Birr in the 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 acts as 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, around which the medieval town later grew.
The Cáin Adomnáin, a famous legal tract for the protection of women and children, was enacted at Birr in 697AD, and a celebrated copy of the Four Gospels known as the Book of Birr and attributed to the scribe MacRegol (a facsimile copy of which is on display in Birr Library) was made around 800 AD. 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. In 1619 the castle of Birr along with 1,277 acres of land was granted to Sir Laurence Parsons when Ely O’Carroll came under English control. 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. 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’ in the words of Eliana Ferioli (in Great Gardens of Europe). It has over 120 acres of formal gardens and natural landscape, with a world renowned plant collection that includes over 40 of Ireland’s Champion Trees: and with the fully restored great telescope of Birr at its centre.