Though often overlooked for the more well known tourist spots, Ireland’s midlands have a lot to offer visitors. One of the many gems waiting to be explored is Birr Castle Gardens. We’re lucky to live not too far from Birr now, so we have visited numerous times in the last few years. It remains just as impressive now as it was the first time we visited.
The castle walls are an imposing sight as you navigate your way through the picturesque town of Birr. On our first visit we found ourselves following the perimeter walls around town, trying to find the main entrance to the castle.
Helpful tip: there is none! Well, that’s not quite true. There is a quite impressive entrance via Oxmantown Gate, but it’s not a public entrance as there is no parking available within the castle grounds.
Access to the public is by a pedestrian gateway on Rosse Row. Pay and display parking is available just across the road.
Birr Castle and the Parson Family
The first castle on the site was an Anglo Norman structure built in 1170 on the edge of the garden terraces. Later the O’Carrolls built a castle, where they lived till the late 1500’s. For the last 400 years Birr Castle has been home to the Parsons family (the Earls of Rosse).
It is currently home to Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl of Rosse and his family. The family have opened the castle to the public since 2014, making it possible to visit and see some of the interior rooms. The guided tours usually take place from May to August. At this stage, it is unclear if they will go ahead this year but you can keep an eye on the Birr Castle Gardens Facebook page for updates.
Even without visiting the castle, you can easily spend a whole day exploring the gardens and the science centre. If you’re bringing children along, good luck trying to drag them away from the playground, home of the tallest treehouse in Ireland!
The Best time to visit Birr Castle Gardens
Any time is a good time to visit Birr Castle, as it is beautiful throughout the seasons. However, my favourite time to visit is during spring, when the gardens are beginning to bloom and are full of colour. As it’s not possible to visit right now, I’m sharing some images from previous spring visits.
There are 120 acres of gardens and parklands to enjoy within the castle demesne. It’s home to many rare plants, collected over the years by the Earls of Rosse on their overseas travels. The current Earl and Countess have also traveled to many countries in search of new plant species for the gardens. There are now over 2000 species of plant as well as over 40 champion trees throughout the gardens.
With 10kms of walkways, there’s a lot to see but you’ll be given a handy visitor guide, to help you navigate. For the best views of the castle follow the Moat Walk which takes you right past the front exterior of the castle. Can you spot the canon in the image below, which dates from the siege of 1690?
Continue the walk around to the the terraced gardens where you can enjoy more great views of the castle. Looking down over the Camcor river you can also view Ireland’s oldest wrought iron suspension bridge, which was built around 1820.
As you continue along the river bank walk, the path is surrounded with an abundance of daffodils this time of year. Further up, a small bridge takes you across the Camcor to the River Garden. Here you’ll find some of the garden’s rarest trees, including some stunning Magnolias. This is one of my favourite parts of Birr Castle Gardens during spring. The sights, sounds and scents are something else.
Another favourite is Cherry Avenue, a particularly spectacular sight if you’re lucky enough to catch it at the right time. These cherry blossom trees were replanted in 1988, as the previous trees had over matured. There’s no telling exactly when it will happen but they flower in March/April each year. I took these shots at the end of March last year and the flowers were already falling fast.
Much of the gardens were developed by Anne, the 6th Countess of Rosse, including the beautiful formal gardens. They were designed to celebrate her marriage to the 6th Earl of Rosse, Michael Parsons in 1935.
Unrelated but fun fact: Anne, who was the mother of the current Earl of Rosse, was also the mother of Anthony Snowden from an earlier marriage. If you’re a fan of the Neflix series The Crown, there is a scene where Lord Snowden calls Birr Castle to speak to his mother. Unfortunately, I didn’t take note of which episode it was, sorry! Anyway, back to the formal gardens…
In spring the greenery returns, bringing the garden to life again after the long winter months. A highlight is the romantic walkway of hornbeam arches, though they are really at their best later into summer. The gardens have even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records, for the tallest box hedges in the world. They are over 300 years old and around 10 metres tall.
The formal gardens are also home to a Giant Redwood, which was planted by the 3rd Earl of Rosse around 1860. Look up and you should be able to see where it was struck by lightning back in the 1950s.
It’s not the only Giant Redwood to be found in Birr Castle Gardens. Back near the River Garden is Giants Grove, which is part of a project to create the largest grove of Giant Redwoods outside of California.
The Great Telescope
Birr Castle was not always famous for its gardens. In the 19th century it was a centre of scientific research when the 3rd Earl of Rosse built the great telescope, also known as the Leviathan of Parsonstown.
As you make your way around the grounds, it’s impossible to miss it. Built in 1845, the telescope was the biggest in the world for 70 years. A major discovery made using the telescope, was the spiral nature of the nebulae.
Historic Science Centre
The Science Centre has eight galleries dedicated to the scientific achievements of the Parsons family, not only in astronomy but in photography and engineering too. So try and leave some time to check it out. I’ve only had a brief look myself, as I always seem to run out of time. I plan to go back on a rainy day when I won’t be busy taking photos!
I hope you enjoyed a little wander around Birr Castle Gardens and hopefully it will be open again soon. I’ll leave you with this image of the beautiful lake in the gardens. It was created in the early 19th century by the 2nd Earl of Rosse who diverted the River Camcor.