Birr Castle

Caisleán Biorra

Birr Castle

Caisleán Biorra

Ireland's Hidden Heartlands by Abarta Heritage

Birr Castle has a long and fascinating history, and it was a place of pioneering science and innovation for generations. Today it’s a marvellous place to visit, with lovely walks, a great playground and fascinating Science Centre.

The story of Birr Castle begins with a Norman motte and bailey, established here in the late-12th century. The castle became the stronghold of the O’Carroll family, until it was purchased by the Ormond-Butlers in the 1580s. In 1620 the castle (by then ruined) and its estates were granted to the Parsons family, and the medieval tower house was incorporated into a larger mansion by Sir Laurence Parsons. A particularly infamous member of the Parsons family was Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse (c.1702–1741), the first Grand Master of the Irish Grand Lodge of Freemasons and one of the founding members of the notorious Hellfire Club.

The castle withstood two attacks in the 17th century: when it was besieged in 1641 during the Irish Confederacy Rebellion, and again in 1689 during the Williamite Wars. Throughout its long history, the castle has been added to, adapted and remodelled to suit the personality of the particular earl, with each descendant and their family leaving their mark on the estate. Much of the castle’s appearance that we see today dates from the 19th century – in 1800, the disappointed Second Earl of Rosse retired to his estate after the Act of Union was passed. The earl had been an active opponent to the Bill, put his energies into improving and modernising the castle. He added a new façade facing the demesne to the north, instead of the town to the south.

Birr Castle Science Centre 

It was during the 19th century that Birr and the Earls of Rosse became synonymous with science. William, Third Earl of Rosse, was fascinated with astronomy and became famed for his academic achievements and skills, and was President of the Royal Society. He had the largest telescope of the time constructed in the grounds of the castle, and it attracted visitors from all over the world to see what became known as the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’. His wife, Mary Countess of Rosse, was a pioneering photographer, and remarkably her darkroom, complete with equipment and chemicals, still survives intact in the castle. The room remained untouched from 1908 until its rediscovery in 1983. The scientific spark was strong in the family: the youngest son of the third Earl, Sir Charles Parsons, invented the steam turbine, transforming shipping and the world forever. The superb Science Centre, housed in the castle grounds, detail more of the story of science at Birr. The grounds themselves are a beautiful place to enjoy a walk, and are filled with an abundance of rare plants and trees that were collected by the Earls of Rosse on their travels around the world and you can follow winding paths to lovely waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

It is also worth taking a walk in the town of Birr. The town grew in the shadow of the castle, and its development was also influenced by the various Earls of Rosse. Amongst the handsome Georgian buildings echoes of an earlier age can be discovered, in the form of a large block of carboniferous limestone known as the ‘Birr Stone’. It was referred to as the Umbilicus Hiberniae (the Navel of Ireland’) by Giraldus Cambrensis, the Welsh cleric who accompanied the Normans during their invasion of Ireland. This stone is thought to have been possibly part of a megalithic tomb that was located nearby, though according to legend it marked a meeting place of the legendary warriors, the Fianna.

Visiting Birr Castle – Information

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