Birr Castle has a long and fascinating history and was a place of pioneering science and innovation for generations. Its story begins with a Norman motte and bailey, established here in the late-12th century. The castle became the stronghold of the O’Carroll family, until it was purchased by the Ormond-Butlers in the 1580s. In 1620 the castle (by then ruined) and its estates were granted to the Parsons family, and the medieval tower house was incorporated into a larger mansion by Sir Laurence Parsons. A particularly infamous member of the Parsons family was Richard Parsons, 1st Earl of Rosse (c.1702–1741), the first Grand Master of the Irish Grand Lodge of Freemasons and one of the founding members of the notorious Hellfire Club.
The castle withstood two attacks in the 17th century: when it was besieged in 1641 during the Irish Confederacy Rebellion, and again in 1689 during the Williamite Wars. Throughout its long history, the castle has been added to, adapted and remodelled to suit the personality of the particular earl, with each descendant and their family leaving their mark on the estate. Much of the castle’s appearance that we see today dates from the 19th century – in 1800, the disappointed Second Earl of Rosse retired to his estate after the Act of Union was passed. The earl had been an active opponent to the Bill, put his energies into improving and modernising the castle. He added a new façade facing the demesne to the north, instead of the town to the south.
It is also worth taking a walk in the town of Birr. The town grew in the shadow of the castle, and its development was also influenced by the various Earls of Rosse. Amongst the handsome Georgian buildings echoes of an earlier age can be discovered, in the form of a large block of carboniferous limestone known as the ‘Birr Stone’. It was referred to as the Umbilicus Hiberniae (the Navel of Ireland’) by Giraldus Cambrensis, the Welsh cleric who accompanied the Normans during their invasion of Ireland. This stone is thought to have been possibly part of a megalithic tomb that was located nearby, though according to legend it marked a meeting place of the legendary warriors, the Fianna.
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