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Birr (Biorra, "plain of water") is a town in County Offaly in the Midlands of Ireland, with a population of 5741 in 2016. From 1620 to 1899 it was called Parsonstown for the Parsons family who were local landowners and Earls of Rosse. Birr is a well preserved Georgian town with graceful streets and elegant buildings. In the Victorian era it was at the leading edge of astronomy thanks to the 3rd Earl's telescope.


The Leviathan of Parsonstown

The first documented telescope was a patent of 1608: Galileo quickly learned of it, built his own, and made a series of discoveries. These early designs used refractive lenses, which distorted the light with a rainbow-effect on the colours, so their useful size was limited. Then came reflectors, using concave mirrors to focus distant light - these could be made much larger, hence magnify more, and probe deeper into space. William Parsons (1800-1867), the 3rd Earl of Rosse, built a 36-inch reflector and reckoned he could go further. No dilettante aristocrat this - he took first class honours in mathematics and had a distinguished academic career. The main technical challenges were accuracy of mirror grinding, tarnishing of the mirror surface, and supporting versus maneuvering such weight. By 1845 his "leviathan" 72-inch telescope was completed at Birr Castle, with its great cylinder and mounting, like a steamship met with an accident down a beer-cellar trapdoor.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken . . . - the Leviathan came just too late to discover Neptune, but many other bodies were seen for the first time, or as never before. The main work of the telescope was on stars, mapping their position, brightness and colour. Particularly puzzling were "nebulae" - fuzzy things, were they clouds, or masses of stars that couldn't be distinguished, or what? Parsons showed that some (eg Andromeda) were such masses, and therefore incredibly distant even compared to most stars, in other words they were separate galaxies. But his rival John Herschel (whose father had discovered Uranus) maintained that at least some were gas clouds, within which stars were born, to live and die in various ways. Just as geologists such as Hutton had showed the continuing evolution of land forms, and Darwin was revealing that biological evolution continued, so this controversy revealed a still-evolving, turbulent universe. And all this was achieved using only the visible light spectrum, observed from the bottom of earth's moist and murky atmosphere, beneath the clouds that tumble over County Offaly.

Get in[edit]

Kearns buses run from Birr via Tullamore to Dublin in the morning, returning in the afternoon. They take about two hours, with multiple stops in Dublin but not Busáras or the airport. There are four M-F between 05:30 and 09:30, returning 15:00-18:00; one Saturday and 2-3 Sunday. One bus per day starts from Portumna.

Another Kearns Bus 843 plies between Birr and Tullamore once in the middle of the day, and Bus 847 runs once Birr-Tullamore-Maynooth.

Bus Éireann 72 runs daily from Limerick via Nenagh to Birr, taking 80 min, and continuing to Athlone (another 50 min).

M-F an extra bus 323X runs from Limerick via the University campus and Nenagh as far as Birr. 1 Emmett Square is Birr's main bus stop.

From Dublin by road follow M7 to Roscrea then north on N52.

Get around[edit]

Walk or cycle.


  • Birr town centre is a well-preserved Georgian townscape. The best of it is around Emmett Square where N52 makes a zigzag, John's Place branching east, and leafy Oxmantown Mall starting a block north and leading to the castle gates. The Seffin Stone on John's Place is somewhat older: its inscriptions date it to 3200 BC like Newgrange. In folklore it marks the exact centre of Ireland, and was inscribed by Finn MacCool, hence Suigh Finn the seat of Finn - so what part of his giant anatomy was doing the inscribing? The square was originally "Cumberland Square", and the column bore a statue to the Duke of Cumberland, victor at Culloden in 1746. In 1915 the statue was removed before it either fell down or was torn down. The square is now named for Robert Emmett (1778-1803), executed for rebellion: "When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written" - though there are over 70 different versions of his final speech from the dock.
  • 1 Birr Castle, Rosse Row R42 VO27, +353 57 912 0336, . Mar-Oct daily 09:00-18:00. The castle was built from 1620 and "gothicised" in the 19th century. It's the home of the seventh Earl of Rosse, Brendon Parsons (b 1936), and you can't visit within. You come for the grounds and gardens, of which the centrepiece is "The Leviathan of Parsonstown", the great telescope completed in 1845. It's a 72-inch reflector: the third Earl devised methods of grinding a mirror weighing three tons, and it was the world's largest telescope until 1917. It was mounted on an iron arc, giving it a wide range of altitude, but limited azimuth (side-to-side) so objects could only stay in view for an hour. The telescope was used to 1890 then succumbed to disuse, dismantling and dilapidation, but was restored in the 1990s. In 2017 a low-frequency radio telescope was installed in the castle grounds. Adult €9.
  • Crotty's Church on Castle St looks like a Presbyterian chapel and indeed became one, but it was built by a breakaway Roman Catholic faction, a rare schism in the RC church. Michael Crotty was the local curate and in 1826 thought he'd been appointed as parish priest, then another fellow got the post. Crotty was excluded from the new RC chapel that he'd done much to establish, and together with his cousin William Crotty began to preach a doctrine of piqued anti-popery. These latter-day Luthers didn't have 95 theses to nail to the church door but had many priestly abuses to rail against, such as "clay money": people were paying for consecrated clay to be put into their coffins, to save their dead bodies from sullying by heretic remains. The Crottys had 1000 followers and by 1839 had built the Castle St chapel, nicely in time for the schism to peter out. Their bilious ranting sermons drove parishioners either back into the arms of the RC mother church, or to the Presbyterians for more of the same.
  • 2 Leap Castle: see Roscrea for this ramshackle Gothic pile, energetically touted since 1910 as Ireland's most haunted house. There are so many contenders for that title, there needs to be a structured, televised tournament, with the spookiest qualifying for the European Finals in Transylvania.



