Two serious fires took place at Birr Castle within the hundred years from 1832 to 1919. Thankfully there has been nothing like it since and the castle was fortunate to survive the burnings of country houses in the county in the period from June 1922 to April 1923. Birr Castle is the only large house in the county to have survived in the same family since the 1620s. Its Gothic exemplar Charleville Castle, Tullamore also survived the destruction of the Civil War period. Both houses were occupied by the Free State Army from late July 1922.
The fire of 1832, ninety years earlier, was perhaps the most destructive and in its aftermath Laurence Parsons, the second earl of Rosse took the opportunity to add a third storey to the great house that had been substantially rebuilt in 1801–03. Its comrade in Tullamore is dated 1800 to 1812, or 1809 the grand opening – if not quite finished.
The report of the Birr fire in 1832 was thus:
DESTRUCTION OF BIRR CASTLE BY FIRE
At seven o’clock on the morning of Monday, the 25th instant [June 1832] the Castle of Birr, the mansion of the Earl of Rose, was discovered to be on fire. The flame raged with destructive fury for several hours, and the entire center of the building had been consumed, but the wings have escaped the ravages of the devouring element – they have however, been considerably damaged to arrest the progress of the fire. A great part of the furniture with the library and family pictures have escaped unhurt. The loss occasioned by this conflagration is estimated at £10,000. It is supposed to have occurred from negligence or accident. Fortunately his lordship and family were from home. – The Castle was not insured.
Leinster Express, 30 June 1832
Birr Castle when the main block was two-storey, a drawing by Petrie in 1820
Mark Girouard, the architectural historian, in his articles on Birr Castle in Country Life in 1965 was not overly impressed with the reforms in the aftermath of the fire and wrote:
The proportions of this front were noticeably altered—not, perhaps, to their advantage—in the 1830s. The main block of the house was originally two-storeys high, with a high hipped roof containing attic bedrooms. In 1832 the same fire that damaged the staircase destroyed the roof. The façade was then carried up a further storey; and five additional courses were inserted on the parapet of the porch to bring it up to the level of the new work.
The exterior works of the 1840s was mostly carried out under the management of the third countess of Rosse. The second earl had died in 1841 and the third earl was absorbed in his new telescope (largely completed by 1845). Two years earlier the Illustrated London News published a first feature on any town in King’s County/Offaly and remarked that:
Lord Rosse’s pleasure grounds are most elegantly and tastefully laid out. A large lake has been lately added to the other beauties of the places, and has given his lordship an opportunity of trying his skill as an engineer; the water for the lake being supplied from a distant part of a river which runs through the demesne. …
It would be an injustice to the Countess of Rosse were this short notice of the demesne concluded without acknowledging the debt the people of Parsonstown owe to her. … The lake was commenced solely to give them employment, and, since then, hundreds have been daily hired to do what but for beneficence might well remain undone. The consequence of this conduct is, that she is universally esteemed and looked up to, and that her town is almost entirely free from the discontent and distress that is so rife in other places. The people are quiet and contented, and well disposed, and are as much indebted to the good sense that produced all this as the world is to the talent that has astonished and is so likely to benefit it.
The town of Birr, or Parsonstown, is the prettiest inland town in Ireland. There are more private families live here than in any other town of the same size. There are public libraries and a mechanics’ institute: first rate markets, and everything that money can purchase. In fact, we think the town likely to progress rapidly, and we wish it God speed.
Birr Castle and telescope about 1845-52 by Compton and after the works post the fire of 1832
In fact Birr began to lose out by the 1850s due to changes in the transport system and especially the coming of the railways. Unlike Clonearl (burned 1846) and Durrow Abbey ( the old house was burned in 1837) the castle continued fully occupied, but came close to complete destruction in August 1919 due to an electrical fault. (It was the first house in the county to have electric light about thirty years earlier.) The fire resulted in the death of a French governess and the loss of what must have been a valuable library. This lady was most unlucky as she was only ‘on loan’ from the house at Clonbele while the Molloy family were on holidays.
Lady Rosse ( nee Frances Lois Lister-Kaye), (1882–1984) was ‘head of house’ since the death in 1918 of her husband, the fifth earl, due to war wounds. Lady Rosse was a handsome young woman who had married in 1905 and remarried in 1920 Ivo Richard, the fifth Viscount de Vesci of Abbeyleix. She survived until 1984 and outlived her three children, including her son Michael, the sixth earl of Rosse, who died in 1979.
It was evidence of social change in the fifty years that Lady Rosse gave evidence at the 1919 inquest whereas in 1869 following on the sudden and awful death of Mary Ward the family did not give evidence to the inquest jury called at the time.
