PARSONSTOWN, or BIRR, a market-town and post-town, and a parish, in the barony of BALLYBRIT, KING'S county, and province of LEINSTER, 18 miles (S. W.) from Tullamore, and 60 (W. S. W.) from Dublin, on the road from Tullamore to Roscrea; containing, with the village of Crinkle, 9457 inhabitants. The place derived its name of Birr from the abbey of Biorra, founded here by St. Brendan Luaigneus; or from Bior, the Irish term for the bank or margin of a river. It formerly constituted part of the ancient district of Ely O'Carrol in Ormond, in Munster, and did not form any portion of the King's county as at first erected into shire ground in the reign of Philip and Mary, being annexed to it under an inquisition of the 2nd of Jas. I.
The castle of Birr was considered to be the chief seat of the O'Carrols, chieftains of the sept. A great battle was fought near it, in 241, between Cormac, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, and the people of Munster: the place suffered much from the ravages of the Danes in 841 and 842, and in 1154 O'Hedersgool, king of Cathluighe, was killed at the church door. Soon after the English invasion, Hen. II. granted this district to Philip de Worcester and Theobald Fitzwalter, after which he sold it to William de Braosa and others. It was afterwards transferred to Hugh de Hose or Hussey, in which family it continued till the time of Jas. I. In 1533, Gerald, Earl of Kildare, then lord-deputy, laid siege to the castle in support of Ferganainim O'Carrol, his son in-law, but soon raised the siege, in consequence of a wound received from one of the garrison. Lord Grey, when lord-deputy, took the castle in 1537, and one of the charges against him, which led to his execution, was that he had sanctioned the outrages committed by Ferganainim O'Carrol. This chieftain afterwards surrendered his territory to Edw. VI., who restored it to him with the addition of the dignity of Baron of Ely during life. In the proceedings under the commission for the plantation of Ely O'Carrol, in the reign of James I., Birr and its appendages were assigned to Lawrence Parsons, brother of Sir Wm. Parsons, the surveyor-general, in 1620; and, as in the grant the place is described as the castle, fort, village, and lands of Birr, it must have been of some importance.
In the same year the new proprietor obtained a licence to hold a market on Tuesday and two fairs, and seven years after, a further licence for a Saturday market and two additional fairs. The assizes for the county used to be held here at that period. On the breaking out of the war of 1641, William Parsons was made governor of Ely O'Carrol and Birr castle, which he garrisoned with his own tenantry. The next year an engagement took place between the garrison and the sept of the O'Carrols; and in the same year the castle was besieged by the Irish, but was relieved by Sir Chas. Coote, who threw into it a supply of ammunition and proviPAR sions. This action was deemed so important that it procured for Sir Charles the dignity of Earl of Mountrath.
But the next year the place fell into the hands of Gen. Preston, the commander of the forces of the confederate Catholics in Leinster, who kept possession of it until it was taken by Ireton in 1650; and a subsequent attempt by the Marquess of Clanricarde, to recover it for the king was baffled by the approach of Col. Axtell. At the time of the Restoration, it seems that the place was of some commercial importance, from the number of brass tokens then coined for the convenience of trade. In the war of 1688 the castle was again besieged by Cols. Grace and Oxburgh, and surrendered on terms which afterwards were made grounds of accusation against Sir Laurence Parsons, the governor, on which he was found guilty of high treason, but received a pardon after several reprieves.
At this period Birr is mentioned by Sir Wm. Petty as sending two members to parliament. In 1689, the R. C. clergymen took possession of the church, tithes, and glebe, which they held till the battle of the Boyne. In. 1690, the castle was again besieged by Gen. Sarsfield, the Duke of Berwick, and Lord Galway, but the siege was raised by Sir John Lanier for King William. A meeting of delegates from several volunteer corps was held here in 1781, and again in 1782, at which strong resolutions were passed relative to the great questions which then absorbed public attention. In 1799, a meeting of magistrates, convened to petition against the legislative union, was dispersed by the high sheriff and a body of artillery with three pieces of cannon, for which that functionary and the commander of the military were brought to the bar of the house of commons on the motion of Sir Laurence Parsons, when, instead of punishment, they received a vote of thanks for their conduct.
Parsonstown, the name by which the place was called so early as the reign of Chas. L, on the Birr river, formerly called Comcor, a branch of the Lesser Brosna, is pleasantly situated, well built, and inhabited by some wealthy and many respectable families It is also the centre of a fertile and extensive district, whence it draws large quantities of agricultural produce to be distributed in other parts, and sends into it in return the foreign articles required by the inhabitants. Archbishop Ussher says, that Birr was considered the centre of Ireland; and Sir Wm. Petty, in his survey, marks the church with the words "Umbilicus Hiberniæ:" it is in 53° 6' 16" (N. Lat.), and 7° 38' 23" (W, Lon.); its geocentric latitude is 52° 55' 30" (North). It is the largest town in the county, and has risen to the highly improved state in which it now is chiefly during the period in which the present proprietor, the Earl of Rosse, has superintended its progress.
