Extract from John Wright — Offaly one hundred years ago
— reprint of King's County Directory, 1890
Parsonstown, called after the descendants of Sir Laurence Parsons, 1620, formerly called Birr, is on the Camcor River, in the Parish of Birr and Barony of Ballybritt. By road it is sixty-two Irish miles west-south-west from Dublin, and by rail eighty-nine. In times past the town was called Tulach Brenayd, which means Brendan's Hill, so called after its Patron Saint. Birr, a name of great antiquity, is supposed to be derived from the Irish word Birra, standing water, or as some translate it, abounding in wells and fountains; and as a matter of fact the town is favoured with an ample number of pumps. Parsonstown is in the ancient territory of Prince Ely O'Carroll, from whom Mr. D'Alton Carroll, of Arrabeg, in Lower Ormond, claims descent, as does also another Carroll living between Cloughjordan and Shinrone.
It appears that the people were called into notice at an early period. In the latter end of the second century Eogan More, or Moyha Meadhat, called also Eogan the Splendid, of the race of Heber, and maternally descended from the Clanna Deayadhs, was a celebrated warrior; and having contended for the monarchy of Ireland with Con of the Hundred Battles, they at last divided the Island between them; but Eogan being afterwards defeated, was forced to fly into Spain, where he lived for many years of exile, and married Beara, a Spanish Princess, daughter of Heber, King of Castile. Entering into a confederacy with Falch, the son of Heber, they collected a powerful army, with which they landed in Ireland, to recover the sovereignty from Con of the Hundred Battles, and both armies A.D. 192 fought a tremendous battle on the plain of Moylena, in which Con was victorious, and Eogan More was killed by Goll, the son of Morna, a celebrated champion of the Firbolg race. The place where this battle was fought, as stated in O'Flaherty's Ogygia, is the ancient Barony of Fircall in the King's County, and there are still to be seen there two hillocks or sepulchral mounds, in one of which was buried the body of Eogan, and in the other, that of Falch, the Spaniard, who was also slain in that battle, the site of which is about a couple of miles from Parsonstown, near the Eglish portion of the road to Frankford.
In 212, Cormack, son of Art, obtained the help of Thady, grandson of Olliol Ollum, who held great authority in Ely, to revenge an insult passed on him in Ulster. It is supposed also that Druidic worship was carried on here, and until a comparatively recent date. Early in the nineteenth century a large rock in Birr parish, was thought to be "the navel of Ireland" mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis. Usher celled it Umbilicus Hiberniae, and the Down survey of 1657 marks the site of the old church of Birr by this name. Furthermore, the name of Seffin, beside the railway station, and belonging for the most part to Henry Davis and Sons, signifies Sun Deity. This stone, which was situated near the fork of the roads leading to Roscrea and Birr Barracks, was carried away to Clare by Thomas Steele, in 1833, a relative by the way of a lady of the same name living with R. J. Sheppard in the Square. It was at this stone that the people worshipped, till St. Brendan the Elder came. He founded a monastery, which is the site of one of the old churches of this parish. The ruins of one may be still seen in Andrew Hernon's yard, behind Main-street, now used as a goods' store, and the other is in Church lane. This ecclesiastic was called Brendan of Birr to distinguish him from Brendan of Clonfert He died in 572.
The Four Masters in their annals record that Birr in 825 was the scene of a royal meeting between the Monarchs of Ireland and Munster, when there was "a kingly parlee at Byre between Felim and Connor." Birr was plundered three times in 833 by that Munster Sovereign, from which it may be judged to have been of substantial importance. Nor was Felim the only one that so considered it, for in 841 it was robbed by the "foreigners of the Boyne," who were Danes or Ostmen.. In 852, Feidlim, King of Munster, with the Archbishop of Cashel again entered the County, and treated the property as spoils of war.
A. D., 906, Flann Sionna, monarch of Ireland, and Carlaid of Leinster, marched into Munster and laid waste the country to Limerick, but in 907 Cormac MacCullionain, having collected the Munster forces and joined by Loran, King of Thomond, marched into Leinster and defeated Flann in a great battle on the heath of Moylena, in Fercall barony, King's County.