Neither was the Birr Castle library the last to be lost by fire. In August 1922 the books and papers of the Darby family were lost in the burning of Leap Castle and about 3,000 books were lost with the destruction of Rathrobin in April 1923. Another calamity in August 1922 was the burning of Mount Pleasant – home to the O’Connor Morris family who were intensely literary and the old Judge O’Connor Morris prolific from an early age. The library at Charleville Castle was sold off in 1948. It would be of interest to compare the 1948 catalogue with what was in the Charles William Bury (the first earl) collection in 1795 (both catalogues are now in Offaly Archives).
THE 1919 FIRE AT BIRR CASTLE AS REPORTED IN THE PRESS
Death of French Governess,
Early on Friday morning a fire broke out in Birr Castle, which resulted in the tragic death of Mille. Geely, holiday governess to Lady Rosse. Lady Rosse, her children, nephew, sister (Miss Lister Kaye), and Major and Mrs Vaughan were staying at the Castle at the time, and the fire, which was first noticed by Lady Rosse about five o’clock in the morning, apparently originated from the fusing of the electric wires in the library, which was situated right underneath her bedroom, and in front of the Castle adjacent to the main hall. After the servants were roused the police in Birr barracks were ‘phoned for; the military were also notified, and a general alarm sounded by the loud ringing of the fire bell on the Castle. D I Knox, Head Constable O’Sullivan, and Constables Lancaster, Hession, and Corrigan arrived on the scene some minutes after five o’clock. The library was then well ablaze, but with the assistance of the male servants the Castle fire hose was attached to the hydrant inside the building [and brought to] bear on the burning apartment. Mr. T. Roberts Garvey, Mr. D. P. Hoctor, Mr. J. D. Mitchell, solicitor; Mr. Holland, and other residents in the town quickly arrived and began to render assistance; and Mr. P Deignan, who had been notified of the fire by the ringing of the Castle alarm bell, procured the Urban Council hose, and with the assistance of Messrs Scally and Eagleton brought it quickly to the scene. This hose was attached to the hydrant outside the castle wall, and there was soon a second stream of water playing on the blaze. The shortness of the Urban Council hose, however, somewhat restricted the directing of the water in the best manner. The library was now burning fiercely, and the fire began to creep towards the apartment overhead. The continual flow of the water, however, had its effect and the progress of the flames was checked. On the arrival of the military, under Col. Orpen Palmer, the situation was improved, and with the further assistance rendered by their fire engine and line a of soldiers from the river to the Castle with buckets the fire was subdued, and at about seven o’clock reduced to a smouldering condition. While the library was burning Messrs. Rafter and Browns assisted in the attempts of Constable Lancaster to rescue Mille. Geely.
Among the active workers in putting out the flames were – Messrs. Armit, Ovington, T Connolly, and T Gerraghty.
A visit to the Castle after the fire revealed how completely the library was gutted by the flames. Piles of expensive books lay burned on the floor, and a huddle of wire and steel in the corner of the room represented the remnants of a piano. The spacious main hall also suffered, and some of the family portraits in the large room, situated on the side of the hall opposite to the library, were injured by the heat. The room immediately over the library was also damaged by the flames, but the outside of the Castle was not badly disfigured.
Evidence at the Inquest.
The inquest on the late governess, Mille. Geely, was held in the Castle at about 4.30. Dr. Meagher, Ferbane, was the coroner, and the following jury were sworn – Mr. D. P. Hoctor (foreman), Messrs. J O’Donohue, G Keele, M. Burbage, P Deigaan, K Doolan, J Byrne, U D C; E L Madden, J Sheppard, J Hogan, U D C; M McKenna, J Hardy, G A Lee, J Pilkington, P Hanly, J Murdy. [Mr Burbage was the Williams’ shop manager who died in a fire in the Castle Street shop the following year.]
District Inspector (D I) Knox was present on behalf of the police, and amongst others present were Mr. T Roberts Garvey (the Agent) and Dr. Morton.
D I Knox said he had better explain the connection of the deceased lady with Birr Castle. She was recently governess with Mr. Molloy, Clonbele, but owing to the family going on holidays she came to Lady Rosse as a holiday governess. The lady was French, but up to the present they were not able to get in touch with her relatives. As a matter of fact they had communicated immediately with Mr Molloy, and he was only able to tell them she had come from a Mrs. Barton, Kildare. The French Consul in Dublin had also been communicated with. That was the general idea of how the lady came to the house.
Lois, the fifth countess of Rosse – in the family tree. Courtesy of Birr Castle Archives and Science Museum
Countess of Rosse Examined.
