Birr, Kings County

The Ireland They Left Behind

by Samantha Haddad, Glucksman Ireland House, New York University

© Samantha Haddad, 2020. All rights reserved.

Birr, formerly Parsonstown, is a market town in King’s County [now Co. Offaly] in the midlands region of Ireland. The town of Birr derives its name from the old Irish for water, due to the town’s proximity to the Cameor and Little Brosna rivers; its later colonial name, Parsonstown, was for the ruling English family in the area. Because of this proximity to waterways, compared with other parts of King’s County, Birr had fertile land and successful agriculture prior to the Famine.[1] In his 1837 topographical work on Ireland, Samuel Lewis described Birr as the largest town in King’s County.[2] An 1838 advertisement in the Freeman’s Journal boasted that Birr was “one of the most rising towns in Ireland.”[3] Such a notion was supported by Archbishop Ussher who considered Birr to be “the centre of Ireland.”[4] A diverse and expanding hub for commerce, industry, and agriculture in Western Leinster created a variety of circumstances that led some Birr residents to emigrate to Manhattan’s Twelfth Ward in New York City in the nineteenth century.

Map showing the stations and adjacent towns on Ireland’s Grand Canal, built between 1757 and 1804. Image Source: National National Archives of Ireland

The hustle and bustle of Birr was most apparent on its two market days, Tuesday and Saturdays, and at the four fairs held throughout the year. At such markets and fairs, the products of local industries such as linen, wool, spirits, and beer from the local mills, distilleries, and breweries could be bought and sold.[5] The movement of goods and people was facilitated by the river as well as the Grand Canal, which could be accessed in nearby towns such as Banagher.[6]  The people of Birr yearned for even more canal access to increase trade; in 1837 there was a plan to extend the water passage further west to the River Shannon.[7] The town had many public institutions including a police barracks, a hospital, a dispensary, a workhouse, a reading-room, several Catholic Churches, and six Protestant chapels of various denominations. Birr also had twenty schools that educated boys and girls, rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant alike.[8] The town’s famous Birr Castle and its Rosse Telescope underwent major financial improvements from 1840 through the Famine years that generated local employment and made Birr “an international scientific center.”[9]

Despite the vitality of Birr from the 1820s, economic decline was making inroads. Like other parts of Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century, King’s County experienced a loss in linen, wool, weaving, and other “cottage industries” that had supplemented farm income.[10] Such changes in the nature of the family economy was compounded by the effects of the scarcity of affordable land and flooding in King’s County in the 1830s; then overcrowding on tenant land and a poor harvest became a recipe for disaster in the mid 1840s.[11] Crop failures disrupted the lives of the townspeople, harming tenant farmers on Lord Rosse’s estate the most. Many landlords did not comprehend the events that were contributing to hardship during the early years of the Famine. For example, in 1846 William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, misrepresented the situation in King’s County when he reported to Dublin Castle that only a 1/3 of the harvest was “injured” and not more than 1/9 of the harvest was lost.[12]

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Birr_Castle,_Offaly.jpg

Birr Castle in County Offaly, 2005. GNU Free Documentation License.

King’s County, and more specifically Birr, experienced a surge in crime at this time related to tenants’ outrage at the local landlords’ role in the situation. In late 1846 William Lloyd was shot at his hall door for issuing eviction notices.[13] In early 1847 Owen Power, another landlord, was murdered in a riot near Birr.[14] In 1849, two women stole linen and mutton from Lord Rosse to escape starvation.[15] Nevertheless, Lord Rosse believed that his tenants were not destitute and starving, but rather “unsuited to work” and lazy.[16]

In an effort to unload some of the financial strain of such “unsuited” tenants, Lord Rosse instituted a “determined eviction” policy for King’s County. These were a series of unrealistic and expensive rules, such as replacing thatched roofs with slate and prohibiting the burning of land, as a means by which to remove people without the undesirable press and negative reputation that typically came along with such evictions.[17] The main years of the Rosse eviction schemes were 1848, 1853, and 1854, usually one year after he had introduced, or increased, the rules tenants had to follow.[18] As a result, the Birr Workhouse suffered from severe overcrowding, where even the nurses stole from the hungry children.[19]