The troops of Ely, under an O'Carroll, fought on the side of Brian Boroimbhe, at the Battle of Clontarf, 1014. Turlogh, son of Roderick O'Connor, King of Ireland, "encamped" near Birr in 1121, but soon "decamped." The King of Cathluighe, South Munster, was killed at Birr church door in 1154.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the country of the O'Carrolls, O'Fogartys, O'Kennedys, and O'Meaghers were conferred on Philip de Worcester and Theobald. Fitzwalter, by Henry II. Later on, King John sold these granted territories to William de Braosa, but Fitzwalter, who was Grand Butler of Ireland, and from whom the Marquis of Ormond is descended, compounded with Braosa for his own part, and granted part of Birr, by military tenure, to Hugh de Hussy. Many conflicts arose between his men and the O'Carrolls, until the plantation by James I Moriertagh MacBryen, of the "Mountain" (which means Tuatharra), in County Tipperary, besieged the Castle of Birr, and burnt the town in 1207, and also destroyed castles at Kinnetty. In 1213, castles were erected or rebuilt by the English at Birr, Athlone, Kinnetty and Durrow. Internecine quarrels between the O'Oarrolls and the Princes of Arran continued for years, when in 1432 a war broke out between O'Carroll and the Earl of Orinond. The latter ravaged Ely and destroyed two castles, presumably Birr and Lemyvanane. Birr was visited by a plague in 1447, which carried off 700 ecclesiastics, and no guess can be made at the number of laity who died, but amongst them was Hussy, Baron of Galtrim, who claimed Birr. Eglish, Birr, Modereny, together with Broghill were taken by the Lord Deputy Grey in 1537, and in the same year O'Carroll made submission to him, and one of the charges against Lord Grey, when he was beheaded, was that he cloaked the outrages committed by this cbieftain. O'Carroll, by a treaty with Henry VIII. in 1539, undertook to pay a tribute for his principality, of 120 marks on the nomination of each person as "The O'Carroll," and also to supply forces. Birr, in 1548, was charged with an annual tribute to the Exchequer, by an agreement between Thady O'Carroll and Lord Brabazon, and finally this O'Carroll delivered the whole of Ely into the hands of Edward VI., who created him Lord Baron of Ely.
In 1548, O'Carroll drove the English off, and re-established himself in Birr, notwithstanding the previous forfeiture of his estates. The quarrels amongst the O'Carrolls continued, each chief striving to make himself head of the sept until 1557, when William O'Carroll presided over Birr, and was made its Governor by Royal Patent, having submitted to conditions of fighting for the King and Queen of England and their successors, and supplying horse and foot on expeditions. Later on we find this O'Carroll giving hostages for good behaviour to the Earl of Sussex; but a rupture having occurred O'Carroll was deposed. In the same year an Act of Parliament was passed, the Earl of Essex having subdued Leix and Offaly, by which these counties a and some adjoining districts were made into shire ground, which since forms Queen's and King's Counties, Offaly being the ancient name of the King's County.
The Four Masters state that in 1579 "Conal Buighe, grandson of Pierce O'Moore, was slain at Birr, and it was better he was killed, for it was to plunder the town that he had come." The next year, Lord Grey with English cavalry and infantry overran the territories of Ely, Offaley, Fearcall and Kinelyagh, and "pacified" the O'Carrolls of Ely, putting to death O'Mulloy, Lord of Fearcall.
Odhar O'Carroll, who had been imprisoned in Dublin, was released in 1581. On his way home he was slain by the young O'Connors of Offaley, who were not pleased at his release. His son, who became the O'Carroll, was treacherously killed by Mulroona, who came by his death three months after at the hands of his relative, Calvagh. This Prince becoming the O'Carroll attended, 1585, the Parliament convened by Sir J. Perrott, Lord Deputy. Other chieftains from King's County also assisted the debates in this parliament, notably Donal O'Madden, of Siol Anmcha; Conal O'Molloy, of Fearcally and John MacCoghlan, of Delvan, Eathra. Calvagh O'Carroll was slain in 1600 by "some inferior gentlemen" of the O'Meaghers and O'Carrolls. He was a Knight by authority of his Sovereign. In 1600, Lord Deputy Mountjoy directed the O'Carrolls to invade O'Molloys of Fearcoll, and we find in his muster roll, Sir Charles O'Carroll and Captain Mulroony O'Carroll commanding 100 men each.