The principal streets, which are formed of modern houses and laid out in straight lines, terminate in Duke-square, in which there is a statue of the Duke of Cumberland, on a Doric pillar, 55 feet high, set up in 1747, in commemoration of his victory at Culloden. The castle, situated at one side of the town, may be said to have been rebuilt by the Parsons family: the centre of the building, which was consumed by an accidental fire in 1832, has been restored and improved. About 50 years since a brisk trade was carried on here in woollens, which gave employment to several hundred weavers and combers. At present the trade is principally confined to two distilleries, each of which produces about 95,000 gallons of spirits annually; but a great variety of minor manufactures is carried on.
There was also formerly an extensive manufacture of glass, of which the only remains are the ruins of the glass-house. The market is well supplied with provisions of good quality: the fairs are held on Feb. 11th, May 5th, Aug. 25th, and Dec. 10th. Large quantities of corn, flour, spirits, butter, cattle, sheep, and pigs are sold here; and in return, timber, iron, drapery, groceries, coal, and most other articles for domestic consumption are brought in. The want of water carriage to facilitate the conveyance of commercial commodities is severely felt; a plan has consequently been proposed to form a navigation along the valley of the Brosna from Croghan bridge, about half a mile below the town, to the Shannon, from which river the Brosna is navigable for two miles for the largest barges; thence the line is proposed to be carried by a still water navigation until the channel of the river can be again made available, at about 2½ miles below the town. The sessions-house consists of a hall, a court, and offices for transacting business: at one end of it is the bridewell, the only one in the county; it has two day-rooms, eight cells, and two airing-yards. General sessions for the county are held here in rotation with Tullamore and Philipstown four times in the year; and petty sessions occasionally. A manor court, under a seneschal appointed by the Earl of Rosse, is also held here. The town is a chief constabulary police station.
There are a fever hospital, a dispensary, and a mendicity institution. A reading-room is well supplied with newspapers and periodicals. In the centre of the town is an observatory, belonging to Thos. L. Cooke, Esq. The barracks, which are about an English mile distant, have accommodations for 48 officers of infantry, 1110 privates, and 15 horses, with an hospital for 100 patients: the building consists of two large squares, attached to which is an area for exercise. The parish, which comprises 4018 statute acres, does not present any striking features of fertility or improvement.
The principal seats are Ballyegan, the splendid residence of Bernard Mullins, Esq.; Tinnakilly, of Arth. Robinson, Esq.; Oakley Park, of the late Mr. Stoney; and Elm Hall, of Joseph Burke, Esq. The living is a rectory and vicarage, in the diocese of Killaloe, and in the patronage of the Bishop: the tithes amount to £276. 18. 5½. The glebe-house, in the town, was an old building in very indifferent repair, but a new one has lately been erected: the glebe comprises 25 acres. The church, erected in 1815, by aid of a loan from the late Board of First Fruits, is a stone edifice in the pointed style of architecture, with a steeple 100 feet high. In the R. C. divisions the parish, which is still called Birr, is part of the bishop's mensal, and the head of a union or district, comprising also the parish of Loughkeen. Each of the parishes has a chapel: that at Birr is a splendid edifice, in the later English style, having two minarets and a steeple, 150 feet high, with a fine bell; it is the cathedral of the diocese: and adjoining it is the neat and retired residence of the Rt. Rev. Dr. Kennedy, R. C. Bishop of Killaloe. There are six other places of worship; three for Independents, one for the Society of Friends, and two for Wesleyan and Whitfield Methodists; that of the Wesleyans, erected in 1820, is a handsome building with a well-executed pediment of hewn stone. The walls and steeple of the old church are still standing; on the latter is a sculpture in stone of the arms of Sir L. Parsons, to whom the town was granted in 1620, and who died in 1628, impaled with those of his lady, Anne Malham. There are about 20 schools in the town and parish, four of which are free schools. The parochial school for boys is aided by an annual donation from the rector, as is also an infants' school; a male and female school is aided by an annual donation from E. Synge, Esq., and a female parochial school is supported by subscription: in all these there are about 400 children; and 15 private schools give instruction to 350 boys and 250 girls: there is also a Sunday school, Many curious relics of antiquity have been found in the neighbourhood of this parish, a collection of which, consisting of swords, spears, skeins, celts, and the Barnaan Cuilawn, found at Glankeen, are in the possession of Mr. Cooke, who has also a number of the brass tokens already noticed. Some instances of extraordinary longevity have been recorded; one person is named who lived to the age of 114 years. At Clonbela, about 2½ miles from the town, is a mineral spring.
Lord Oxmantown, who devotes much time and thought to studies connected with astronomy and other branches of science, has a laboratory in which he has constructed machinery for polishing the largest specula for telescopes, by means of which he constructed a 25-feet reflector, the great speculum of which is 3½ feet in diameter. It stands on the lawn in front of Birr castle, and is moved by machinery somewhat similar in principle to that of Herschel's celebrated telescope, but simpler in construction, which also is the invention of his lordship. Mr. Cooke has here a seven-feet reflector, which is equatorially mounted on a cast-metal pillar in a very simple manner. Some documents and MS. accounts relative to the wars of 1641 and 1688 are in the possession of the Earl of Rosse. A history and description of Parsonstown was published in 1826: the work is anonymous, but is supposed to have been written by Tho. L. Cooke, Esq.
from Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837.