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Modern reconstruction of a Mesolithic house
Modern reconstruction of a Mesolithic house

Selection of the Dowris Hoard
Selection of the
Dowris Hoard

Seffin Stone
The Seffin Stone has
mysterious legendary
associations



St Brendan's Old Churchyard. Probably on the site of
St Brendan's early Christian monastery


St Brendan's Old Churchyard
today

OUR STONE AGE NEIGHBOURS
A Mesolithic hunter-gatherer settlement was excavated at Lough Boora about 22 km NE of Birr in 1977, . More ->

BRONZE AGE ANCESTORS
The Dowris Hoard, an important Later Bronze Age hoard was unearthed in the 1820s at Dowris near Whigsborough, 8kms N.E of Birr. More ->

ST BRENDAN THE ELDER OF BIRR
The founder of the early Christian monastery at Birr is known as St Brendan the Elder  to distinguish him from his contemporary and friend St Brendan the Navigator. More ->

MONASTIC
The monastery at Birr was chosen as the venue for several important synods. It was near the centre of a large cluster of monasteries in the Irish midlands. More ->

CÁIN ADOMNÁIN
The promulgation of Cáin Adomnáin at Birr in 697 AD was a significant event in the history of women and children in Ireland and even in Europe. More ->

ELY O'CARROLL
The Uí Chearbhaill (O'Carrolls),a formidable dynasty, ruled much of the territory of South Offaly which was once known as Ely O'Carroll or Éile Uí Chearbhaill. More ->

BIRR CASTLE DEMESNE
Birr Castle Demesne is noted worldwide for the attraction of its park, gardens and arboretum and its Historic Science Centre. More ->

GEORGIAN BIRR
Birr has been designated a Heritage Town for the quality, preservation and distinctive character of its Georgian architecture. More ->

MARKET SQUARE & AROUND
This historic area is the oldest part of the town. More ->

BIRR CHURCHES
Birr has three attractive Gothic Revival churches, a medieval ruined church and a  church building which was the focus of the nineteenth century Crotty Schism. More ->

BIRR CIVIC OFFICES AND LIBRARY IN PUGIN-DESIGNED CONVENT BUILDING 
This splendid range of buildings, the former Convent of Mercy was designed by AWN Pugin. More ->

BIRR WORKHOUSE
Birr Workhouse is believed to be the most intact and least altered of the workhouses designed by George Wilkinson before the Great Famine. More ->

FIRST ALL IRELAND HURLING FINAL
The first ever All Ireland Hurling Final was played in Birr on Easter Sunday 1888. More ->

BIRR BARRACKS AT CRINKILL
Birr Barracks were built at Crinkill in 1809. More ->

BIRR PEOPLE
A short list of people from Birr or associated with the area who might be considered as subjects for further research. More ->

OUR STONE AGE NEIGHBOURS
The earliest people to arrive in Ireland after the Ice Age were Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age people. They were hunter-gatherers who had not yet learned or perfected the skills of farming or metalworking. Their settlements are rarely found but an early Mesolithic temporary settlement was found at Lough Boora about 22 kms N.E of Birr. Archaeologist Michael Ryan and his team excavated the site in 1977 and found hearths and stone tools as well as evidence of Stone Age diet: burnt bones of red deer, wild pig, hares, birds, small fish and burnt hazel shells. Radio-carbon datings ranged from about 6,400 to about 7,000 B.C. The Mesolithic site may be visited today as part of the immense Lough Boora Parklands project which includes a Sculpture in the Parklands Trail.

Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora
Sculpture in the Parklands at Lough Boora

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BRONZE AGE ANCESTORS
An important Later Bronze Age hoard was unearthed in the 1820s at Dowris near Whigsborough, 8kms N.E of Birr. About two hundred objects such as horns, crotals, swords, spearheads, axeheads, gouges, buckets, a riveted cauldron, etc. were found, dating to about 700 BC. They may have been deposited as part of a ritual. Selections from the hoard are on display in the National Museum of Ireland and in the British Museum and the horns and crotals have been the subject of intriguing research into prehistoric music.

