Surviving diaries and accounts of activities in Offaly (King’s County) in the nineteenth century are uncommon and because of this all need to be catalogued and evaluated. Diaries of travel writers, correspondence and memoirs can all throw light on activities of that time. One such source recently acquired by the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society for its library is Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Robert Ball edited by his son W. Valentine Ball and published in 1915. It sets the scene for the intellectual milieu in which the children of the third earl of Rosse grew up and provides further information on the construction of the great telescope. Recently, a history of the building of the telescope was reprinted by Cambridge University as a cheap paperback while the Royal Society hosted a lecture on the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’ now available as a podcast.
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.
Birr has been referred to as Umbilicus Hiberniae, the navel or centre of Ireland. For many years it was also known as Parsonstown taking that name from its then proprietors, the Parsons family, earls of Rosse. That it is the centre of Ireland is often disputed but few will deny the accuracy of yet another appellation that of the ‘model town’. The late and much loved Jim Dooly, who was chairman of the town council in the mid-1960s, appeared on a Frank Hall programme in 1971 to defend Birr’s claim. He was no lover of television as can be seen in his performance, now viewable on the Frank Hall Archive of RTE on Youtube (‘Dead Centre of Ireland’). Continue reading