Despite the low level of industrial activity in Birr in the latter half of the nineteenth century building contractors did well with a surprising amount of progress made in this area. This was in contrast to Tullamore where few new structures were erected until after the 1900s. The extent of the building activity tends to confirm the view that Birr owed its lack of industrial activity to want of entrepreneurs rather than want of capital. Among the public buildings and monuments to be erected or improved upon was St. Brendan’s Catholic Church which was completed in 1824-5. It was now remodelled and enlarged. Improvements were carried out at St. Brendan’s Church of Ireland church in 1879 under the supervision of Mr (later Sir Thomas) Drew, architect. The church was enlarged by extending the eastern gable. The organ was removed as also were the horse-box pews. In 1885 the stone was laid for a new Presbyterian church at John’s Place, beside the house of the parish priest, Dr. Bugler. The new church here was part of the redevelopment of the southern side of John’s Place. The old Crotty meeting house in Castle Street was sold for secular use in 1885.
The completion of the building of John’s Place in the 1880s was perhaps the grandest of the building developments of the period, but to it should be added that the opening of St. Brendan’s Street in 1887 (opposite Castle Street) and the erection of labourers’ dwellings at Cappaneal by Lord Rosse in the 1870s and 1880s at a cost of c. £120 each. The John’s Place development began in the late 1820s and 1830s with the construction of the present houses on the northern side and the Mechanics Institute (John’s Hall).
Apparently no further building development took place here until the 1870s when it was decided to place the Foley sculpted monument of the third earl of Rosse in John’s Place rather than Oxmantown Mall, where the sculptor would have preferred to see it. Over the period 1866-78 about £1,900 was subscribed towards a monument to commemorate the dead astronomer earl. After paying £1,600 for the monument, a balance of £300 was in hand for improvements to John’s Place. It was decided to construct two oval plots at either side of the statue to be enclosed by a handsome chain supported on ornamental metal pillars, and at intervals, four three-light gas lamps. The fourth earl, for his part, promised to replace the ‘unsightly cabins’ that ran from Dr Bugler’s house (the then parish priest’s house) by a uniform row of houses and at the same time to widen the road to give the perfect uniformity to John’s Place. The substitution of neat houses for the unsightly wall opposite the Provincial Bank was also to be part of the improvement programme. Many of these improvements went ahead in the 1880s as planned.
Lord Rosse had improvements in mind for the Market Square/Castle Street area from the late 1870s, but seems to have been thwarted in his efforts by property owners likely to be affected. It was his intention to demolish semi-ruined houses in the Castle Street area extending round to Market Place so as to extend the Market Place, thus facilitating the sale of agricultural produce. This scheme was later abandoned and in its place came a suggestion to open a new street from the Market Square to the Catholic church. The Birr large-scale painter and decorator, Mark Quigley, applied to Lord Rosse for a lease of the area with the intention of widening the street and building about a dozen tenements at a cost of £1,000. It appears that no more than five tenement houses were built along with several larger houses.
Continuity and change
Reviewing the progress of Birr buildings the King’s County Chronicle reported in May 1885.
‘Parsonstown (Birr) can look back in time when its status in the industrial world was higher, but neither is it sinking so rapidly as some inland towns. Many of the mean looking tenements which disfigured the streets are giving way to better houses. In Bridge Street, William O’Meara is erecting a fine block on the site of the old buildings which formerly occupied this locale, and belonged in the last century to a Mr. James, the official assignee, who was a celebrated goldsmith in Birr…. Close to where the Main Street debouches into Bridge Street the Earl of Rosse is rebuilding the house which was formerly used by Mr. O’Carroll as a pawn office. After this is done the two houses next door will be removed to allow the opening of the new street…this is the oldest part of the town…. The Presbyterian Church is finishing in John’s Mall. In Newbridge Street Mr. William Woods, JP, has worked a change for the better among the cottages. And along the Eden Road the dwellings erected by Lord Rosse are models of which habitations of the workers ought to be. In Cumberland (Emmet) Square the National Bank has spent a large sum adopting in to banking purposes…’
Birr’s premier residential area, Oxmantown Mall, did not escape improvement. On the recommendation of the architect Mr Fuller, it was decided to place a proposed new hall in the Mall. The idea of a new large room for meetings in Birr was first mooted in 1885. Following bazaars and other fund-raising exercises work began in 1888 under the Birr contractor, William Sweeney, and was completed a year later at a cost of almost £2,000. The hall is in the Elizabethan style of architecture with grey limestone and Bridgewater brick. The ornamental timber beams at the front form a kind of lattice work and are supported by superbly carved corbels. Further improvements to Oxmantown Mall were made in 1889 when it was reseeded with new grass and a wall erected on the rising green. The building was falling into decay in the from the 1970s and the pleas to have it rescued was supported, among others, by the late Freda Rountree, the then chair of the Heritage Council.
