Around 45km south of Athlone at the confluence of the Camcor and Little Brosna rivers, BIRR is the Midlands’ most attractive town, planned around the estate of Birr Castle, the home of the Parsons family, later the Earls of Rosse. Around Emmet Square – formerly Duke’s Square, but the unpopular statue of the Duke of Cumberland, victor over the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, is long gone from the central pillar – you’ll find several broad Georgian terraces, graced with fanlights and other fine architectural details, notably St John’s Mall to the east and Oxmantown Mall to the north off Emmet Street. Birr is not yet on the country’s main tourist trail but supports some appealing places to stay and eat, making it an excellent base from which to explore the Shannon, Clonmacnois and Slieve Bloom. The town comes to life in mid-August during its Vintage Week and Arts Festival (wwww.birrvintageweek.com), when shop assistants, bar staff and townspeople deck themselves out in historic regalia, and there’s a varied programme of street theatre, music, and art exhibitions.
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A monastery was first founded here in the sixth century, later becoming famous for the Mac Regol Gospels (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), an illuminated manuscript named after the early ninth-century abbot and bishop. Birr was settled by the Anglo-Normans, who built a castle here in 1208, later becoming the site of an O’Carroll stronghold between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the 1619 plantation of their territory, known as Ely O’Carroll, however, Sir Laurence Parsons was given Birr, which became known as Parsonstown. A descendant of his set about reconstructing the town in the 1740s in Neoclassical style, a development which continued in stages until as late as the 1830s.
Lying to the west of Emmet Square, Birr's forbidding Gothic castle itself is not open to the public, but there’s plenty of interest in the Historic Science Centre in the coach houses, which also shelter a pleasant summertime café, and in the varied grounds. In the nineteenth century, the Parsons family gained an international reputation as scientists and inventors, partly it would seem because they were educated at home. The third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, devoted himself to astronomy, and in 1845 built the huge Rosse Telescope, with a 72-inch reflector, which remained the largest in the world until 1917. It was fully reconstructed in the 1990s, along with the massive, elaborate housing of walls, tracks, pulleys and counterweights needed to manoeuvre it, which can be seen in the garden. The fourth Earl, Laurence, and his mother, Mary, a friend of Fox Talbot’s, were eminent photographers, while Laurence’s brother, Sir Charles Parsons, was carving himself a varied and colourful career, which included building a small flying machine and a helicopter in the 1890s and spending 25 years unsuccessfully trying to make artificial diamonds. He’ll be best remembered, however, as the inventor of the steam turbine and for his exploits at the 1897 Spithead Naval Review, celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee when, frustrated at the Royal Navy’s foot-dragging, he gatecrashed in the Turbinia, the first steam-turbine ship, racing through the fleet at the unheard-of speed of 34 knots. Within a few years the technology was adopted by navies and passenger liners around the world. All of this is set in historical and global context in the Science Centre, with plenty of astrolabes, cameras and other instruments and some lively audiovisuals.
You could easily spend a couple of hours strolling around the beautiful castle grounds (demesne), especially if you buy the booklet on its fifty most significant trees. Beyond the wild-flower meadows, which are left to grow tall until July every year, lie a nineteenth-century lake, a fernery and fountain, and the oldest wrought-iron suspension bridge in Ireland, dating from 1820. The walled gardens feature the tallest box hedges in the world, which are over three hundred years old, as well as intricate parterres and paths canopied with hornbeams in the formal, seventeenth-century-style Millennium Garden.
To the east of Birr, straddling the Offaly–Laois border, rises Slieve Bloom, the “mountain of Bladhma”, named after an ancient Connacht warrior who sought refuge here. Although it extends only for about 20km across and down, the massif provides welcome relief from the flatness of the Midlands and a refuge for wildlife including bog plants such as the insect-eating sundew, and birds including skylarks, kestrels and the rare peregrine falcon. The waymarked 77km Slieve Bloom Way describes a heavily indented circuit of most of the range, before passing underneath the highest point – Arderin (527m), which means, rather hopefully, the “height of Ireland”; shorter, signposted walks are detailed on the very useful website, wwww.slievebloom.ie. OS map #54 covers the whole of Slieve Bloom, while East West Mapping (wwww.eastwestmapping.ie) produces a useful 1:50,000 map-guide to the waymarked trail, available from local bookshops. For something more organized, get in touch with the Slieve Bloom Rural Development Co-operative at the community centre in Kinnitty, who run a walking festival over the bank-holiday weekend in early May and guided walks every Sunday afternoon thereafter until November.
The best base on the Offaly side of the mountains, within walking distance of the Slieve Bloom Way, is the charming village of KINNITTY, which huddles around a triangular green that’s traversed by a tiny stream.