Project Introduction

The John’s Hall project is a 30-year commitment by the IHS to the town of Birr, beginning with the restoration of a set of historic buildings in Birr, County Offaly, as an educational and community resource. Our ambition is to establish a third level teaching and research institute in the town, focussed on our natural, built and community heritage. While predominantly teaching in the fields of environmental science, landscape studies and biodiversity & conservation the school’s curriculum will also extend into cultural heritage program and ‘service’ based projects. The venture has the capacity to attract third level students to Birr from all over the world – as well as acting as a teaching hub for Irish students, adult education, vocational training and, potentially, link in with the town’s primary and secondary education systems. Crucially, the building is also intended to act as a hub for several local community groups with an interest in rural development and the above themes, which will see full use of the site in time – something that has been desired by the local community for a considerable time.

This project is centred on the restoration of the old Town Council offices and ancillary buildings. The roof of the offices had been compromised, with the building in danger of dereliction and collapse in 2019. The project will see the repair of the building – a potential eye sore in the town – for use as a microscope laboratory, tutorial rooms, classrooms, welfare space, community ‘hot-desks’ and offices.  In November 2019 a 30-year lease was finalised with Offaly County Council for the ‘Town Council Offices’ and adjacent outbuildings. The lease included provision for access to the main John’s Hall building for use as a lecturing and exhibition space, with significant scope to develop this iconic building as a touristic space in future years.

The Buildings

The excitement this project has generated at the IHS is palpable, not least as the site is so iconic within the town of Birr. The description of the site given here is based on the Record of Protected Structures, which the buildings are protected under (RPS No. 53-307), as well the Archaeological Survey of Ireland. Our program of works occurs mainly at the detached fivebay single-storey house (and outbuildings/yard) to the rear of the site, built c.1820. Best known locally for its use at the Town Council Offices, these buildings have been vacant for several years but will now be rehabilitated into laboratories, classroom and offices.

Of more renown, is the stunning John’s Hall – a detached single-storey structure, reminiscent of an Ionic temple, that stands on John’s Place (to which it gave its name). Used as a hall and schoolhouse, John’s Hall was designed by Bernard Mullins c.1828 – with the original Mullin’s drawings still in the Birr Castle archives. The building, based on a Temple on the Ilissus, was completed by 1833 by the Second Earl of Rosse and commemorates the death of his twenty-six year old son, John Clere Parsons, who died of scarlet fever. With its striking Ionic portico, the building exhibits many architectural features which mark it out as one of the town’s finest structures. While Offaly County Council continue to hold the tenancy of ‘John’s Hall’, access for the IHS to the building, for use as a teaching and exhibition space, has been written into the lease. In time there remains significant scope to develop this iconic building as a touristic space, with the building located on the main artery from the castle to the workhouse and in a key central location. The building’s history, coupled with a curated exhibit, would make also this location an ideal visitor attraction in its own right.

Two other ‘features’ are contained within the John’s Hall site which are of considerable historical merit. Adjacent the Hall is a cannon captured from the Russians at the Siege of Sevastopol in 1855, during the Crimean War; the cannon was presented to the people of Birr in 1858.

On the opposite side of the Hall is a recorded monument (OF035-032—) known locally as the ‘Seffin Stone’. This large limestone rock was recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th century as the ‘navel of Ireland’ – with the stone said to mark the centre of Ireland by Archbishop James Cooke (d. 1656). Originally located in Seffin, where it may once have formed part of a megalithic monument, the stone is recalled as being sited close to the old railway station. This stone is marked with a number of incisions and symbols, which local traditions claim are indentations from the hand of Fionn mac Cumhaill, hence the name as ‘Suigh Finn’ or ‘The Seat of Finn’. The stone is also reputed locally to have marked a meeting place for the Fianna. The stone was taken from Birr in either 1828 or 1833 by Thomas Steele to his residence Cullaun House, County Clare to honour Daniel O’Connell. It was returned to Birr Urban Council in June 1974 and placed in its present position.

Project Timeline

In 2018 the IHS made the decision to pursue a regional base in the midlands, preferably by restoring a derelict historic structure into active use. A short list of sites was created in consultation with staff from Offaly County Council and members of the Birr 20:20 group (the latter being a local initiate founded to fill the gap in leadership brought about by the dissolution of the Town Councils). Following from these preliminary discussions, the IHS met with Mr Tom Shanahan, Director of Services (Planning, Economic Development, Tourism, Housing and Tullamore Municipal District of Offaly County Council) in early 2019, with a view to the leasing, redevelopment and sustainable use of the buildings at John’s Hall, Birr as a centre for heritage training and research and community engagement. A timeline for the project, consisting of selective milestones, is presented below:

  • 2016: IHS explore the potential for Environmental Science programs in Birr.
  • August 2017: The first IHS international group, from Ithaca College, visit the town for a research project.
  • February 2018: The first IHS educational program takes place in Birr.
  • March 2018: IHS open Birr as a destination for ‘Spring Break’ programs.
  • Summer 2018: IHS open Birr as a destination for summer programs.
  • August 2018: The first excavation by the IAFS (our archaeological division) takes place in Birr.
  • November 2018: Initial meetings take place with Offaly County Council and Birr 20:20 to draw up a shortlist of possible school locations.
  • December 2018: John’s Hall is selected from the shortlist and an official Expression of Interest is submitted to Offaly County Council.
  • January 2019: The first of a series of meetings take place with Offaly County Council.
  • January 2019: IHS proposal for John’s Hall submitted to Offaly County Council.
  • March 2019: Birr 20:20 announce discussions regarding John’s Hall at their monthly meeting.
  • March 2019: Meetings take place with Offaly County Council and Rachel McKenna (the county’s Conservation Officer) regarding the proposed works to the buildings. Application is made for a Section 57 exemption to planning.
  • May 2019: Section 57 is approved for proposed works.
  • August 2019: Roof works go out to tender.
  • September 2019: First draft lease prepared for review by solicitors.
  • November 2019: Lease is approved at the November meeting of Offaly County Council Councillors.
  • November 2019: Final lease is signed by IHS and Offaly County Council.
  • November 2019: Internal works are put out to tender.
  • December 2019: First funding application is submitted.
  • January 2020: Roof works due to commence.
  • January 2020: Second funding application due to be submitted.
  • February 2020: Internal works due to commence.
  • March 2020: First service program at the site, with California State University, Sacramento, due to commence.
  • May 2020: Second service program at the site, with Indiana State University, due to commence.
  • Summer 2020: Teaching programs commence from the site.

Acknowledgements

The project has only been made possible by a partnership approach and results from the support of a host of local and local authority bodies, not least Offaly County Council, Birr 20:20 and Birr Castle Estate. In particular, the IHS would like to thank Tom Shanahan, Amanda Pedlow and Rachel McKenna in Offaly County Council and Salters Sterling and Cllr. John Carroll in Birr 20:20 for their repeated support and advice.