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ST BRENDAN THE ELDER OF BIRR
It appears that a life of St. Brendan of Birr has been lost but he is mentioned in several medieval manuscripts and his death in 572 AD is recorded in the Irish Annals. He is known as St Brendan the Elder to distinguish him from his contemporary and friend St Brendan the Navigator. He emerges from early Irish writings with a distinctive character: a man of generous hospitality with a reputation for sanctity and spirituality who was an intuitive judge of character - he was even referred to as a prophet. His friendship and support for St. Colmcille seems to have resulted in important connections between Birr and the Columban foundations.

St Brendan: stained glass window in St Brendan's RC Church
St Brendan of Birr
Stained glass window in
St Brendan's RC Church, Wilmer Road

The site of the monastery is not known for certain, but recent informed opinion holds that it is likely to be close to St Brendan's Old Churchyard and that parts of the town were built over it.
The deaths of the abbots of Birr were recorded in the Irish Annals and one Macregol, successor to St Brendan, listed as 'scribe, abbot and bishop at Birr' when he died in 822 AD made a magnificent illuminated copy of the Four Gospels. The Macregol Gospels are now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford but a facsimile copy is on display in the beautiful new Birr Library situated in the former convent chapel designed by AWN Pugin.

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MONASTIC
St Brendan's monastery at Birr was chosen as the venue for several important conventions and synods. It was one of a large cluster of early Christian monasteries in the Irish Midlands which were at or near the then border between the northern over-kingdom of the Uí Néill and that of Munster to the south. It was also convenient to the Slí Dhála, an important ancient road and to the River Shannon.
Monastic ruins within easy reach of the town include Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Seir Kieran, Killyon, Mona Incha, Roscrea, Sean Ross, Leamonaghan, Gallen, Rathlihen, Rahan, Drumcullen, Kinnitty, Banagher, Lorrha, Dorrha, Terryglass. Many  monasteries attained such wealth that they were subject to attack. Birr was raided by neighbouring petty kingdoms and in 841 AD by the Vikings.
The Faddan More Psalter, an eighth century manuscript copy of the Psalms was found in a bog in Birr parish and only five miles from the town in 2006.

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CÁIN ADOMNÁIN
Cáin Adomnáin (697) was a Brehon law which prohibited the killing of women and other non-combatants and forbade their use in warfare. It imposed penalties for rape, sexual harassment and other offences against women and against children and clerics. Adomnán was one of Colmcille's successors as abbot of Iona from about 679 to 704 AD and both men were descended from the powerful Northern Uí Néill. Adomnán had sufficient prestige to assemble a conference of ninety-one powerful chieftains and clerics at Birr to promulgate the new law. The text survives and contains interesting details of the social history of the time. This event at Birr was a significant one in the history of women and children in Europe. 
When Birr 1300 celebrated the anniversary of
Cáin Adomnáin in 1997 with a conference, new artefacts were added to the town's treasures. Rev. Bro. Anthony, OSB carved a wooden cross, modern scribe, Margaret Maher made a new manuscript copy of Cáin Adomnáin and Dan Edwards fashioned a medieval bell. The manuscript and bell are on display in the new Pugin-designed Birr Library.

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ELY O'CARROLL
Most of the territory of South Offaly was once known as Ely O'Carroll or Eile Ui Chearbhaill which meant Eile of the O'Carrolls. The Uí Chearbhaill (O'Carrolls) were a formidable dynasty, a branch of a more ancient people called the Éile whose territory came to be divided between the Uí Fhógartaigh (O'Fogartys) and the Uí Chearbhaill (O'Carrolls). The petty kingdom of Éile Uí Chearbhaill was ruled for many centuries by the descendants of Cearbhall, overlord of Éile Tuaisceart in the second half of the tenth century AD. The O'Carrolls are associated with many castles in South Offaly and North Tipperary and resisted domination by the Anglo Normans and other powerful neighbours. Tadgh O'Carroll, commissioned the decoration of the shrine for the Book of Dimma in the late fourteenth century and was killed at the battle of Callan in 1470 A.D. His daughter Margaret O'Carroll, married Calvagh O'Connor Faly. She was a celebrated patroness of culture and the benefactress of large assemblies of literati and alms-seekers at Killeigh and Rathangan during the hungry summer of 1433. She made a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain in 1445.

