Birr Historical Society
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The society was formed in 1982 to

  • raise public awareness of the rich and varied cultural heritage of Birr
  • provide a forum for people interested in history, especially the history of Birr and its neighbourhood
  • encourage discussion of local history, culture and traditions
  • organise historical tours
  • invite visiting lecturers.

Activities

  • We have functioned actively and continuously since 1982 with lectures every month from September to May and outings in the summer months.

  • We provide a well-informed guide for groups who visit our town, renowned for its monastic heritage, Birr Castle Demesne, attractive Georgian architecture and malls and Birr Workhouse. We have hosted several exhibitions and maintain a website.

  • We raised a considerable sum to obtain a unique facsimile of the Macregol or Rushworth Gospel Book which has been in the Bodleian Library, Oxford since the seventeenth century. The facsimile is on display in the Pugin-designed Birr Library.

  • A manuscript copy on vellum of Cáin Adomnáin scripted and illuminated by modern scribe Margaret Maher can also be viewed in Birr Library.

  • We launched a story board to commemorate the death of Mary Ward in the first fatal automobile accident which occurred in Birr in 1869.

  • We have been associated with Birr Photography Group whose exhibition of creative photographs of Birr Workhouse have been widely admired and displayed.

  • We have organised and run several conferences and seminars featuring academics and other accomplished scholars.
  • Birr 1300. We were associated with this conference to celebrate the anniversary in 1997 of the promulgation in Birr in 697 CE of Cáin Adomnáin, a law for the protection of women, children and clerics in time of war.

  • The Macregol Gospels in 2006 to mark the acquisition of the facsimile from the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Macregol, abbot, bishop and scribe at Birr scripted and illuminated the gospels about 800 CE, contemporary with the Book of Kells.

  • The Faddenmore Psalter, the discovery of which in Birr parish in 2006 was reported worldwide, was the topic in 2008.

  • St Brendan the Elder of Birr who founded the early Christian monastery at Birr in the sixth century CE, was the topic in 2011.

  • Conference on Birr Workhouse in September 2013 with lectures by Prof. William Smyth of UCC, Prof. Mary E. Daly of UCD, authors John Joe Conwell and Margaret Hogan and several other presentations.

2014

20 January. Lord & Lady Oxmantown. Lord Oxmantown (Hon. Patrick Parsons) worked for several years in China where he met his future wife Anna Lin. Both, in turn, gave an evocative account of China, of their life there, their traditional Chinese wedding, of their life together with their two children in Birr Castle and of their plans for the future. They replied to a great number of searching questions, especially about modern China.

17 February. Sean Hogan, author of the recently acclaimed Black and Tans in North Tipperary, lectured on the War of Independence in Tipperary, with special emphasis on the area in the neighbourhood of Birr. Sean challenges many received opinions about the period, having researched the experience and point of view of the Crown forces as well as those of the IRA brigades and other nationalists. After intensive research, he evokes the experience of a community affected by much more conflict than had been realised by most historians.

10 March. Patricia Shelley spoke on the topic of her postgraduate thesis: The Siege of Birr, referring to an event in 1820 when a false alarm suggested that the Protestant population of Birr would soon be massacred. Although crime and discontent were alarmingly prevalent at the time and the perceived threat caused uproar in the town, the rumour turned out to be the concoction of a Mrs Legge who escaped prosecution ‘on a point of law’.

28 April. Michael Byrne, leading author on Offaly history, gave an illustrated lecture on World War One, showing a fascinating variety of images of local interest. He outlined the lead-up to the war, recent theories about the causes, progress and outcome of the conflict and the experience, effects and legacy in Co. Offaly. He welcomed a discussion and several informative contributions came from the audience.

19 May. Margaret Hogan’s PowerPoint lecture dealt with the Third Earl of Rosse who built the Leviathan telescope and, as Lord Lieutenant of the county when the Great Famine struck in 1845, was actively involved in organising famine relief in the county and served on the board of the workhouse. He gave much time, employment, relief and donations. To Dublin Castle, he reported his concerns about hunger, destitution, increase in crime in the area and the threats and assaults on local landlords and their agents.

