There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
I write in the hope that you may find space to record my memories of the town of Birr fifty or sixty years ago. The following recollections are all from memory only – no notes – and I am sure a lot of boys and girls I knew will get a thrill.
Birr, as you know, is situated in the South-West of Offaly, known then as King’s County, near the borders of Leix County – known then as Queen’s and Tipperary County. It is about one mile and a half in length and one mile in width.
It was a military town. The Military Barracks were in the village of Crinkle, which is about one-half mile outside the town. The main thoroughfare was from the high path of Drumbawn to the New Line. You passed Moorpark Street, Bridge, Market Square, Main Street, Duke Square, Cumberland, Melsop and Townsend Street, – that is the length. Now the breadth was from Clonoghill Cemetery through Newbridge or Crinkle and the Military Road, John’s Mall, John’s Place, The Green and some of the Lusmagh Road to the back of the Castle.
[On Friday and Saturday 18 and 19 Nov. 2022 the annual heritage seminar will be held in Birr. The programme started on Friday at Birr Library at 5 p.m. with the launch of the collected poems of J De Jean Frazer and will be followed on Saturday with walks in the morning and talks in Oxmantown Hall (1889) in the afternoon. The exile here was Charles Kelly who wrote to the Offaly Chronicle from New York in 1952. It appears that his children moved to the United States. These memoirs give an insight into life that is so valuable. Well done to the Birr Annual Review who have published many such memoirs since 2001. Back issues of the Birr Annual Review have been uploaded to http://www.offalyhistory.com Ed]
Birr was one of the most modern towns at that time. It was run by a Town Council which met in the Town Hall in John’s Mall. Its chief products were farm products, which the farmers brought to town weekly (Saturday) and sold to Birr, Banagher and Athlone. Birr also had a market for pigs, cattle and horses which was held about three times a year. The pigs were sold at the Market Square. The cattle and horses were sold at the Fair Green, situated at Townsend and Pound Streets.
There were stores of all kinds, such as P. J. O’Meara’s, later called D. E. Williams, which sold anything from a needle to an anchor; Henry Davis ; Smith’s; Bagnall’s; John Pilkington, and public houses too numerous to mention. Birr also had a Railroad Station, situated at the corner of O’Meara’s and Roscrea Road. It shipped passengers and freight about four trains a day. It also shipped pigs and cattle after they were bought.
Birr also had its brewery and malt houses. The Brewery was in Castle Street and there was another at New Bridge Street, which was closed years before. Malt Houses were situated there also. At that time the chief buyers of corn and barley were Woods of Oxmantown Mall and Patt. Cleary of Castle Street.
Castle Street a few years after Charles Kelly wrote this letter
Birr had its Police Barracks, run by a Head Constable, Sergeant and a few police officers. It also had its two County Clubs – Gentlemen’s Club at Duke Square and Cumberland and the King’s County Club near the Presbyterian Church [Methodist ?] on Cumberland Street.
It had its doctors, such as Dr. Stoney, both Dr. Woods (father and son), Morton and Fleury… Also its legal staff, consisted of Crown Counsellor Barry, Powers, etc. It had its two printing weekly paper, the “Tribune” and “Chronicle”, which printed all the news it could gather throughout the county and the main news of the week.
It had its churches. Catholic, situated at Chapel Lane and Chapel Road; Episcopal Church on Oxmantown Mall, and the Presbyterian [Methodist?] on Cumberland Street. Its pastors were, if you remember, Catholics were Dr. Bugler, later Canon Phelan; the Episcopal was Dr. Hemphill, a great man, – and the Presbyterian, whose name I have forgotten. –A great town united in one cause – God.
Now Birr had its schools of learning, such as National School for boys; Convent School, and Model School, and then the Intermediate School, a Preparatory School for Boys, and Chesterfield School, a private school. National School and Intermediate were situated at Moorpark Street. It was constructed by the brothers of the Presentation Order; they were Brother Stanislaus, who was Superior; Albert, Dominic, Acquin, Chrysostom and Athanasina. The Convent School was under care of the Sisters of Mercy. Model School was run by a schoolmaster, and Chesterfield School was run by a principal and staff of teachers.