A commission for tbe plantation of Ely was held in 1612, Teige claiming only a title as tenant. The remainder of the town was also released from Baron Galtrim, and the whole town was assigned to the son of a Sir Wm. Irwin. Birr was given to Mr. Robert Meredith. Two brothers, Sirs William and Laurence Parsons, 1620 were joined in the offices of Surveyor General and Court of Wards, the latter, in 1624 becoming Baron of the Court of Exchequer. By the commission Laurence was assigned 1,000 acres in Birr, Sir Thomas Dutton, Sir Wm. Sinclair, of Rosling, Sir James Young, James Gibb, and Charles Dutton also getting 1,000 acres each. Amongst the names of the "Undertakers," as they were called, were Gordon, Blundell, Knock, Leckye, Stradford, Glendoning, Drummond, Forbes, Carr, Lindsay, Irwing, Fitton, Beere, Clarke, Alexander, Stanes, Medhopp, Courey, Gookinge, Pikeman, Hamden, Hamilton, Delzell, Fisher, Moore, Forrett, Edgeworth, Hannal, Herune, Phelps, Hodges, Rodgers, Prescott, Hamsal, Ferror, Learmouth, Marsh, McConnell, and Piers.
Laurence became the owner of Birr, having exchanged properties with the Lord Chancellor. The order of possession, dated 22nd June, 1620, describes Birr as a Castle and Fort-village, showing it had military importance, but not largely inhabited. By this order, this "Village" was changed into the Manor of Parsonstown, and it included Ballindarragh, Cappineale, and Clonoughill. In this same year he established a Tuesday market, and two fairs to be held on the festivals of Sts. Mark and Andrew. In 1627, the Saturday market commenced, and two additional fairs, to be held on 1st February and 15th August. These fairs are now held on 11th and 25th of these months respectively, and the others on 5th May and 10th December. Others have been since added, some very recently.
The O'Carroll, not liking the "Plantation," petitioned the King three times, praying to be reinstated, as their teritory had been enjoyed by his ancestors for over 1,000 years. Lord Deputy Falkland referred the matter to the Surveyor General, Sir Wm. Parsons, who in his report decided adversely, on account of the previous surrender to Lords Galtrim and Ormond. From a recital in the hand writing of this Sir Laurence we find the names of sixty inhabitants of Birr who took leases from him; and as a perusal of them may be interesting in showing the viccisitudes of time, we give them, viz.:- Sir F. Ackland, Aharan, Beaty, Burras, Beetenson, Benfield, Blundell, Condon, O'Crokeran, Coghlan, Carrotters, Carroll, O'Carroll, O'Dulhunty, Evans, Fitzsymonds, Gavan, Gothforth, Green, O'Glessame, O'Hogan, O'Herin, O'Haghtir Hogan, Hustler, Hamsell, Humphry, Hart, Irwin, O'Kennedy, Langton, Larre, Mollop, O'Magher, Morley, Murroghoe, Prin, Mabbott, O'Naughtee, Percy, Rose, Raytor, Rice, Roose, Roch, Ridgway, Stockdale, Swe etman, Simonson, Sheepley, Saul, Teigh, Trady, Taylor, Trieve, Walter, and Williams.
Clonoghill Castle and town were leased in 1623, by Sir Laurence to Abraham Bigo, who started a glass manufactory, and Birr glass work attained importance, and furnished Dublin with all sorts of window and drinking glass. The sand for the glass was brought from England. The works were carried on for four years. Some years ago the remains of an ancient glass house were found at Clonbrone, and this probably was the site of Bigo's manufactory. The Irish burnt Clonoghill in 1642, and signs of the ruins may still be found in Syngefield demesne, at present in the occupation of Benjamin W. Fayle, J.P.
The ancient Castle of the O'Carrolls was called the "Black Castle," and stood sixty yards north-west of the present one on the high ground near the river. Part of the present one, the wall and centre, was originally a tower built by Laurence. The Belfry of the old church at Birr was probably added by him. At all events it was used as a place of defence in the Cromwellian and Williamite wars. A bridge leading from St. Brendan's well crossed the river at Castle street opposite the old church, where the Distillery or Brewery yard was in later days. It was destroyed in 1787. In 1626 there was a free school in the town, and Laurence obtained a grant of 200 acres for the use of the teacher. Two years afterwards, this grant was given to Banagher. Sir Laurence made some healthy orders for keeping the town in a sanitary condition; and as there seems to have been no chimneys to the houses in those days, such were directed to be built. His idea was of course to prevent a conflagration of the town, which was a matter of frequent occurrence in neighbouring villages, and also to make the houses tolerable to live in.
Tolls were established at fairs in 1626, and a market house erected in which assizes were held. This house was frequently used as a military position during the various contentions for the possession of Birr.
The Old Gaol was built in 1628, and many notable people have been confined in it. A plan of Birr, of 1691, shows that the houses did not extend northwards beyond the present Cumberland Square.
