2003:1530 - 24-26 Main Street, Birr, Offaly

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Offaly Site name: 24-26 Main Street, Birr

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 35:12 Licence number: 03E0432

Author: Daniel Noonan, The Archaeology Company, Birr Technology Centre, Mill Island, Birr, Co. Offaly.

Site type: Medieval burials

ITM: E 605448m, N 704893m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.094597, -7.918667

An assessment of the proposed redevelopment of 24-26 Main Street, Birr, was carried out in April 2003 as part of the grant of planning permission. The three properties had been amalgamated some time in the 19th century into one long, rectangular property, running from the Main Street on the east side to the boundary of St Brendan’s Church and graveyard at the west. The eastern two-thirds of the site is covered with buildings of 18th- and 19th-century date. The western third is an open garden area, up to the western boundary wall with St Brendan’s. The redevelopment involves the demolition of all standing structures apart from one, and the construction of six retail units and six apartments. A 10m wayleave from the western boundary wall is to be left undeveloped.

Six machine-excavated trenches were dug in the lanes and yards formed by the various ranges of buildings of the three former properties. The results from all trenches were consistent, showing that the earliest activity in this part of the site was 18th-century in date. Two phases of cobble surfaces were found, with an intermediate make-up layer of rubble and silty clay containing 19th-century pottery and brick fragments. The lower cobble layer was intermittently on top of thin dark-brown silty clay, which may have been a buried soil horizon. However, it was generally sitting on top of greenish-grey sandy clay natural. This change in yard surfaces probably represents the amalgamation of the properties some time in the 19th century and the creation of a uniform ground level throughout. A single building, Building A, retains the original ground level associated with the earlier cobbling. Architecturally, this building’s thin walls, shallow roof pitch and symmetrical window and door layout, together with its significance as being the earliest recognisable structure in the sequencing of the buildings on-site, suggests that it is of 18th-century date and that the cobbling, by association, is of a similar age. A stone-lined well at the east end of the main yard, external to the buildings, was also uncovered. It is probable that the well is contemporary with the structures. No finds or features of archaeological significance were uncovered during the testing of the built-up area.

A further five machine-excavated trenches were dug to assess the potential of the garden area. Testing revealed the existence of significant archaeological material, including the remains of three individuals, towards the western end. Two separate pits with signs of oxidisation and a potential ditch were also found. All of this material appears to be confined to an area that extends c. 13m from the western boundary wall, which is common with St Brendan’s graveyard. A variation in subsoil towards the west side of the garden also corresponds with this area. The sediment sequence at the east end of the garden, towards the built-up area, was clear-cut, with topsoil coming straight onto natural. The garden soil contained occasional broken 19th-century ceramic pieces, including Denby jars and locally produced clay pipes. In the west side of the garden, within the 13m area, the topsoil was on top of mid-brown silty clay, which in turn lay on natural. It appears that a substantial amount of topsoil was imported onto the site during the 18th/19th centuries, especially in the east side, to bring the garden to the level it is at today.

The variation in subsoil at the west end may be an earlier, surviving surface associated with the burials, which, because of their proximity to the medieval church and graveyard of St Brendan’s, are of probable medieval date. The western boundary wall is probably a product of the laying out of this part of Birr in the 18th to 19th centuries and does not correspond to the original extents of the churchyard. Therefore, it is possible that the archaeological activity within the 13m area of the western wall is a surviving part of the medieval townscape, earlier than the 17th-century redevelopment of the town by the Earls of Rosse. The discovery of human remains outside the current boundary wall suggests that the church precinct was originally larger than it is today.