate of decline of Tullamore was 8.5 per cent for the previous decade as compared with 19.5 per cent at Birr. Banagher also suffered severely and in 1881 moved from fourth to fifth place in the county’s urban hierarchy. Banagher gave way to Clara where a remarkable turnabout in population occurred between 1861 and 1926. With an increase of 69 per cent Clara could lay claim to being the only industrial town in Offaly prior to the 1930s. However, a close second was Edenderry where Alesbury’s coach and furniture factory gave substantial employment until its closure in 1931.

5 030654 Castle Street Birr 19101910

Castle Street about 1900 with the gate to the maltings (former brewery and distillery). To the right is Wheatley’s pub, later Culliton’s and beside it a furniture store.

Evidence as to the industrial situation in Birr and Roscrea in the latter half of the century was given before a house of commons select committee on Irish industries in 1885. It was noted that:-

‘In Birr, King’s County, there were forty years ago extensive factories of tobacco, snuff, candles, combs and brushes. It had also two extensive distilleries, two breweries, and an extensive production of woollen and stuff goods both for general and local use. There is now only one distillery working in Birr and one factory. At Roscrea there were forty years ago a thousand men employed at wool combing, weaving, and spinning. There are now only two men.’ Cooke had made the same point about the decline of the woollen industry in Birr in his 1826 publication.

The Roscrea woollen industry was almost extinct by the mid-1850s, but a good retail trade in wool survived a little longer as also did a large factory for coarse cloths. This and several flour mills contributed to the prosperity of the town in the 1850s and 1860s, whereas at Birr only one of its two distilleries survived until a disastrous fire in 1889.

002653 Parts of Parsonstown and Cumberland Sq Birr.1897

The Chronicle office and home of its editor John Wright (d. 1915). The memorial is dated to 1747.

Birr distilleries

The destruction of Birr’s last distillery was seen as a death blow to the town and has been mentioned in a previous blog. Birr had strong associations with whiskey distilling from at least the 1800s. Probably, the large military barracks at Crinkill acted as a stimulus to production. In 1818 only two distilleries were operated in County Offaly and both were located in Birr. In competition with Birr was the Birch distillery at Roscrea. One of the Birr Distilleries, that of Robert Robinson, was located at Castle Street and formed part of what was until recent times the  Williams Waller Ltd. (formerly Birr Maltings Ltd.) premises. The second distillery was in Moorpark Street. This was the old distillery by 1838 (from 1852 the gasworks) and a third distillery was established in 1805 by the Hackett family. It was located at Elmgrove on the eastern side of the town. Some remains of all three distilleries still survive. The Castle Street distillery of Robert Robinson and later Arthur Robinson remained in production until the late 1840s when the latter was declared bankrupt. There will be more about this in a review of Castle Street currently underway and the subject of a talk on Offaly History YouTube. At the time the whiskey business was in a depressed state due to the success of Father Mathew’s temperance campaign. Hackett’s distillery continued in business until the fire in 1889. In the 1860s or 1870s it had been leased to the Wallace brothers (a Shinrone family) and was generally known as Wallace’s distillery at the time of the fire. The output of the distillery was about 200,000 proof gallons per annum in the mid-1880s and as such was similar to distilleries at Kilbeggan and Tullamore, but much smaller that distilleries in Dublin and Dundalk.

030660 Dean Michael Bugler P.P., V.G. Died 1893, Birr

Dean Bugler, parish priest of Birr until his death in 1893

The fires

Despite several major fires, at Springfield mills near Birr in 1851, and at Boyne’s coach factory in 1888 the Birr town commissioners were reluctant to equip a fire brigade, presumably on the grounds of economy. In 1889 the town was dependent on an old fire engine purchased some forty years earlier and the army fire engines which had to travel from Crinkill.

When the distillery fire started (March 1889) the hose of the town commissioner’s engine was placed in the river, but quickly became useless as the sand in the river bed forced its way into the hose. Despite the work of 100 soldiers, the Scottish Fusiliers, very little of the distillery was saved. It was noted at the time: ‘The destruction of the distillery will prove a great loss to all classes in the community. Town and county will suffer by it. A number of workmen have been knocked out of employment, a market for the sale of corn and the purchase of grains, and wash has been closed to the farmers, and the outlay of money consequent upon the influx of country people into town has been lost to the traders of Birr.’

Over the next two years efforts were made to re-establish the distillery but without success. Mrs. Hackett, the owner of the property, was prepared to set up a company with local shareholders, but the invitation to subscribe fell on deaf ears. It was just as well for the prospective shareholders as the distilling industry was in a depressed state in the 1890s and again after 1910 until the 1960s. Over that long period the only prosperous years were those of the two world wars.

Birr had a ‘general disinclination on the part of many to invest in ordinary peculations’.

The Midland Tribune supported the setting up of a new distillery company after the fire and in doing so reviewed the fortunes of Birr since the Famine years. The older inhabitants could remember the Manor, Springfield and Derrinsalla flour mills. The rape mills at Springfield had been destroyed by fire in 1851 but may have been rebuilt. Eventually the milling business here was superseded by a new industry, that of mineral water manufacture. Under the ownership of Messrs Dillon and Dagg this industry began in 1882 and closed in 1885 when the owners were declared bankrupt. The machinery at Springfield could handle 40 dozen bottles per hour. The Dillion & Dagg enterprise was followed in the 1890s when St. Brendan’s mineral water works was established. The mineral water and wholesale bottling business of Clark & Co., Birr was purchased by the Midland Mineral Water Co., Street, in 1924.

Locals in Birr could also recall ‘the busy hum of Wallace’s saw mill’ and ‘the hundreds of sturdy toilers who enlivened the town with their presence are no longer to be seen marching in their groups from the old brewery’. This may be a reference to Newbridge Brewery which carried a ‘To be let’ tag in 1846 and may have closed soon afterwards. The decay of Birr in 1891 was blamed on the ‘general disinclination on the part of many to invest in ordinary peculations’. The effect of this lack of entrepreneurial flair was everywhere to be seen: ‘The streets of Birr daily present a shocking appearance of inactivity;  the shops are deserted and the artisan and the labourer grow sick of enforced idleness during nine out of every twelve months.’ The Birr writer was a little unfair but was probably thinking of the success of Roscrea Bacon Factory. This was emulated in Tullamore with its creamery and bacon factory from 1928.

This pessimistic view of Birr enterprise was also coloured by the distillery fire and the destruction a year earlier of Boyne’s coach factory. During the 1860s the Wilmer Road Iron works had been established and in 1873 a steam saw mill was added. However, the proprietors of this business were declared bankrupt in 1878. Lord Rosse (the fourth earl) established a saw mill in 1887 at the old manor mills situated on the river near Moorpark Street. A much more detailed review is needed. Current investigations into Castle Street show that the Robinson distillery, although it failed by the 1840s, it laid the basis for a business there that continued on until the 1990s.

Next week: Building improvements in Birr since the 1850s