Several skirmishes took place in the war of 1641, between Birr Garrison, under the Governorship of William Parsons and the different Irish Septs under a Colonel Moore. The Garrison was closely besieged by the Irish in 1642, and had to feed on cats and dogs, and horses, the latter being very dear. Sir Thomas Lucas, Sir Charles Coote, Sir Richard Greville, and Capt. Yarner with six troops of dragoons soon relieved them. It is stated, in consequence of the success of this expedition Coote was created Earl of Mountrath. He was brother-in-law of Parsons. Birr was again attacked in 1643 by Preston, General of the Leinster Army, after taking the Castle of Burris. He encamped at Drumbawne Hill in the neighbourhood of the present residence of W. O'Meara, J.P.. The Garrison were allowed to march out with arms, half their plate, money, and much provisions. The articles of this agreement contain the names of Coote, Talbot, Darcy, Malone, Lady Phillips, Egan, and Pardis.
From the capture by General Preston until the arrival of General Ireton in1650, Birr remained in the hands of the Confederates, bearing allegiance to King Charles I. Owen O'Neill made an attempt to take it in 1648, when it was garrisoned by Sir Phelim O'Neill, but Lords Inchiquin and Taaffe raised the siege. Ireton and Sir Charles Coote attacked Athlone in 1650, but the bridge being broken down they were delayed, and the former advanced to Limerick taking Birr on his march. The Marquis of Clanricarde. attempting to retake it, was forced to raise the siege, on the advance of Colonel Axtell, who came to its relief from Roscrea, and Clanricarde was defeated at Meelick. William Parsons died in 1653, and was succeeded by his son Laurence, who was created a Baronet in 1677. In the catalogue of the Tradesmen's Tokens, we find that brass coinage was struck in Birr about this period, Five tokens are enumerated, but no doubt there were more. They are "Marcus Archer, of Birr," "Richard Archer," 1677, "Robert Jeffes, of Birr," "Thomas Langton," and Michael Cantwell."
In 1688, the town was infested with rapparees, under one Fannin, who kept the people in alarm, some of whom sought refuge in the Castle. This was reported to the Lord Lieutenant as a garrison against King James, and Colonels Oxburgh and Grace besieged it. Provisions running out, Sir Laurence surrendered, and he and some of his tenants, John Phillips, Philip Moore, Randal Knight, Jemes Burns, and James Rascoe were closely confined. At the same time Jonathan Darby, of Leap, his brother John, with Thomas Roe, Balinmoney, were imprisoned. They were all tried at Philipstown Assizes, 1689, before Judge Sir H. Lynch. Laurence, Jonathan, and Rascoe, were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered; but being reprieved, they were finally liberated after the battle of the Boyne, which was a fortunate victory for them, and is deservedly held in high regard by their descendants. This Oxburgh and Owen Carroll were M.P.'s for the County. It was during these troubles that Garrett Trant handed over the Glebe to the Rev. Thomas Kennedy, P.P, and Oxburgh handed the church over to him, in which Mass was then said.
Sarsfield held a review on the Birr meadows, and disbanded some companies which afterwards degenerated into rapparees. Oxburgh was appointed Provost Marshall of the County, and grimly signalized his new position by erecting gallows in the chief towns. He held Crinkill and Newtown, as tenant, from Sir Laurence. His son, who held Boveen, now the estate of the Baldwin Hamilton family, was executed in 1714. On the release of Sir Laurence, he and John Baldwin, Daniel Gahan, Wm. Purefoy, Samuel Rolls, Rector Vaughan, John Weaver, Jonathan Darby, Humphry Minchin, Archibald Adaire, Lyons, Reading, and Warburton were appointed Commissioners of Array for the County. Before his arrival in Parsonstown the Castle was troubled with the Irish Garrison at Banagher, who marched under Colonel Geoghegan as far as Burke's Hill, but after a parley retired. They again advanced, and the soldiers in the Castle sent out detachments which occupied the church. The Irish, under Sarsfield, Duke of Berwick, and Lord Galwav, occupied Burke's Hill, Nicholson's Park at Raelane, and Drumbawn hill. Godsell's Park was also occupied, as was the Market House by Lord Galway. However, the little Garrison under Capt. Curry forced them to retire again to Burke's Hill. The next day the English, under General Douglas, advanced to the relief of Birr, and found Sarafield within two miles of it, but he retreating beyond the Shannon, Douglas encamped and fortified the town with sod works. General Kirke arriving, further measures were taken to strengthen the situation, the houses between the town and Racalier Bridge being