Countess Rosse was then called, and after being sworn, stated the deceased was in her employment as holiday governess, having come on Saturday, 9th inst. D I Knox – When did you retire? Lady Rosse: At 10.30. D I Knox – Have you any idea of where deceased was at the time? Presumably in her bedroom on the landing. Were any members of the family sleeping on the same landing? My nephew. Continuing, Lady Rosse said she awoke at five o’clock and noticed her room full of smoke. She tried to turn on the electric light but it would not work. She went to the window of her room and saw the smoke coming from the library window. She then went straight across to Major Vaughan’s room, which was on the other side of the corridor, and called him. She also called the little girl next door. Her sister and two boys, in separate rooms, were all on the same landing. Witness went to the top landing, but the place was so thick with smoke she could not see anything. She made her way across to her nephew’s room and got him out, at the same time calling loudly to the maid, and anyone who could hear her, to get out. The governess’s room was a yard or two from her nephew’s. Having got the maid, her sister, nephew, and children down the stairs in safety witness called again, and then deceased answered her. She called to her to come down the back staircase. She went to the front of the house to try and make out what was happening and heard deceased calling to her on the staircase that led into the main hall. Forgetting it was night, she called to deceased that she was coming to her through the front door. On finding that she could not get through she came back into the house. She then realized that deceased was somewhere on the ground floor but the smoke was so thick she could not see her, and deceased went in the opposite direction in which she was calling. Witness had to get back into the staircase as she could not stand the smoke. She then went to see if she could get anybody to do anything. There was little doubt that the fire was caused by the fusing of an electric wire in the library.
Constable’s Heroic Efforts.
Constable Jas Lancaster, Birr, was then examined. In consequence of a message that morning he came with another constable to Birr Castle. He got the message about ten minutes past five. On getting to the Castle he met some of the employees and went into the house. He ultimately got into the main hall which let into the library, which he observed was on fire. The door was closed, but someone pushed it in. He endeavored to get into the library with the object of seeing if there was any person inside. He made his way in for some distance on his hands and knees. He saw on the floor what turned to be the body of a woman. The body was about 9 or 10 feet from the door, and he endeavoured to draw it out, but had to let it go owing to the heat and smoke. Ultimately, after two further attempts, he got the body over to the door. Two other men helped to carry it across the hall. The body was that of deceased lady.
Dr Morton next gave evidence. He was called at about 6 o’clock on Friday morning and informed there was a fire in Birr castle and a lady burning. He saw deceased about 6.20 on the floor of the billiard room, her hands, chest and legs were burned, and her face was livid. Death was caused by asphyxia, or in other words suffocation, Mr Hanly (juror) Was deceased got in her night attire?, Dr Morton – Yes. Mr Hanly remarked on deceased leaving her room and going into the library. The Coroner explained that she was overcome by smoke in trying to get out. Mr Hogan: The lady was a very short time in the house. . The gentlemen of the jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical testimony. D I Knox referred to the bravery of the Lady Rosse, any man might feel proud of the courage she showed. By her courage she averted what might probably have been a much greater tragedy. The foreman, Mr Hoctor, drew the attention of D I Knox to the commendable bravery of Constable Lancaster during the fire. D I Knox: I will be very glad to bring the matter to the attention of my authorities. I witnessed a great many things he did, and was not the only man who admired his courage, these references were incorporated in the evidence at the inquest.
On the proposition of the foreman a vote of condolence was expressed with the relatives of the deceased.
The funeral of the late M|le. Enna Geely, took place at 3 o’clock on Sunday from the Castle to Clonoghill Cemetery, and was followed by a large cortege, including Lady Rosse, Miss Lister Kaye, Mrs Molloy, Clonbele; Mrs Meldon, Mr T. Roberts Garvey, and several of the Castle employees, and there was also general expression of sympathy by a large attendance of the townspeople. Rev H. E. Patton read the burial service at the graveside. The deceased lady was fifty years of age.
Lady Rosse’s Thanks.
(To the Editor “King’s Co. Chronicle.”)
Dear Sir – Will you allow me through your columns to express my grateful thanks to the many people unknown to me, who rendered such valuable assistance during the fire here last Friday morning, and owing to whose efforts a more serious disaster was averted.
Birr Castle, Aug. 17.
King’s County Chronicle, 21 Aug. 1919
One of Charles William Bury’s books lately offered for sale by De Burca
The story of Birr Castle and the promotion of tourism has been all positive since the early 1960s. The sixth earl (died 1979) arranged the centenary celebrations for the third earl who died in 1867. In 1968-9 lectures were held and the outdoor science museum launched. A few years earlier the present earl began his quest to build the Birr Castle Archive Collection. The opening of the science museum, the demesne and now the house have added greatly to what the county and Birr have to offer the visitor. Indeed Birr Castle Demesne and Clonmacnoise are the twin pillars of tourism in Offaly. The present earl and his wife Alison can take a well-earned bow for their work since the 1960s.
Nice book at a nice price from the former Charleville Castle library sold in 1948!