Such declining conditions pushed those who could afford to leave to emigrate. The first leg of their journey was aboard passage boats where for 1.5d or 1d per mile, passengers could eat boiled mutton in crowded conditions en route to Dublin.[20] The Times noted that “[emigration was] almost daily enacted in this town [Parsonstown] on the departure of the long car to meet the Grand Canal passage boat on its way to Dublin.”[21] While the passage boat trip was advertised as “unprecedently expeditious, safe, and cheap canal travelling,” the famous chroniclers Mr. and Mrs. Hall recalled that “it was long and narrow […] it is exceedingly inconvenient; there is scarcely a space to turn in the confined cabin. […] It is large, awkward, and lumbering, and is cheaply used by the peasantry on account of its cheapness.”[22]

Like those from Birr who settled in New York City’s Twelfth Ward (three of whom were most likely tenants of Lord Rosse), the majority of people from King’s County left due to evictions after the Famine.[23] With high eviction rates, increased tenant sub-divisions, and land so damaged from the ecological catastrophe of the Famine, those from Birr/Parsonstown like Mary Ferens, a dressmaker (EISB Acct. No. 4070), John Dunn, a driver (EISB Acct. No. 17168) and his brother, James, a laborer (EISB Acct. No. 17167), looked for better opportunities across the Atlantic.[24]

[1] “Parsonstown,” Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, S. Lewis & Co. 87 Aldersgate Street, London, 1837; Ciarán Reilly, “King’s County: Landscape and People,” in The Irish Land Agent, 1830-1860: The Case of King’s County (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014), p. 24

[2] Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.

[3] R. Kennedy, “To Be Let,” Freeman’s Journal, March 30, 1838.

[4] Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.

[5] Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland.; Reilly, “King’s County: Landscape and People,” 28.; See this link for detailed maps of Birr/Parsonstown http://geohive.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=9def898f708b47f19a8d8b7088a100c4

[6] “Day-Tripping on the Grand Canal, 21 July 1913,” Century Ireland, accessed March 5, 2020, https://www.rte.ie/centuryireland/index.php/articles/day-tripping-on-the-grand-canal.

[7] “Day-Tripping on the Grand Canal, 21 July 1913.”

[8] “Day-Tripping on the Grand Canal, 21 July 1913.”

[9] Ciarán Reilly, “The Coming of the Blight: Reaction and Relief,” in The Irish Land Agent, 1830-1860: The Case of King’s County (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014), p. 118.

[10] Reilly, “King’s County: Landscape and People,” pp. 28-29.

[11] Reilly, “King’s County: Landscape and People,” p. 31; Reilly, “The Coming of the Blight: Reaction and Relief,” p. 98.

[12] Reilly, “The Coming of the Blight: Reaction and Relief,” p. 99.

[13] “Atrocious Murder in the Town of Birr,” Tuam Herald, December 19, 1847; Reilly, “The Coming of the Blight: Reaction and Relief,” p. 109.

[14] Reilly, “The Coming of the Blight: Reaction and Relief,” p. 109.

[15] “At Birr Quarter Sessions,” Kerry Evening Post, April 18, 1849.

[16] Reilly, “The Coming of the Blight: Reaction and Relief,” p. 112.

[17] S. H. Cousens, “Emigration and Demographic Change in Ireland, 1851-1861,” The Economic History Review 14, no. 2 (1961): p. 284.; Ciarán Reilly, “Aftermath of the Famine: Agents and the Incumbered Estate Courts,” in The Irish Land Agent, 1830-1860: The Case of King’s County (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2014), p. 121.

[18] Reilly, “Aftermath of the Famine, p. 126.

[19] Reilly, “Aftermath of the Famine,” p. 131.

[20] Harold W. Hart, “Passage Boats of the Grand Canal,” Dublin Historical Record 22, no. 1 (January 1968): pp. 176-186, 179.

[21] Reilly, “Aftermath of the Famine,” p. 134.

[22] “The Passage Boat Services,” Irish Waterways History, May 28, 2018, accessed March 5, 2020, https://irishwaterwayshistory.com/abandoned-or-little-used-irish-waterways/the-royal-canal/the-sinking-of-the-longford-in-1845/the-passage-boat-services/.

[23] Reilly, “Aftermath of the Famine: Agents and the Incumbered Estate Courts,” p. 155.

[24] Cousens, “Emigration and Demographic Change in Ireland, 1851-1861,” p. 277.