Cooke: The Early History of the Town of Birr, or Parsonstown

Pdf Cooke, Thomas Lalor. The early history of the town of Birr, or Parsonstown. Dublin: Robertson & Co., 1875.
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The Early History Of the Town Of Birr or Parsonstown by Thomas Lalor Cooke (1792-1869) tells the history of the County Offaly town from ancient times until the late 19th century. Lalor Cooke from Borrisoleigh, Co. Tipperary and an attorney in Birr, wrote important histories of the town and district in the nineteenth century.

There is evidence that the region was inhabitated for thousands of years firstly by Stone Age hunter gatherers and later by Bronze Age people who were responsible for a horde of artifacts found at Dowris in the 1820s. An ancient monument called the Seffin Stone still stands on John's Mall and is said to mark the navel or centre of Ireland . A Christian monastic community was established around 550 AD by St. Brendan the Elder and it was part of a sophisticated network of related communties that included Seir Kieran, Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Kinnitty, Gallen, Leamonaghan, Mona Incha, Roscrea, Lorrha, Terryglass and others.

The territory was the northern portion of the ancient kingdom of Éile or Ely and was controlled by the Gaelic Irish O'Carroll clan. The rest of  Éile was divided between fellow Dalcassian septs that included the O’Spillanes of Ileagh, O’Fogartys of Eliogarty, O’Meaghers of Ikerrin and Middle Third controlled by the rival Eoghanachts of Cashel.

In the 12th century Éile was conquered by the Normans and became part of the domain of the Butlers of Ormonde with their capital at Kilkenny. The O'Carrolls were left in possession of their ancient lands after they agreed to pay tribute to the Butler overlords.

However the English Reformation led to the overthrow of the ancient Gaelic Irish and Old English dynasties who refused to renounce their Catholicism. The O'Carroll clan served the Butlers during both the Cromwellian and Williamite Wars which both ended in defeat. The Butlers saved themselves converting to Protestantism and became part of the Ascendancy.

Offaly or King's County was planted with English settlers beginning in the 16th century. In 1620 Birr Castle , a stronghold of the O'Carrolls, became the seat of the Parson dynasty, the Earls of Rosse, who also gave their name to Parsonstown now known as Birr. The famous Leviathon, for a time the world's largest telescope, still exists in the garden of the castle and is still owned by descendants of the Parson family.

From the 17th the Gaelic Irish were reduced to the status of tenants and landless peasants on their ancestral lands. Members of the O'Carroll clan were given new lands in Maryland and a descendant James Carroll of Carrolltown was the sole Catholic signatory of the American Declaration of Independence.

The penal laws, which discriminated against the Gaelic Irish religiously, politically and economically, created an impoverished underclass dependant on the potato. The 1798 rebellion was suppressed by British and Irish loyalist troops in King's County searching for pikes and firearms. The brutal treatment of the townspeople and country dwellers included one man flogged to death by two local magistrates spurred the Whig Earl of Rosse to protest vehemently. During the Great Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s the population of rural Ireland was decimated by starvation, disease and emigration. Birr workhouse, set up to assist the victims, was overwhelmed.

In the latter half of the 19th century, agrarian agitation by the Fenians, Land League and the Irish Parliamentary Party led to the break up of the landlord system including the estate of the Earls of Rosse. Catholic Emancipation in 1829 was followed by a resurgence in the Catholic faith and the building of churches and a convent in the town of Birr . A railway, printing works and distillery also provided employment. The Gaelic Athletic Association also held the first All-Ireland Hurling Final at Birr in 1884.

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