Birr town, Co. Offaly, is one location of a new research project looking at the early medieval monastic landscape and environment of the midlands of Ireland.
Birr (Biorra, in Irish, meaning ‘water cress’) is located in south-west corner of County Offaly, in the very heart of Ireland, a location that provides ready access to a uniquely wide range of natural habitats and culturally important sites, and a convenient springboard to locations further afield. Here, at the confluence of the Camcor and Little Brosna Rivers, Saint Brendan established a famous monastery in the 6th century AD/CE, around which the medieval town later grew.
It is likely that the area of Birr was settled long before ‘Brendan’s’ settlement; discovered during peat milling, the famous Mesolithic site of Lough Boora, excavated in the 1970s, is located only 22km to the north (Ryan 1980, 1981, 1984). The evidence from Lough Boora proved conclusively that Mesolithic man colonised the interior of Ireland; it was previously argued that Mesolithic populations were restricted to coastal and riverine areas. It is intuitive that Mesolithic populations may have exploited the annual summer run of ‘Croneen’ trout on the Rivers Camcor and Brosna in the locality of Birr.
Today however, Birr is best known for its early medieval history and Georgian architecture: the Cáin Adomnáin, a famous legal tract in Brehon Law for the protection of women and children, was enacted at Birr in 697 AD/CE. A celebrated copy of the Four Gospels known as the Book of Birr or Gospels of Macregol, attributed to the scribe MacRegol was made around 800 AD (a facsimile copy of which is on display in Birr Library). Following an interlude of some two centuries of Norman control, the Gaelic O’Carroll dynasty regained control of the area around Birr (a territory known as Ely O’Carroll) in the early 14th century AD/CE. In 1619, when Ely O’Carroll came under English control, the castle of Birr along with 1,277 acres of land was granted to Sir Laurence Parsons (Earls of Rosse). The present town grew up in the shadow of the castle, surviving two sieges in the turbulent 17th century. Between the mid 18th and early 19th centuries an elegant Georgian perimeter (which makes Birr noteworthy in architectural terms today) developed around the town.
In the 19th century Birr came to occupy an important place in the history of science. In the late 1840s the Third Earl of Rosse completed work on his great reflector telescope, for over 70 years the biggest in the world, through which the spiral nature of galaxies such as Andromeda was first clearly demonstrated. Pioneering work in photography and turbine design was also carried out. Birr Castle is still the home of the Earls of Rosse today. Its demesne landscape, which evolved from the oak parkland of the late medieval castle, is one of the finest in Ireland, ‘a green jewel of world renown’ (Ferioli 2005, Great Gardens of Europe). It has over 120 acres of formal gardens and natural landscape, and a world-renowned plant collection that includes over 40 of Ireland’s listed ‘Champion’ trees, and with the fully restored great telescope of Birr at its centre (Johnson 2012).
With such a diverse heritage, rich history (natural and cultural), community spirit and central geographic location, Birr is ideally situated for study abroad programs.
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Johnson O. 2012. Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland: The Tree Register Handbook Royal Botanic Gardens. Surrey.
Ryan, M. 1980 ‘An Early Mesolithic site in the Irish midlands’, Antiquity 54, 46-47.
Ryan, M. 1981 ‘Ireland’s first inhabitants’, Ireland Today. No. 987. 13-16.
Ryan, M. 1984 ‘Archaeological Excavations at Lough Boora, Broughal townland, Co. Offaly, 1977’, In M. O’Rourke (ed.) Proceedings of the 7th International Peat Congress, Dublin, June 18-23 1984, Vol. 1. Bord na Mona, Dublin. 407-13.