Birr also had its butcher shops. How many remember Big Bill Edwards of Main St.; Marks of Connaught Street, later called O’Briens; Cleary’s of Main Street, and Joe Edwards – they called him the ‘Case Meat Merchant’ – and later on in the 1890’s Horan’s opened a shop.
We had two barbers, John Kane and the Ashtons, both of Connaught Street.
It also had three bakeries, – Joe Moran of Connaught and Bridge Streets, 2 stores; Bobbie Haslam and Goodbody of Main Street; and four hotels, you had Matthews’ Hotel on Main Street, Dooly’s on Duke Street, and Willie Egan of The Green. These gave services with buses from the Railroad Station. There was a great character, Thomas Heaton of Taylor Lane, who, I think, never missed a train arriving at Birr.
Of course, Birr had a hospital. It was on a lane called after it, running from Chapel Road to New Bridge Street. Anything serious at that time, you had to go to Dublin. And, of course, its workhouse on Clonoghill Road. A rare building of granite stone. The Town Council ran it. It had a Catholic Chaplain, Father Meagher, followed by Father Crowe, a great scholar and Gaelic speaker.
The unveiling of the Martyrs’ memorial in 1894 Kelly was only five at the time.
Writing about the clergy, there were Father Donovan and Father Barrett. All of those men I still revere. They were great. All of them joined with the other faiths of the town for the good fellowship of man.
And last if not least, Birr Castle, built by Lord Parsons, after whom the town of Birr or Parsonstown was called. It was a beautiful estate and it had built on it the largest telescope in the world at the time, – known throughout the world. For example, in my travels in the early nineteen hundreds, about 1904 in the Malta Gazette, a paper published in Malta, there was a copy from a British Sunday paper telling all about Birr and its characters, especially the telescope.
I forgot to mention about Birr Sports Field. It was next to the river on Military Road to Seffin. I might mention a few who were the Committee on Sports. You remember Patrick White who was clerk at Treacy, Pawnbroker: Tom Neville who was at Barry’s, from Tralee, County Kerry; John Molloy, and George Robinson of Connaught St.; Andy Crowley, telegraph operator from Middleton, County Cork; Bobbie Haslam and Davis of Main Street; also John Pilkington, John Kelly and Willie Egan of The Green. Names that are long to be remembered.
Williams and Lee shops- pre- 1898 O’Meara’s store at Market Place
This is about all! Now, I will tell you in a few words about myself. I arrived in Birr with my mother and grandmother, Mrs. Mary Cooney, about the year 1888 or 1889. I am the son of George and Mary Kelly (neé Cooney) of Ballymurray and Athlone, County Roscommon. We lived in Connaught St. between Jerry Dunne, the sadler, and Quinn, who sold green groceries at that time. After a year or so we moved to Castle Street, lived between the McNamaras, and Jim Sammon, the shoemaker. I attended both the National and Intermediate Schools, and then we moved to Townsend Street, where we lived until we left for America. Even at my age now, I still think Birr, outside of New York, of course, is tops – both in education and self-respect in its people. [Charles Kelly was aged 13 in 1901 and living in Melsop Street, Birr. His grandmother was aged 60 and was a widow.]
I married a girl from Crinkle, daughter of Daniel Fitzgerald, of whom you recall worked in Davis’ Yards and also on the waterworks and firing range while under construction. A grand old man who lived to a ripe old age of eighty-four years. We had eight children, of whom six are living – four daughters and two sons. Their names are Rev. Doctor George A. Kelly, PhD.; Mrs. Mary Comisky, Mrs. Beatrice Long, Daniel J. Kelly, Mrs. Isabella Hoff and Mrs. Margaret Bergin, who all reside close by in New York and New Jersey.
This is my life story about Birr as I remember it, as if only yesterday. It leaves a record of township and friendship.
In loving memory, I dedicate this written article to a great town and its people.
CHARLES W. KELLY
323 East 90th Street, New York 28, New York
Sept. 14th, 1952
Birr mineral waters advert of 1884
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