The main store is Tesco on Railway Road south side of town, open M-Sa 08:00-22:00, Su 10:00-20:00.


Birr Castle
  • 1 Spinners, Castle St R42 XK20, +353 57 912 3779, . F Sa 18:00-21:00, Su 12:30-15:30. Boutique restaurant, bar also serves food W-Su. Also has rooms. B&B double €90.
  • Emma's Café, 31 Main St R42 A782, +353 57 912 5678. M-Sa 08:00-18:00, Su 09:30-18:00. Coffee shop and deli.
  • 2 The Thatch, Military Road, Crinkill R42 Y036 (2 km south of Birr), +353 57 912 0682, . W Th 16:00-21:00, F Sa 12:30-21:00, Su 12:30-19:30. 200 year old thatched pub serves trad Irish fare, some vegetarian options. Nearby, note the walls of the former barracks; they're not worth a special trip out here.
  • 3 River Restaurant, Riverstown R42 RH73 (On N52), +353 57 912 1528. Daily 12:30-20:00. Home-made Irish cuisine overlooking the Little Brosna River.


  • The Chestnut, Green St R42 E279, +353 87 220 8524. W Th 19:00-23:30, F 17:00-23:30, Sa Su 15:00-23:30. Charming bar founded in 1823 with cosy turf fires and dark wood interiors. Trad Irish music Thursday nights.
  • John Kelly's, Green St R42 A627, +353 57 912 0175. M-Sa 10:30-23:30, Su 12:00-00:00. Old style pub with good atmosphere and food.
  • Craughwell's, 1 Castle St R42 XN32. Much-admired trad pub but remains closed in 2021.


Former Mechanics Institute on John's Place
  • Dooly's Hotel, Emmet Square R42 KC56, +353 57 912 0032, . Midrange hotel in 1747 coaching inn (though it's entirely modern within), does good food. B&B double €130.
  • Emmett House[dead link] is a B&B facing Dooly's across the square.
  • Walcot B&B, Rosse Row R42 D459 (by castle), +353 57 912 1247. Welcoming B&B with six plush rooms in Georgian townhouse.
  • The Stables, 6 Oxmantown Mall R42 TD21 (One block north of Emmett Square), +353 57 912 0263. Georgian townhouse with five guestrooms. It also has a tea-room and shop.
  • 1 Townsend House, Townsend St R42 TK88, +353 57 912 1276. B&B in townhouse with tapas restaurant. B&B double €100.
  • 2 County Arms Hotel, Railway Rd R42 Y568, +353 57 912 0791, . Smart hotel in Georgian mansion at south edge of town. B&B double €150.
  • The Maltings on Castle St are self-catering apartments in a converted storehouse; they no longer offer B&B.


As of April 2021, Birr has 5G from Eir and Three, but a poor signal from Vodafone.

Go next[edit]

  • Tullamore has two distilleries open for tours, Tullamore DEW and Kilbeggan.
  • Roscrea has a castle and many other medieval remains.
  • Athlone has fine Georgian and Victorian architecture.
  • Portumna in lowland east Galway has an early example of a bling castle.

This city travel guide to Birr is a usable article. It has information on how to get there and on restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.