So far as building activity is concerned the 1890s appears to have been quiet in Birr. The only significant addition to the town in the 1890s was the Manchester Martyrs’ memorial in the Market Square. After four years of fund-raising the monument was unveiled by O’Donovan Rossa (the old Fenian) in July 1894. The monument was sculpted by the Birr ‘monumental artist’ Mr Daniel Carroll and is similar to one erected in Ennis – the home town of the Tribune’s then editor, John Powell.
The first decade of the twentieth century was almost as active as the 1880s. William Hickey, a Birr contractor, erected the new Birr Post Office in 1903-04 at a cost of £5,000. Soon after he rebuilt the Chronicle office following its destruction by fire. The Hibernian Bank built a new bank house and Mr Hoctor, a Birr merchant, erected two business houses in the Main Street. G.A. Lee of Castle Street, the cycle specialist, reconstructed his premises. Also in the middle of that first decade of the century Mr William Egan of Green Street purchased the old Mathew’s Hotel and erected a new frontage at a cost of £600 to £700. Compliments were paid to D.E. Williams on the modern frontage to his Castle Street shop erected in 1905. This included a ‘magnificent sign board and plated glass window’. Williams had purchased the premises from the O’Meara family in 1898.
After the First World War expansion and improvement in Birr came to a halt as the effect of the decline in population began to make itself felt. In the years 1861 to 1926 the population of Birr town declined by almost 45 per cent. During the period 1926 to 1971 it increased by 13.3 per cent. Although an improvement, it was possibly the smallest increase in the south midlands and was half that of Tullamore at 26.6 per cent. The emigration rate was high because of the scarcity of job opportunities in Birr and the continuing decline in agriculture. The Birr Industrial Development Association was formed in 1935. This body was instrumental in attracting the promoters of a shoe factory to Birr.
However, neither Birr Shoes Ltd. nor the later Birr Fabrics Ltd. were sufficiently large employers to stem the tide of emigration. Further improvements came in 1960 with the establishment of Erin Peat Ltd. and IDA grant aided industries such as Ko-Rec Type Ltd, Max Birr, Grant’s (now a stellar performer) and Cavanagh’s Birr Foundry, Birr benefited from the more intensive promotion of the town by the Shannon Free Airport Development Company following the transfer of responsibility for the development of small industry in southwest Offaly to SFADCO (Shannon Development Co.) in July 1980 and such flagships projects as the refurbishment of Dooly’s Hotel.
Because of the decline in population the demand for new housing and slum clearance was not so severely felt as elsewhere and up to 1932 the rate of house building by the council was poor. From 1902 to 1930 Tullamore U.D.C. built 198 houses by contrast to Birr U.D.C. where only 46 houses were erected. After 1932 when government subsidies for slum clearance were much increased the pace quickened and a further 177 houses were built in Birr by 1940. By the mid-1970s the Birr U.D.C. had completed 350 houses or about one-third of the housing stock in 1981. The council retained the eminent architect Frank Gibney to advise but by the early 1960s had forgotten his advice in regard to the old bridge.
The slow rate of economic growth in Birr had undoubtedly helped to preserve much of its historic character. Birr is well geared to benefit from Ireland’s second largest industry, tourism, and the opening of the Birr Castle Museum and Birr Castle has led to almost 100,00 visitors by 2016 and this has much expanded since. The opening of Birr Castle to the public and now the works in Green Street are all making a positive difference. A full-scale reassessment is needed. This writer has worked on the history of Castle Street and Offaly History has a YouTube broadcast on the research so far. Thanks to those who have emailed comments.