The O'Carrolls intermarried with the Fitzgeralds of Kildare, the O'Connors Fály, the O'Briens of Thomond, the Butlers of Ormond and other powerful chieftain families. In the sixteenth century, the wife of Ferganainm O'Carroll was the daughter of Garret Óg Fitzgerald and the sister of Silken Thomas. The English policy of 'Surrender and regrant' in the sixteenth century put the O'Carrolls under considerable pressure at a time when they were racked by internal feuds and sometimes at war with other Irish septs. Birr Castle was one of their chief strongholds. The O'Carrolls lost power steadily in the seventeenth century. Ely O'Carroll was shired and added to the King's County (now Co. Offaly) in 1605 and the O'Carroll lands were confiscated for the Jacobean and Cromwellian plantations.

Leap Castle near Birr, once an O'Carroll stronghold
Leap Castle near Birr, once an O'Carroll stronghold

Some of the dispossessed branches of the family remained in Ireland after the plantations, others went abroad. Charles O'Carroll, one of the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, was descended from his Irish namesake Charles O'Carroll from the Letterluna branch who left Ireland and received a large grant of land in 1688 in Maryland, U.S.

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BIRR CASTLE
Birr Castle Demesne has been an international attraction since 1845 when the Great Telescope first offered glimpses into aspects of outer space hitherto unknown. The demesne itself is also noted worldwide with its park, gardens and arboretum designed around the castle, the lake and the confluence of the rivers Camcor and Little Brosna.

The present castle building was developed on the site of a previous tower house and bawn probably built by the Anglo-Normans. It subsequently became an Ely O'Carroll stronghold. The original tower house was on an artificial mound, probably a Norman motte overlooking the river, according to references in the seventeenth century Rosse archives. It was demolished in 1778 and all trace of it has disappeared in the terraces and herbaceous borders.

Birr Castle
Birr Castle today

Sir Laurence Parsons was granted over 1,000 acres of land in and around Birr in the Plantation of Ely O'Carroll during the reign of James I. When he took possession of Birr in 1620, he declined to live in the O’Carroll tower house but instead developed the gatehouse as a residence for his family. This was extended to take in the two flanking towers on either side and further changes and additions were made to the building from time to time, especially by the Second Earl of Rosse in the nineteenth century so that although the castle still has an ancient core, it is a complex construction and most of the garden façade dates from the nineteenth century.

The Second Earl of Rosse also took a keen interest in the architectural development of Birr including the churches and the Georgian malls. His son, William Parsons, Third Earl of Rosse in the early 1840s built in the grounds of Birr Castle what was to be the largest telescope in the world for over seventy years. His wife Mary was one of the earliest photographers and her darkroom, the earliest known to survive, is preserved in Birr Castle. His cousin Mary Ward was an outstanding nineteenth century microscopist and in 1869 was the victim in Birr of what appears to have been the first recorded motor car accident. Laurence Parsons, Fourth Earl of Rosse was also a keen astronomer like his father and built a machine to measure the heat of the moon while his brother Charles A. Parsons famously invented a steam turbine which revolutionised industry and transport. The achievements of these and of other Irish scientists are celebrated in the Historic Science Centre at Birr Castle Demesne. 

Millennium Gardens
Hornbeam Cloister

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GEORGIAN BIRR
Birr has been designated a
Heritage Town for the quality, preservation and distinctive character of its Georgian architecture and ambience.

Georgian Birr started to take shape in the 1740s when Emmet Square and Emmet St. (then Cumberland Square and Cumberland Street) were developed to the north of Main St. Town squares were then in fashion and so were Georgian houses influenced by the Italian architect Palladio whose distinctive style of architecture can be found in places as far apart as America, Italy, India, Birr, Bath, Dublin and Leningrad. The pillar in Emmet Square once supported a very large statue of the Duke of Cumberland, victor over the Scots and the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The 'Bloody Duke' was an unpopular choice with Scottish soldiers in Crinkill Barracks and was little lamented when a crack developed and it was discovered that 'he' was leaning dangerously in the direction of the police barracks. Birr Urban District Council organised the removal of the statue by a steeplejack firm in 1915.