19 July. We enjoyed a visit to the important monastic sites at Lorrha, though rain somewhat spoiled our investigations.

1 August. Gerard Corcoran and Tyrone Bowes introduced the society to the topic of Genetics. They are particularly interested in tracing the movements of prehistoric groups into the Irish midlands and several members volunteered DNA samples with a view to establishing the origins of settlers in Ely O'Carroll, for which Y chromosome markers (fathers' ancestry) are most useful, though mitochondrial (mothers' ancestry) markers are also useful. Autosomal DNA is useful only for a few generations.

4 Aug. We commemorated the Hundredth Anniverary of the day the First World War began.

Bridget Sullivan
opened the meeting and introduced Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, TD who spoke about the soldiers who fought in Europe and elsewhere, many of whom lost their lives or suffered awful experiences which left them marked for life.

Brian Kennedy in a lively illustrated lecture, presented pictures of Birr in 1914, outlined the historical context of the war and discussed the complex motives which drew men to the battlefields.

Teresa Ryan-Feehan had studied the history of the song It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, its connection with Tipperary and with a transit camp on London, the singers and soldiers who contributed to its popularity and how it linked to many poignant episodes at the time and later.

Jimmy Shortt called his illustrated lecture 'What it said in the Papers'. He displayed the results of detailed searches through the files of the King's County Chronicle and the Midland Tribune for fascinating contemporary news, pictures, advertisements and accounts of military movements at Crinkill Barracks.

The Earl of Rosse spoke about the tragic death of his grandfather: 'Remembering the 5th Earl of Rosse' Born in 1872, the 5th Earl served in the Boer War, retired to Birr and rejoined to take part in the Great War. Wounded in 1915, he returned to Birr incapacitated - 'a shell took a large part of the back of his head' and he died in a greatly changed Ireland in 1918. His agonies and terrors caused immense distress to himself and to his family and staff and were seldom mentioned in Lord Rosse's youth.

8 Aug. Gerard Corcoran and Maurice Gleeson continued with the topic of Genetics. Gerard suggested a study of the Y chromosome (father's line) of local volunteers with a view to determining the original movements of people into the Irish midlands. Maurice 's theme was 'Which DNA test is best for you?' While the study of DNA is deeply scientific and still being developed, the audience came away with a better understanding and wish the lecturers all the best with their research.

23 Aug. Brian Kennedy and Margaret Hogan led a walk through Georgian Birr starting at Oxmantown Mall and finishing at Wilmer Road.

15 Sept.. Brian Kennedy's illustrated lecture was on the Social History of World War II in which he outlined the problems faced by the government of the time and how the population was affected by the 'Emergency' restrictions. Margaret Hogan gave a brief description of life in a rural area at the time, evoking memories for several people in the audience.

20 Oct. Dr. Matthew McAteer recounted the adventures of the Radharc programme, the topic of his PhD thesis. Radharc appeared on RTE 1962-1996. Devised mainly by three talented Catholic priests, Frs. Des Forristal, Joe Dunn and Peter Lemass, it was a 'programme about religion' rather than a religious programme. At times it was light-hearted, other times critical; sometimes in Ireland, frequently in the developing world. Many difficult and controversial topics at home and abroad got time on air, thanks to the three courageous priests.

17 Nov. Kieran Troy gave a fascinating lecture about his native parish of Clareen and about St Columbanus. Rome sent St Kieran to bring Christianity to Ireland, where he founded the monastery at Seir Kieran in Clareen and, in time, St Columbanus went to re-establish Christianity in a devastated Europe. This is the year of Columbanus and moves are afoot to have him declared the patron saint of Europe. Kieran illustrated many later Irish connections with Rome, including the graveslabs of the O'Neills and O'Donnells (Flight of the Earls) and the story of Kerryman Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, the 'Scarlet Pimpernel' of World War II.

8 Dec. Birr Historical Society presented A Celebration of the Centenary of the Christmas Truce at Birr Theatre & Arts Centre with musical performances from St Brendan's Community School Trad Group, story telling by Frank Bergin and other performances by Teresa Ryan-Feehan, Luke Maher, Eabha Sullivan, Simon Feehan, and Bridget Sullivan.

