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.
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.