1991:109 - BIRR: Bridge St./Mill Lane, Offaly

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Offaly Site name: BIRR: Bridge St./Mill Lane

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number:

Author: Heather A. King

Site type: Historic town

Period/Dating: Multi-period

ITM: E 605649m, N 704533m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.091360, -7.915658

This survey and archaeological report were compiled at the request of the ESB in advance of obtaining planning permission to build new offices at Bridge St., Birr. The site was located within the urban zone of archaeological potential and in accordance with recommendations set down in the Urban Archaeological Report for Co. Offaly funding was made available to carry out trial trenching on the site and to do a survey of the buildings on Bridge St and Mill Lane prior to demolition.

The earliest recorded settlement at Birr is of a monastery founded by St Brendan although the exact location of this site is unknown. In 1177 the territory of Eile Uí Cearbaill, in which the town of Birr is situated, was granted by Henry II to Philip de Braose and by 1207 an Anglo-Norman settlement had been established at 'Byrre' when Murchad Ua Briain 'burnt the whole town' (A. Clon.). This settlement had probably collapsed by the middle of the 14th century and the town reverted to the control of the Uí Cearbaill until 1621 when Laurence Parsons was granted the castle and lands around Birr. It was during the 17th century that the borough of Birr was established largely under the influence of Laurence Parsons and by the late 17th century the town had assumed much of the plan and characteristics which it exhibits today. This is illustrated on a map of the town which was prepared by the engineer Michael Richards in 1691.

The site on which the ESB propose to build is shown on this map as having buildings on the Bridge St facade and some possible buildings on the north side of the site. There was an open area from Bridge St to a corn mill, approximately where the Mill Lane and the Manor Saw Mill are today. On the south side of the site the town defences are indicated running west from the rear of Bridge St towards the mill. It is uncertain if these town defences consisted of a wall or a bank and ditch (Bradley et al 986, 24) although a reference in the Life of William III by Harris (Cooke 1875, 85) suggests that the town prior to 1690 had been open and defenceless and the Narrative of Sir Laurence Parsons records the fortification of the town in September 1690 by twelve hundred men who were employed making trenches and fortifications with sodworks and wood (Cooke 1875, 85). These references would appear to indicate that the town was undefended until 1690 and that it was during the Jacobite wars that the town first acquired defences in the form of a ditch and bank. The oldest reference to the site itself is from one year earlier when it was recorded that at least six houses in Mill Lane were burned (Cooke 1875, 394). This reference indicates that Mill Lane was in existence by that date although not indicated on the Richards map.

The site
The site consists of a block of land between Bridge St on the west, the Manor Saw Mill on the east, the mill tailrace and the Camcor River on the south and the rear of the buildings which face onto Brendan St on the north. The main feature on the site was Mill Lane which ran from Bridge St on the west to the Manor Saw Mill on the east.

The survey
A photographic record and survey, consisting of ground plans, was made of the buildings which fronted onto Bridge St and to the north and south of Mill Lane. Mill Lane extended from Bridge St towards the Manor Saw Mill for a distance of c. 66m. It was open at the Bridge St end but had an arched gateway with traces of an iron gate at the east end. On either side of the lane there were large open areas enclosed by randomly coursed rubble limestone walls of c. 0.55m thickness. These spaces or yards, in which there is evidence for at least two periods of use, were bounded on the south by the still water of the obsolete tailrace and on the north by slightly higher ground. These areas have no evidence for roofing and may have been yards associated with the corn mill. Secondary use of these areas involved the insertion of small single and two storied houses into them. The walls of these secondary buildings were generally thinner and contained quantities of brick. Many of the doors, windows and fireplaces were also constructed of brick. These houses were also mainly unroofed.

A date for the complex is not known but the yards may be 18th century in date with secondary use in the 19th century. An oak lintel removed from one of the houses may be a reused 17th-century lintel as it is similar to one which still survives in a house on Brendan St. This latter lintel is also of oak, has similar dowels and has a carved date of 1679. Analysis of the undated lintel by the Palaeoecology Laboratory in Belfast was unable to provide a definite date for the timber as there were insufficient growth rings present.

The excavation
Nine cuttings were opened to ascertain if there were any pre1700 features or deposits on the site and to locate if possible the town defences. The underlying natural deposits were located at a maximum depth of 1.6m and finds included bones, glass bottles, stone wares, blue wares, fragment of a bone disc, nails, cut lead, white, brown and cream wares (glazed and unglazed), clay pipes and iron objects.

No trace of Early Christian or Anglo-Norman settlement was uncovered, nor was any trace of 17th-century material found although the area was obviously extensively used during the 18th and 19th centuries. Mill Lane may have had its origins in the late 17th century but no trace of the burning of houses in the lane (Cooke 1875, 394) was uncovered.

There does not appear to be any evidence in the form of a wall or a large ditch and bank which could have functioned as the town defences although to rule out this possibility completely more excavation would be required. However, as the ESB plans for the site do nor include digging foundations no further work is envisaged.

Bradley, J. et al., 1986, Co. Offaly Urban Archaeology report (unpublished)

Cooke, T. Lalor, 1875, The Early History of the town of Birr or Parsonstown. Dublin

Skidoo, Ballyboughal, Co. Dublin