Birr is a bustling little town in County Offaly just along the border with Tipperary. Its bursting with history and it is a designated heritage town. There’s beautiful Georgian architecture in the town along with plenty of old buildings and stories of a Hotel being set on fire in the early 1800’s! I have passed through this town many times but my main motivation on this occasion was to visit Birr Castle. I arrived into town on a glorious September day and parked up in the car park on William street. The entrance to the castle reception was just accross the road. On entering the gate you come in to a courtyard. There is a lovely little cafe to the left and the main reception is straight in front of you.
The castle and gardens are open all year around but double check the website for opening hours. Adult tickets are €9 per person. So if you are thinking that this is just another Irish Castle then you will be pleasantly surprised. It is so much more. After buying my ticket the very friendly gentleman at reception got me a map and showed me where I should start my tour of the grounds. The first thing I was told was that the Castle itself is off limits. It is actually a private residence of the Parsons family. The Castle has been in the Parsons family since the early 16th century.
To the right of the main reception you enter the exhibit to learn all about the Parsons and the family down through the years. The Parsons are known officially as the Earls of Rosse and the 7th Earl of Rosse- William Brendan Parsons still entertains groups in the Castle and gardens- by appointment only. This family had so many interests and amazingly you can explore and learn about all of these interests in the Science Center. After you move through the area of the exhibit of the family history, you move up the stairs to a room dedicated to the astronomical work undertaken by the family. The third Earl of Rosse built the largest Telescope in the world back in the 1840’s right here on the castle grounds. People came from all over the world to see it and it is still available to check out on the grounds. This exhibition space tells you all about how it was built and the trials and tribulations he had with it. It was really fascinating but this was just the start. From here you walk into a beautiful exhibit of astromony instruments and some more historical information. This is a beautiful semi circle room with a lovely quote from WB Yeats.
Next along the exhibit is a replica of the dark room built by Mary Rosse- the wife of the very busy third Earl of Rosse. While William was building the biggest Telescope in the world, Mary was busy taking photographs of her family and winning awards for her work. The dark room which was one of the oldest in the world was only discovered in 1983 and had remained untouched since 1908. It is recreated in its entirety here in the Science center.
From here you then enter the exhibits of the engineering interests in the family. Charles Parsons was one of the surviving children of Mary and William (They had 11 children in all, but only 4 of them lived to adulthood) and he is best known for the invention of the steam powered turbine which was eventually used to power ships. What an amazingly smart family! There is plenty of displays here and lots of information of the engineering interests.
I had spent nearly an hour in here looking around the science center so I made my way back down the stairs and through the main reception and out the big oak door to the main gardens. Straight in front of you here you have the kids play area but I took a left to follow the map around to the front of the main Castle. There are 3 walks to take around the gardens. The river garden loop walk takes just 10 minutes. The Telescope walk takes 30 minutes and the River walk is 40 minutes. All of the places of interest are numbered and you can refer to your map to see what they are. I followed the River walk around by the front of the castle and then made my way past the new pavillion and down towards the river garden. The gardens and grounds here are so well kept and I met loads of people out walking their dogs. There are benches situated all around the gardens and around one corner I spotted an older couple seated on one of these benches reading their books and soaking up the peacefulness of it all. A fabulous spot for relaxing or just pondering life on a sunny day.
The river walk follows the river Camcor to the left hand side and it is a nice east walk to the far side of the lake. Here you will find an impressive plantation of tree’s dating back to the 19th century. There is also a beautiful area that offers a fabulous view over the entire demesne as far as the castle. I couldn’t help thinking here that the people of Birr have such an amazing park right on their doorstep.
I passed along the water wheel and Victorian Fernery and made my way into the formal gardens. These gardens are outstanding and are kept so pristine. They were doing work on them on this particular day and you could tell how precise the gardeners were with their work. The gardens are divided into sections with fountains around one corner, sculptures around the next and the tallest box hedges in the world according to the Guinness book of records. For anyone interested in Gardening this is a must visit! It was starting to get late at this stage and I didn’t want to get locked in so I made my way back accross the lawns to the Great Telescope. This magnificent structure sits right in the middle of the Demesne and the enormity of it will take your breath away. Apparently it still works too! So there is something here for everyone. Science buffs, budding photographers, people interested in our heritage and history, garden lovers and the kids are catered for too! On the way out of the gardens you enter the kids area and the home of the biggest tree house in Ireland! There’s also a zip wire and a playground, a sweet shop and a bouncy pillow thing- not really sure how that works but it looks like great fun! My compulsory tea and cake didn’t happen on this particular day as the cafe was closed when I left but it looked lovely when I passed it on the way in.
So what are you waiting for? Plan your trip to Birr Castle as soon as possible! I promise you, you won’t be disappointed.
I have attached a few links below to help you plan your trip. If you fancy staying in Birr the famous Doolys Hotel in the town center (the oldest running hotel in Ireland) comes highly recommended also.
As always- Happy Galavanting! xxx