12 Dec. Members assembled for a very enjoyable Christmas Dinner at Parker's Restaurant, Riverstown.

2015

19 Jan. Stephen Callaghan reported on his Database of Co. Offaly Cemeteries, for the Offaly Burial Grounds Project, as well as his proposed book on Crinkill Cemetery and interesting characters buried in local cemeteries. He records all burial grounds in the county in use from about 1700, together with site description, details of access, photos and maps. He estimates about 180 sites of which 69 are in the Birr Municipal District. Contemporaneously, with a view to publication, he is recording military burials: those in Crinkill and in other graveyards and researching interesting details of the lives of the soldiers, women and children in his records.

16 Feb. Dom Richard Purcell, OCSO gave a fascinating, lively illustrated account of Mount St Joseph Abbey which included the history of the Roscrea property and the Cistercian order, as well as that of his community which was founded in 1878 by 30 monks from Mount Mellaray. The church was constructed with great faith and optimism with 110 choir stalls, the number of monks peaked at about 126 in 1944 and now sadly stands at 15. The monks worked at farming and opened a model farm to educate farmers' sons; the flour mill they ran was sold and is now a successful commercial enterprise. Bolton Abbey, Kildare, Nunraw Abbey in Scotland and Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia were founded from Roscrea. Cistercian College, well-known boys' boarding school, opened in 1905.

16 March. Ger Heffernan gave a clearly delivered and well-illustrated account of the Modreeny Ambush which took place on Fri. 3 June 1921. On that morning the IRA engaged about 40 RIC, killing four and wounding five, while suffering no casualties themselves. This historic and deadly ambush took place about three miles from Borrisokane between two bends on the road to Cloughjordan and only five weeks before the Truce took effect on 11 July 1921. Ger has spent several years researching, writing and lecturing on the period both from the IRA point of view and that of the Crown forces. He sifted through often conflicting contemporary reports, interviewed some of the participants, even one of the policemen who survived the ambush, and concludes it was not an event to romanticise and that there are several unanswered questions.

20 April. Deaglán O'Mochain showed his documentary on Votes for Women, previously broadcast on TG4. Nationalist, socialist and feminist groups, in general, were in favour of women's franchise in the early twentieth century, but Liberal Prime Minister Asquith was not. John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party also opposed it, perhaps to keep the Liberal party in power so as to achieve Home Rule for Ireland. Hanna & Francis Sheehy Skeffington, founders of the Irish Women's Franchise League, the most militant of several Irish suffrage movements, published an influential newspaper, the Irish Citizen. Hanna was imprisoned for smashing windows and went on a brief hunger strike. Francis was tragically murdered in 1916. Deaglán traced the influence of the women's franchise movement on the leaders of 1916. Constance Markievicz was the first woman voted to parliament in the UK in 1918 and women were granted the vote on the same basis as men in 1922, six years before the UK, including Northern Ireland.

18 May. Brian Pey & Margaret Hogan gave illustrated lectures on 'Local Big Houses'. Brian is editor and principal author of Eglish & Drumcullen: a Parish in Firceall, a richly encyclopaedic account of an Irish midland parish. He spoke about all the larger houses in the parish, concentrating particularly on Eglish Castle, Clonbeale, Whigsborough and Ballincard. He illustrated interesting architectural features and traced the history of the houses, how they fared over the years, some like Eglish Castle falling into ruins, some like Thomastown House demolished, most still occupied. Stories of the families down through the years fascinated the audience, many of whom remembered their descendants. Margaret Hogan concentrated on Syngefield House, Birr, a mid eighteenth century house associated with a father and son both named Edward Synge who served as Church of Ireland rectors and vicars of Birr for 58 years between them. Five members of the Synge family had previously been bishops in Ireland and the playwright John Millington Synge appears to be descended from the Birr family of clergy Synges. Syngefield House, recently restored, is now greatly altered

3 August. Prof. Michael McAteer lectured on 'Shinrone’s Man of Letters: T W Rolleston and the Irish Literary Revival'. Born 1857 in Glasshouse, Shinrone, Rolleston’s life was remarkably varied. In London he became acquainted with W B Yeats and in 1892 was first secretary there of the Irish Literary Society, a group which went on to be the cornerstone of the Irish Literary Revival, promoting creativity in Ireland around the turn of the century and leading to the foundation of the Abbey Theatre. Rolleston had studied German at TCD and while German scholars like Kuno Meyer immersed themselves in early Irish language and literature, Rolleston spent some time in Germany and was fascinated by German mythology, especially as dramatised in Wagner’s operas. Rolleston’s Myths and Legends of the Irish Race (1911) was a popular and influential publication. His poem The Dead at Clonmacnoise is found in many anthologies.