The statue of the Duke was dislodged in 1915

Oxmantown Mall was laid out during the second stage in the construction of Georgian Birr which coincided with the building of the churches and the renovation of Birr Castle in the early nineteenth century.The mall was designed as a promenade leading from the new castle gates to St. Brendan's Church of Ireland. With Georgian houses on one side, a tree-lined walk enhanced by the lovely Oxmantown Hall on the other side and a vista at either end, it is a much admired streetscape.

John's Mall
John's Mall
Statue of 3rd Earl by JH Foley
Statue of 3rd Earl of Rosse by JH Foley
Oxmantown Mall
Oxmantown Mall
Birr fanlight
Birr fanlight
Birr Fanlights

John's Mall, begun in the 1830s, is also a splendid streetscape. John's Hall, in the style of a little Greek temple, commemorates a son of the Second Earl of Rosse, John Parsons who died young. Nearby, the Seffin Stone has perplexing legendary associations - perhaps with Fionn MacCumhail, perhaps with the Navel of Ireland or Umbilicus Hiberniae stone said to mark the centre of Ireland. The Crimean gun was captured from the Russians at the Battle of Sevastopol in 1855 during the Crimean War. The statue of the Third Earl of Rosse, architect of the Great Telescope is by JH Foley, sculptor of the O'Connell monument in Dublin. The little church building was once the Presbyterian Church and subsequently housed the town library for many years. The central plots, sturdy chain railings, restored gaslight brackets and surrounding Georgian houses converge slightly to form another superb streetscape. 

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MARKET SQUARE AND AROUND

Crotty's Church in Castle Street
Castle Street
Crotty's Church in Castle Street
Castle Street

This is the oldest part of the town. The Market Square developed at the point where the road leading from Munster to Main Street intersected with Castle Street which led to the Old Church and Birr Castle. A market house in the square became derelict or redundant and the site is now marked by a statue of the Maid of Erin with cross, harp and hound dog. Erected in 1894 and unveiled by Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, it commemorates the Manchester Martyrs executed in 1867 and one of whom, Michael Larkin, came from nearby Lusmagh.

Maid of Erin monument in Market Square
Market Square in the past
Maid of Erin monument in Market Square
Market Square in the past

To the south spanning the River Camcor is Bridge Street on which several houses stood from the early eighteenth century until the 1960s. To the north is Main Street, the principal shopping street.

BIRR CHURCHES

St Brendan's RC Church
St Brendan's RC Church
Wilmer Road
St Brendan's C. of I. Church Methodist Church
Methodist Church
Emmet Street
 
St Brendan's Church of Ireland
Oxmantown Mall
 

In an attractive setting beside the convent buildings, an old bridge, the Riverside walk, a bend in the River Camcor and a weir, St Brendan's Roman Catholic Church, is a fine Gothic building. It was designed and built by Bernard Mullins, work commenced in 1817 and the church was opened in 1826. The excellent acoustics are well appreciated in a town with a very fine choral tradition. 
Handsome stained glass windows add a warm light to the wide vaulted interior. The window behind the altar is associated with AWN Pugin and in the baptistery is a small window by Richard King. In the left transept is a window by Michael Dunne dedicated in 1964 to the memory of the Prince of Wales Regiment whose depot was at Crinkill near Birr. A walk round the church will reveal many other excellent examples of art and craft in glass, stone. plaster, needlework, wood and metal.

Also in an attractive setting is St Brendan's Church of Ireland which closes the vista at one end of leafy Oxmantown Mall. It was built in 1815 to a Gothic design by John Johnson, has a lovely and distinctive vaulted ceiling, galleries on three sides with charming friezes and also has very good acoustics. 
Some of the communion plate dates back to 1636 and the stained glass window behind the altar is by CE Kempe. Memorial monuments line the walls, one to the right of the altar is an outstanding work by Simon Verity whose work is found in the Cathedral of St John the Divine and in other important recent projects in
New York.

The Methodist Church or Wesley Chapel on Emmet St was built in 1820 to accommodate a congregation which must have grown considerably since John Wesley visited Birr nineteen times between 1748 and 1789. Wesley preached in the open air, often in the early hours of the morning and his journal comments help capture the atmosphere of the town in those days.

