Birr Castle - History and Facts | History Hit

Birr Castle

County Offaly, Ireland

Image Credit: inalex / Shutterstock

About Birr Castle

Birr Castle Demesne, County Offaly, is the seat of the Earls of Rosse, and has a long and illustrious association with major scientific and engineering feats.

History of Birr Castle

There has been a castle on site since 1170 at Birr: the castle and grounds (known as a demesne) were in the hands of the O’Carroll family until 1620, when Sir Lawrence Parsons was granted ownership of Birr Castle and the surrounding 1277 acres.

Parsons built a new castle on site using English masons, although this was relatively shortlived: his son William was besieged at Birr for over a year by Catholic forces, and another renovation had to take place after this. The castle was later ‘Gothicised’ in the early 19th century.

The 19th century was a time of scientific innovation at Birr: the 3rd Earl of Rosse built the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’ in 1845 – a huge telescope that, at that time, was the largest on Earth and was capable of seeing the furthest of any telescope so far created. The observatory at Birr attracted visitors from across the world, and was responsible for large numbers of astronomical discoveries, including that of spiral galaxies. William Parson’s wife, Mary Ross, was a photographer who had her own pioneering dark room in the castle: sadly, only a replica is now visible today.

After the death of his son, Lawrence, in 1908, the telescope was broken up – the mirror was taken to London’s Science Museum, and much of the supporting metal structure was melted down for use in the First World War. The telescope was only restored seriously in the late 1990s.

Birr Castle today

The castle itself it still used as a private residence: from May to October, guided tours of the main interior run but must be booked in advance. There’s a permanent exhibition on the scientific developments made at Birr.

The primary attraction for many, however, are Birr’s gorgeous gardens. Home to more than 1000 species of plant, the world’s tallest box hedges, a pergola, cloister, formal gardens and wildflower meadows, not to mention a children’s adventure playground and swish cafe, there’s something for everyone. With 8km of walking trails, it’s easy to lose yourself in the demesne – allow at least half a day here.

Getting to Birr Castle

Birr Castle is just off the N52/N62 crossroads, about 45 minutes south of Athlone. You’ll need to park in the public car park (pay and display) opposite the castle entrance – there’s no parking on site. Bus route 72 runs between Athlone and Limerick Train Station, stopping in Birr en route. Allow 45 minutes from Athlone and 90 minutes from Limerick.