5 August. During Birr Vintage Week Brian Kennedy and Jimmy Shortt led a tour of Clonoghil Cemetery opened by Parsonstown Town Commissioners in 1869. Life, and death also, have changed considerably in nearly 150 years and Brian and Jimmy had many stories to tell as we strolled past tombstones with names familiar and unfamiliar of rich, poor, old (one man had reached 114 years), young, famous and long forgotten. A section had once been consecrated for Catholic burial but that custom has lapsed. It was a tour full of memories and of discoveries.

13 August. Birr Historical Society travelled to Roscrea for a town walk ably and wittily conducted by Joe Coughlan who pointed out the locations of former hotels and of several breweries long abandoned. The Franciscan Friary, founded in 1470 was dissolved in 1540 and is now the very attractive location of the Catholic church. The transfer of the lovely decorative fountain from the Market Place in the centre of town to Rosemary Square was extremely contentious about 100 years ago. We viewed several historic locations including the former courthouse and the Temperance Hall and concluded our tour at the Church of Ireland, site of the early Christian monastery founded by St Cronan and probably unique in its bisection and its separation from its round tower by the N7 main road.

28 August. Stephen Callaghan led a tour of Birr Graveyards, starting at St Brendan's Old Churchyard where he gave us the benefit of what information he has gathered so far in his survey of the monuments there. We entered the Society of Friends or Quaker cemetery on High Street and were pleased to see it has been cleared; the monuments were transferred several years ago to Rosenalis Friends' cemetery. Then on to the little-visited cemetery called 'Gallows Hill' or 'Bully's Acre' dating back to the early nineteenth century and more or less abandoned when Clonoghil was opened in 1869. Much clearing has been done and we were surprised at the extent of the site and the fine monuments there, as well as the many now anonymous grave-markers. We walked around to Birr Workhouse Cemetery where it is believed about 4,000 people are buried with no individual monuments now above ground - just a cross erected by the late Violet Doolin, Birr Librarian. We are extremely appreciative of the work being done on our cemeteries by Stephen and look forward to his publications.

21 September. St Brendan’s Church, Birr 1816-2016 was the topic of Salters Sterling’s illustrated lecture, deeply researched and delivered in the church itself to a large audience. The now ruined old church was in poor repair from about 1780. The 2nd Earl of Rosse applied for a grant to the Board of First Fruits in 1810 and the present very fine and handsome church was eventually completed and consecrated in August 1816. We could look around us and view the features he mentioned: the groined arches with interesting bosses in the lovely ceiling, the elegant columns, the galleries, the military wall monuments, the stained glass windows, one of which by CE Kempe caused a furore, the once controversial reredos, the 2nd Earl’s own pew, the extension to the chancel, the flagstones in the porch brought from the old church. He drew attention to similarities between St Brendan’s and the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle, as well as to the contemporary Gothic Saloon in Birr Castle. The names of several tradesmen mentioned in the records correspond to family names still found in Birr.

19 October. The century that led to 1916 was the topic of Brian Kennedy's illustrated lecture in which he summarised the major movements and landmark events that led up to 1916 and its sequel. He showed how movements such as Republicanism begin with ideas and theories of intellectual elites and often take many years to come to fruition. Tone, Emmet, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Young Irelanders, Fenians and other republicans, many of whom came from privileged Protestant families, bear out that theory. England sometimes reacted with restraint to what they considered subversion, but then unwisely created martyrs with extreme punishments and executions. Daniel O'Connell, not a republican, achieved Catholic Emancipation in 1829 by mass support and constitutional means, but failed to get Repeal of the Act of Union of 1801, aiming for a separate Irish parliament within the UK. Meanwhile, nationalism, a sense of 'What it means to be Irish' was evolving, coming to a head in the late nineteenth century with Irish Ireland movements such as the GAA, Gaelic League and the Anglo Irish Literary Revival, coinciding with the Home Rule movement which, after many setbacks, had achieved its aim, only to be confronted by a complex series of events including the Ulster Crisis and the Great War. England's extreme reaction with mass imprisonments and executions after the 1916 Rising created martyrs and had a negative effect on public opinion. The complexities of that decisve century of Irish history were outlined with clarity, relevance and balance.

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