The church-like building in Castle St is known as Crottys' Church. It is a reminder of the Crotty Schism, a sensational incident in the history of nineteenth century Birr when the Roman Catholic congregation rebelled against their priests and bishop in favour of new young curate Fr Michael Crotty. An allegation had been made that the funds being collected to build St Brendan's RC Church were being managed irregularly by the church committee. Crotty encouraged this rumour and struggled to gain possession of the old thatched chapel and later the new church from the parish priest on the basis that he had the support of the majority of the parish.
The bishop suspended and then excommunicated him, put the parish under interdict and the army was called to eject him from the churches. Fr Michael Crotty was prosecuted, served jail sentences and his case was widely reported in the late 1820s - somewhat of an embarrassment while Daniel O'Connell was campaigning for Catholic Emancipation at
Westminster. 
Fr William Crotty joined his cousin Fr Michael in Birr in 1832 and they obtained this site in 1836 to build a church for their own, by now diminishing congregation. However, the cousins diverged: Michael to Anglicanism, William to Presbyterianism and while Michael was trying to raise funds from Anglican sources in
England, William handed over the building and congregation to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
Within a short time William was transferred to Roundstone in Connemara. Michael became an embittered man and died in the care of nuns in an institution for the mentally ill in
Belgium and the Crotty Schism passed slowly into history.

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BIRR CIVIC OFFICES & LIBRARY IN PUGIN-DESIGNED CONVENT BUILDING

Birr Civic Offices
Adult section of Birr Library
Birr Civic Offices
Adult section of Birr Library

One of the gems of Birr architecture, this lovely Gothic building was designed by Augustus Welby Pugin and built in stages from 1845-56. Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, had come in person in 1840 to help her sisters set up a foundation in Birr to be called St. John's Convent of Mercy. Pugin had French ancestors and visited France to study Gothic art so the little turret near the church may have been inspired by French chateau architecture or by Irish round towers or both.  The Sisters of Mercy served in schools, an orphanage and in Birr Workhouse. 
As congregation numbers declined and the large convent became less practical for them, the sisters reluctantly took the decision to leave. The building came into public hands and Offaly County Council converted a large section into Birr Civic Offices and Birr Library. Few towns can boast such a splendid state-of-the-art library in a Gothic Revival chapel with beamed roof, restored and storm glazed stained glass windows, restored ceiling and mural motifs and lettering, an exciting children's section, a peaceful cloister area and in addition the library houses a facsimile of the Macregol Gospels or
‘Book of Birr’, a modern illuminated vellum manuscript copy of Cáin Adomnáin a replica of an early Christian bell and other treasures.

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BIRR WORKHOUSE
The mostly derelict buildings of Birr Workhouse can be seen to the right of the Syngefield road. It was built for 800 inmates to a standard workhouse design for
Ireland by George Wilkinson and opened in April 1842. In the week ending May 5th 1849 during the lean months and a fever epidemic, 3007 people were sheltered here and in a few other buildings in the town. During that week 59 'paupers' died, of whom 48 were children and even the Master of the Workhouse had fever. Between 1848 and 1850 a total of 65 girls left Birr Workhouse for Australia as part of the Female Orphan Emigration Scheme and some of their descendants have visited Birr.
In August 1893 the inmates numbered 176 and the workhouse was closed down in the last days of the Anglo-Irish War in 1921 during which four members of the Board of Guardians had been arrested and several others were 'on the run' while arrangements were being made for the remaining inmates and staff.

Bird's eye view of typical Geo. Wilkinson Irish workhouse
Bird's eye view of typical Geo. Wilkinson designed Irish workhouse
Aerial view of Birr Workhouse Aerial view of Birr Workhouse
Girls' dormitory
Girls' dormitory

Stone stairs leading up to girls' dormitory Stone stairs leading up to girls' dormitory

An aerial view confirms the belief that it is the best preserved and least altered of the 130 workhouses built before the Great Famine. A continuous archive for the workhouse survives: the minutes of the Board of Guardians are preserved in Offaly County Library as are the reports in the King’s County Chronicle newspaper which began publication in Birr in 1845. In addition, it was one of only nine workhouses chosen by the government for the National Famine Research Project marking the 150th commemoration of the Great Famine in 1995. More ->

