There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three years. To mark the occasion we reproduce an article by J. Deering first published in the Midland Tribune in 1927 in the context of the golden jubilee of the coming of the Presentation Brothers to Birr. J. Deering makes reference to Chesterfield School and its first headmaster a Mr Biggs. The latter late went on to Portora as headmaster. We intend to publish articles on both Chesterfield and Mr Biggs next year. Then there is Banagher Royal School and the efforts to have its funding diverted to a new school in Birr. Deering makes no reference to the Birr Model School, but he has a few interesting comments on the smaller schools in Birr. Both the Mercy and Presentation schools have published histories as does Banagher (Quane North Munster journal article, 1967), but there is much more to uncover back to the 1820s and earlier.
Birr Historical Society is very strong in attendance at lectures and we have no doubt that Paul Barber’s lecture on Monday 4 December will have a capacity audience. In 2026 Thomas Cooke’s Picture of Parsonstown will reach the 200th anniversary of its first publication and that will be a case for celebration and emulation. The proposed lecture in Tullamore on 4 December was deferred in view of the two book launches at Offaly History Center, Bury Quay on 1 December (Irish Mist) and 11 December (Faithful Images) MB]
It is now half a hundred years since the late lamented Dean of Killaloe, Right Rev Dr Bugler, P. P., of Birr, introduced to the people of Birr, from Cork, the teaching Brothers of the Presentation Order. Believing in the dictum of the great Liberator, O’Connell [in fact Thomas Davis], “Educate that you may be free,” the good parish priest of Birr, then with a much larger youthful population than now, with that intelligent foresight which was so characteristic of him, saw the necessity for such a school, and energetically supplied it.
Dr Bugler, PP, Birr, fourth from right back row, perhaps in 1888-9. He died in 1893
Hence it was that on St. Brendan’s Day, A. D., 1877, the Brothers opened their Academy in Moorpark Street, under the able Superiorship of the late respected Brother Baptist Moloney. Up to that time Birr was more or less inadequately supplied regarding schools of the free type.
Presentation School, Birr, c. 1888-9. Opened in 1877. The picture may be earlier but is not later than 1893.
True, we had the Model Schools and the Sisters of St. John’s Convent, founded in Birr by Rev. Mother McAuley, from Baggot Street, Dublin, then, as now, the headquarters of that great Mercy Order. A Professor Biggs kept a boarding school of the select kind at No. 15, Oxmantown Mall, which house is now in the occupation of Mrs Burbage. The belfry and bell in the old Class Hall are still extant, and even the grass grown Five Courts at the rere of the building is still visible, but since has been clearly converted into a hot-house and garden shelter. This school was the precursor of Chesterfield College, of which the above-mentioned Mr Biggs was the first head master.
A cool place in December – Chesterfield School, Birr for boarders, 1871-1916
Fifty years ago this old town abounded in private academies. There was a classical establishment on Rosse Row, kept by one Michael Mitchell, who turned out some village Hampdens’ [after Gray’s Elegy, 1751] in his time. These premises are now adjoining and in possession of Mr D. P. Hoctor, U. D. C., who has recently pushed “Mickey’s” old school house some two stories nearer Heaven.
William Street, possibly owing to its solitude and absence of commerce, seems to have been the happy hunting ground of these dear old dominies. Where the present C. Y. M. Society’s premises stand a flourishing academy was once carried on by a worthy named Denny Gaynor. In our own time Professor Bateman ran his private academy in Cumberland, now Emmet Street, wherein the Midland Mineral Water Company’s big five now operate.
Birr in the days of St. Brendan, was famous for its schools. Were not the Gospels of MacRegol’s a masterpiece and study in Celtic illumination – written here about the eleventh century? They are still preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The late Rev Samuel Hemphill D. Litt, one time rector of Birr, lectured on these Gospels before the Royal Irish Academy while the Rev. Father John Gleeson late P.P. of Lorrha who died last Spring, writing in his scholarly history of the Ely O’Carroll Territory and the Monastery of St. Brendan of Birr was chiefly remarkable for its school and for the writing of the Gospels of Mac Regol of Birr. It was during the seventh century following the century in which St. Brendan flourished that the school of Birr was most famous. So much for the antiquity and erudition of our past masters and their universities wherein Nature’s infinite book of secrecy a little could they read.
The grandfather of the present Earl of Rosse was in his day Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, and being alive to the value and benefits of education in our midst tried, though unsuccessfully, to secure the grant payable to the endowed charter house College of Cuba, near Banagher, and have it applied to Chesterfield College. It is useful commentary on our time to find both these schools, Cuba and Chesterfield, now defunct but up on Moorpark St., the old Presentation School, that schoolboy spot we never forget, though there we are forgotten still looms strong, and may it be ever so flourishing like a green bay tree – and may its shadow never grow less.
Meanwhile I trust I am not premature in suggesting that an influential committee which would include our present venerable pastor and his priest(s) of our townspeople – professional, commercial, etc. – get together and in some fitting and tangible manner celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Brothers’ arrival amongst us. Many of us old past pupils, have drifted far afield since our days spent at St. Brendan’s, and would I am sure, be desirous of joining in and little tribute of esteem and appreciation of the Brothers’ good work for us and with us during the past half century. On Birr and the surrounding districts, these holy men have bestowed a boon and a benediction the full extent of which may never be reckoned aright this side of the next assize.
Young girls at Oxmantown Mall c. 1891 in protective school clothing with the parish hall of 1845 to the back and the church to the right.
J. Deering – Birr, 29. 2. 27. Published in Midland Tribune 8 Oct. 1927
Oxmantown Mall, Birr c. 1891. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
[The pictures here are courtesy of the National Library of Ireland and will appear in a forthcoming publication of essays on The changing face of Offaly towns in the early 1900s]