thrown down or burnt. After the battle of Aughrim, some 20 miles distant, the Irish evacuated Banagher, of which Major Collier, Governor of Parsonstown, took possession. Cloghan Castle, now the property of Colonel Win. Grogan Graves, D.L., and still a strong fabric of mason work, was occupied by Captain Parsons and Lieutenant A. Armstrong. Sir William, who succeeded Sir Lawrence in 1698, represented the County in several Parliaments, and was succeeded in both dignities by a grandson, Sir Laurence, in 1740. To commemorate the defeat of the Pretender by the British General at Culloden a monument was erected through the instrumentality of the Parsons. The pillar is of the Doric order and is 49 feet high, and it is surmounted by the statue of the Duke of Cumberland. In 1747 the Birr Freemasons' Lodge, No. 163, under a Warrant from Sir Marmaduke.Wyyille, G.M., was established, the first Master and Wardens being William Macoun, Thomas Mitchell, and James Armstrong. In 1776, Volunteer Corps were enrolled, those in Birr being called the Parsonstown Loyal Independents. Sir W. Parsons was Colonel, and the Major, L. Parsons afterwards Earl of Rosse. Delegates from the Volunteer Corps in the County held meetings here in 1781 and 1782. Two years afterwards they were reviewed by Sir W. Parsons at Woodfield, formerly called Tullanaskeagh, meaning the rising ground near the water, and we find among the regiments, the Offer-lane Blues, Colonel Luke Flood; Lorr ha Rangers, Captain Firman; the Clanrickarde Chasseurs, Colonel O'Moore; Mountmellick Infantry, Colonel Lord Carlow; Eglish Rangers, Major Berry; Maryborough Fusiliers, Colonel Sir J. Parnell; Eyrecourt Buffs, Colonel Eyre; Parsonstown Artillery, Col. Richard Croasdaile; and the Loyal Independents, Colonel Parsons.
A remarkable flood occurred in the Brosna rising seven feet over its usual level, carrying away the old Bridge at St. Brendan's Well and inundated the town.
The first Quarter Sessions ever held in the town was presided over by Counsellor Henry Doyel in 1797, and he was succeeded by Thomas Parsons, who held the office to 1825. The rebellion of 1798 caused disturbances, and some people were hanged at their own doors for taking part in marauding expeditions.
The Barracks at Crinkle, considered to be the healthiest in the kingdom, were commenced in 1809. Mr Bernard Mullins was the contractor. About this time we come across names in the, history of Parsonstown more familiar to our ears; for instance, the High Sheriff was George Drought, and we are compiling this Directory in the shrievalty of Capt. P. A. Drought, D,L., Lettybrook, whose year extends to Spring Assizes, 1890. Early in the century the "Parsonstown Gazette" was published, a few copies of which were recently found on an old Bookstall in Dublin, and are now framed in the "King's County Chronicle" Office; as is one of the "Parsonstown Mercury" dated 1844.
It might be supposed that Saint Brendan left some material traces behind; but if so they are hard to be found, but there are plenty of names after the saint, for example the well in the Demesne, the parish Church, the R. C. Church, the Rev. Dr. Bugler, P.P.'s residence on John's Mall. Lastly the new street, opened, or rather widened, in the Queen's Jubilee year, from the junction of Castle, Main and Bridge streets, round by the Manor Saw Mills, leading thence to the military and railway road at the Chapel, was given that name by the Town Commissioners, of which, in that year, Mr Edward Treacy was the Chairman. In the Irish Calendar it is said of the Patron Saint, -- "Nov. 30, St. Brendon of Birra, the son of Nemen of the Clannakury race. He was companion of Brendan of Clonfert, and founder of the first Abbot of Birradh, and died 29th Nov., 572," and it will interest the lovers of learning to know that he set a great value upon education, leaving the town a great scholastic establishment which was the fore-ru nner of a celebrated work, being nothing less than "the Gospels of MacRegal," the scribe, bishop and abbot of Birr, who died in 820. This is the largest-sized of the old Gospel Books, and contains the four Gospels in Latin, with figures of Mark, Luke and John, each occupying a page. It is now in the Bodleian Library.
Coming to times within living memory there is the famous Telescope, about which we devote a special article; the erection of the new Presbyterian meeting-house in John's place during the pastorship of the Rev. J. M. Symms, the foundation stone being laid in the spring of 1885, and the building, of which P. Sheridan was contractor, was dedicated in the following January. There was also the more recent building of Oxmantown Hall, the contract being by William Sweeney in 1888. It was opened the 15th January, 1889.