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FIRST ALL IRELAND HURLING FINAL
The first ever All Ireland Hurling Final was played in Birr on Easter Sunday, 1 April 1888 to decide the All Ireland Championship for 1887. Tipperary was represented by Thurles and Galway by Meelick and the referee was Birr business man Patrick White. Birr was convenient, accessible and neutral for the two teams and special trains carried crowds, including the Tipperary team to the train station which serviced Birr from 1858-1963. The teams were warmly welcomed on arrival and togged out at Cunningham's Hotel in the Main St. The Midland Tribune reported that the 'combatants arrived on the scene, attired in beautiful and appropriate costumes. The Meelick men wore green jerseys with white stripes, while the gallant Tips appeared in green jerseys with stars artistically worked in the centre'. The match began at 3 pm in Farrells' (later Hoares') field which was on the Roscrea side of the present GAA pitch and opposite the County Arms Hotel. There was a very large attendance and Tipperary won by 1 goal, 1 point and 1 forfeit point to Galway nil. Both teams were then marshalled and marched back through a cheering crowd to dinner in Cunningham's Hotel.

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BIRR BARRACKS AT CRINKILL
The village of Crinkill developed around the barracks. The 1798 Rebellion and subsequent fears of another French invasion of the west of Ireland led to fortification of the line of the River Shannon and Birr was selected as a site for a barracks because it was within a few hours march from Banagher and other fortifications on the river. Building of the barracks at Crinkill began in 1809 and was completed in 1812. The complex could accommodate over 1,200 men and 500 more under canvas and eventually included a chapel, school, its own gasworks, gym, and graveyard. The Leinster Regiment, formed in 1881, had their depot here. The barracks were handed over to the Irish Free State on 13 February 1922 and were burned down by Repubican forces on 14 July 1922. Little now survives at Crinkill except most of the perimeter wall and the graveyard.

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PEOPLE
St Brendan the Elder is the first Birr person recorded by name. He died c. 571 AD. His successors as abbots of Birr are also named in the Irish Annals.

Adomnán, abbot of Iona held a synod at Birr in 697 AD where he promulgated Cain Adomnain, a law for the protection of women and other non-combatants in time of war.

Macregol, scribe, bishop and abbot at Birr died c.822 AD. He made an illuminated copy of the Four Gospels.

The O'Carrolls were lords of Ely O'Carroll from the tenth century until the seventeenth century. Birr Castle was one of their chief strongholds.

Thomas Lalor Cooke (1792-1869) from Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary and an attorney in Birr, wrote two important histories of the town and district in the nineteenth century: Picture of Parsonstown (1826) and Early history of the town of Birr ... (1875).

Thomas Lalor Cooke
Thomas Lalor Cooke

The Third Earl of Rosse built the Great Telescope in the 1840s.

His wife Mary Field Rosse (1813-1885) was a pioneer of early photography. 

Their son Charles Algernon Parsons (1854-1931) invented the steam turbine.

Patrick White, a business man in Birr Main St refereed the first All Ireland Hurling Final between Tipperary and Galway which was played in Birr on Easter Sunday 1888.

Caitlín Brugha (nee Kingston) (1879-1959) elected to Dáil Éireann in 1923 & 1927 and widow of Cathal Brugha was a native of Main St, Birr. 

Catherine Mahon, NT (1875-1948) from Carrig near Birr was Principal of Carrig NS. She was elected first woman President of the INTO in 1912 and was one of the first female leaders of any trade union in Ireland.

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Facsimile of Macregol Gospels on display in Birr Library
Facsimile of
Macregol Gospels,
Cain Adomnain and
medieval bell
are on display in Birr Library

Birr Library: restored ceiling in the Junior Section
Birr Library: restored ceiling
of the Junior Section

Copy of Cain Adomnain by modern scribe Margaret Maher
Copy of Cain Adomnain
by modern scribe
Margaret Maher
made for Birr 1300
celebration


'Ineo inso...' opening words of Cain Adomnain
''Iseo inso foras Cana
Adomnaniae'
opening page of modern
illuminated copy of
Cain Adomnain
by modern scribe
Margaret Maher