In the Pigot directory of 1824 Birr was described ‘as far the most considerable of any of the towns in the King’s County. It is situated on the river Birr [Camcor], and adorned with a fine castle, built by the family of the Parsons, the residence of the second earl of Rosse, the proprietor of the town. This town it was said has since been rebuilt by the present earl’. Birr was the leading town in the county from the 1620s until the 1840s but began to loose out because of the lack of an easy and direct link with Dublin, and it being that bit more distant from the capital and less central for local administration. The decline would accelerate after 1900 with the loss of political and administrative influence. By the 1820s Birr had new Protestant and Catholic churches (the latter nearing completion at the time of the census and the publishing of the Pigot directory), two Methodist chapels and a Quakers’ meeting house. The charitable institutions of Birr, were a fever hospital and dispensary, supported by county grants and annual subscriptions; a Sunday school for children of all denominations; a free school for boys, and another for girls. Birr had a gaol and a courthouse (from c. 1803), where the sessions were held four times a year. The prisoners were sent to Philipstown, which was the county town until 1835 for trial for serious crimes. From 1830 when the new gaol was built in Tullamore Birr prison was more a holding centre only. The ruins of the old church near the castle wall are still visible. One mile from the town were the barracks, ‘a large and elegant building, capable of holding three regiments of soldiers’. Birr has two large distilleries and two breweries, which, it was said, gave employment to the poor of the town.
With the recent publication of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the notion and concept of shame is very much in the news. Shame is a negative influence that is so powerful that it can destroy and ruin lives. It can have appalling consequences. It can be public or private.
Public shame is easier to deal with, for example the Government`s handling of such and such a problem was shameful. This is easy to handle as the Government is a distant entity, and their nonfeasance or apparent nonfeasance can be punished at the next election.
However personal shame is much more traumatic and can have devastating consequences. We have seen over the last forty or so years a series of scandals all of which had catastrophic effects on very innocent victims. When we look at these `scandals` from today`s vantage point it is hard to understand how the particular activity involved could have caused the outrage they did. It is difficult to understand that what is today accepted as quite normal could stigmatize an individual to such an extent that their lives were ruined and indeed that such ignominy could attach itself to an entire family.
However, the story I wish to relate is a simple enough tale, where a totally innocent condition had to be hidden. The person I wish to talk about is my grand uncle Kieran Claffey. He was one of twelve children born to Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery, who were married in Shannonbridge in 2nd January 1853. They were farming folk who lived in Bloomhill near Ballinahown.
Shannonbridge A History of Raghra c.1600-c.1900 was published in 2019. Research for it began many years ago when I decided to learn more about my family and family home in Shannonbridge, County Offaly. That interest spread to other houses in the village. When Brendan Ryan and I decided to write a book about Shannonbridge I concentrated on the genealogy of those who lived there in the past. Gradually the history and stories of families emerged. My main goal in writing the book was to pull the names of the people of Shannonbridge out of the past. Sometimes we found interesting stories but often we just learned their names and the bare facts of their lives. However it felt wonderful to put those names in a book, to prove those people had been there, to acknowledge their existence. They all played a part in the story of a village. Oh, they had hard lives! And yet, many survived and thrived. Their descendants span the globe. What struck me most in learning about them was that often their stay in the village was short-lived. Many of the families who settled in the village only stayed for a generation or two and are long gone now. Keeping track of people moving in and out was a challenge.
Originally known as Acres Hall after the eighteenth century building developer Thomas Acres, this fine house with its Georgian features is now home to Tullamore’s town council chambers. In 1986 the house was acquired by Tullamore Urban District Council who undertook a refurbishment programme and extensions to the north and south wings, and at the rear of the house, to accommodate new civic offices. While much of the house was subject to a major reconfiguration, the development attempted to be sympathetic and sought to retain the house’s external architectural simplicity. Acres built the house in 1786 and positioned it in a commanding elevated position at the confluence of High street, Cormac street and O’Moore street. The location of the house may be on the hill from which the town takes it name, Tulach Mhór (great hill). Acres Hall is listed as a protected structure in the Tullamore town development plan.
A new book detailing the history of Birr Military Cemetery has been published by Offaly County Council. Researched, written and designed by Stephen Callaghan the book gives an authoritative history of the cemetery and all those identified as buried there. While the cemetery only contains 52 inscribed memorials, the book gives biographical details of a further 230 people buried there. The memorials which survive are also examined and described in detail, including information about type, symbols and details about the materials used and the stonecutters who made them. The cemetery is one of the few surviving features of Birr Barracks and is an important link to the past. The people buried there are a mix of soldiers, soldiers’ wives and children, the latter make up most of the burials.
The prayer book of Lady Beaujolois Bury of Charleville Castle, Tullamore was donated to the Offaly History Centre by the late Jane Williams some years ago. Like some family bibles it contains on two of the blank pages scraps of the family lineage of her ladyship and her siblings, the third and fifth earls of Charleville. The information recorded agrees with what is provided in Burke’s Irish Family Records (1976 edition), but like every family there is more to it than the bland recital of names and dates. Lady Beaujolois Bury (1824–1903) was the talented daughter of the second countess of Charleville (1803–48) and granddaughter of Lady Charlotte Susan Maria Campbell. Her Bury in-laws, the first earl and countess, were the builders of the great castle, known as Charleville Forest, and which was commenced in 1800 and completed in 1812. According to Mark Girouard it is ‘perhaps the finest Gothic Revival Castle in Ireland’.
On June 15th 1991, I climbed a locked gate marked Bloomville, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out. There were some lovely beeches, but no sign of a house. I then spotted two ancient chestnuts, and it was only then that I could see the house in the distance.
It was a case of love at first sight, with everything sparkling in the sunshine, and I wondered why the agent’s advertisement had not included a photograph. Only when I approached the house could I understand the reason. The traditional roses (still flourishing 29 years later) looked pretty, but, close up, the house looked very neglected.
I was asked by John Brady to research his house, which has long functioned as a shop in Daingean, Co. Offaly. John Kearney’s book From the Quiet Annals of Daingean contains a picture of the old post office, with the name Z. Collins above it, and a large ivy-covered wall beside it, taken some time at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the same building, so it was going to be very interesting to find out all about it.
On 4 May 2017 Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society archivist, Lisa Shortall, brought up the Parsonstown Union Letter Book [Reference OHS 71] for me to consult at Bury Quay. (This item is now available to consult at Offaly Archives). My interest was to see what clues may have been recorded about any of the 136 young women who left King’s County for Australia during 1848-1850 as part of the Famine emigration to Australia, now often referred to as ‘Earl Grey’s workhouse orphan scheme’. During these three years 4114 young women aged between 13 and 18 were selected as healthy, suitable domestic servants and potential marriage partners and they were given a free passage from Ireland to one of three Australian colonies: two in New South Wales (Sydney and Port Phillip) and Adelaide in South Australia. Continue reading →
I was in Birr over the Christmas and chatting in Dooly’s I recalled that it will be 59 years this weekend since the first visit of a Royal princess to Ireland – Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones- and that was the first royal visit to Ireland in over thirty years. The son of Anne, Countess of Rosse (by her first husband), Anthony Armstrong Jones, married the Queen’s only sister in May 1960. It was a grand affair and the Countess of Rosse, always one for beauty and glamour, was the finest dressed of the three mothers-in-law present at the royal wedding. The happy couple visited Birr six months later on New Year’s Eve 1960. The town of Birr witnessed an influx of pressmen never seen before in the midlands and perhaps not till that EC meeting in Tullamore ten or fifteen years ago.