A delightful day out at Birr Castle
Updated: Jun 22
This article was published in the Westmeath Independent on Sat 14th May and the Offaly Independent on Sat 21st May. Long-form text and an additional gallery of images below. For other published articles click here.
Where in the midlands would you find the following: one of the world's largest telescopes, a 500 year old oak tree, a Science Centre, Ireland's largest treehouse and the world’s tallest box hedges? The answer is Birr Castle Demesne which boasts 120 acres of delightful gardens and an abundance of exotic plants and wildlife.
There are river and lake walks and you may be lucky enough to see an otter or a kingfisher. It’s an extraordinary place with 10kms of trails, chock-full of fascinating things to see and do, and will appeal to both adults and children alike.
Make sure to pick up one of the informative Visitor Guides at reception highlighting twenty five points of interest: the routes are well-signposted throughout. It takes a few hours to cover the full demesne (and I would highly recommend you do) but there are plenty of shorter loops to explore if you’re tight for time.
The castle: A gate tower marks the entrance - for fourteen generations this has been the residence of the Parsons family, the Earls of Rosse. As it’s a private home, the castle is not accessible to the public but is open for guided tours during the summer months. Erected during Anglo-Norman times, it stands on top of a motte and is surrounded by a deep ditch, still visible today. Extensive renovations took place from the 1620s under the ownership of the Parson family and the impressive gothic facade we see today dates to the 19th century.
The Garden Terraces: the banks of the river Camcor are currently ablaze with colour, courtesy of rows of vibrant flowers and herbaceous plants. Spring is a fabulous time to visit when the vivid green lawns are punctuated with pops of colour from bluebells, daffodils and Japanese maples.
Here you are treated to some of the best vantage points of the castle, perched high above the river, looking down on the oldest wrought-iron suspension bridge in Ireland, dating to 1820. A strategically-placed bench encourages visitors to pause for a moment to take in its full glory.
On the opposite bank stands St. Brendan’s Well, the last vestige of a 6th century monastic site - its pure spring water is still utilised by the castle today. The well can be found at the end of the River Garden, home to some of the rarest trees on site, while at the heart of it stands an enormous Monterey Cypress.
Giants Grove: a legacy project for Lord Rosse and the Birr Castle Estate, ambitious plans are afoot to create the largest forest grove of Giant Redwoods outside California. For now, you can see a fully-grown example in the Formal Gardens.
The Lake Walk is incredibly scenic and peaceful. Well, that is until you approach the Heronry which stands on an island in the centre. The largest of its kind in Ireland, herons have been known to nest here for the past three hundred years and can be clearly seen from the lake walk. They were certainly making their presence felt – I could hear them screeching loudly upon approach.
The lesser-trodden paths through woodland on the north-east of the estate open out to some of the most scenic vistas including the meeting point of the Rivers Camcor and Little Brosna.
It’s inordinately pretty here, as the river meanders gently underneath the picturesque three-arch Brick Bridge. Interesting fact – the bridge actually stands in Co. Tipperary. Cross the bridge and walk beneath the tunnel of trees on Cherry Avenue.
A personal highlight was the Teatro Verde. Planted in the nineties in the shape of an amphitheatre, a gap in the centre affords one of the most spectacular viewing points high above the estate. Engineered to take best advantage of the natural environment, it perfectly frames a vista of the Brick Bridge and the castle in the far distance, lined on either side by trees.
You cannot miss the Victorian Fernery, a verdant hidden glade hewn from stone from the Slieve Blooms in the 1880s. It feels as though it has its own microclimate - I immediately noticed a drop in temperature as I descended the steps. A thundering waterfall is fed from the lake above.
Forest Bathing: sit cocooned beneath a canopy of trees, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Smell the earth. Listen to the birds singing, the river flowing or the sound of rain dripping from the leaves. Enjoy the sunlight dappling through the trees. This is the ancient Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, literally taking in the atmosphere of the forest through our senses. Birr Castle Demesne has a designated area for anyone who wishes to partake in this mindful practice, even a few minutes of which is hugely beneficial for our wellbeing.
The Great Telescope was designed and built by the 3rd Earl of Rosse in the early 1840s. The Rosse family were ahead of the game in feats of engineering and science, and the telescope was the largest in the world for over seventy years: to give you a sense of the scale, the speculum mirror at the bottom has a dimeter of 1.8 metres and the tube itself is 17 metres long.
The telescope enabled the Earl to see further into space than was possible before. His most significant discovery was in relation to the spiral nature of some galaxies and was the first clue to the world of the existence of other galaxies. Absolutely fascinating.
The Gardens are home to hundreds of rare plants collected by the consecutive Earls of Rosse on their travels around the world over the last 150 years. A 500 year old oak tree stands proudly in the centre of the grounds while a spiral of lime trees have a hidden meaning – they were planted in the shape of the M51 galaxy, the spiral of stars that led to his discovery mentioned above.
Formal Gardens: here you’ll find the world’s tallest box hedges which are over 300 years old.
One of the most photographed features is the hornbeam cloister: its branches form an arch above the walkways and frame views of the perfectly manicured gardens and its classical statuary. In spring and summer, the foliage is vivid green and velvety.
The traditional Chinese Moon Gate creates a perfect circle around Liam O’Neill’s Sculptured Oak Vessel while an arched doorway leads to a little slice of heaven: a pathway lined with pink cherry blossom trees, still in glorious full bloom.
Treehouse Playground is fantastic for kids. It has sand pits, climbing frames and slides but best of all, Ireland’s largest treehouse. This is more of a castle than a house, with towers and turrets and numerous windows to peer out of as you pretend to be Lord or Lady of the manor.
For more see https://birrcastle.com/