A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe …Part 58
I’m refreshed by my bath and a relaxing read The plot of the novel brings its three central characters into Ireland. They are all heading for her northernmost point, I’m happy to hang about her waist, in the middle of her favours.
I’m in an evening stroll mood and the town makes a grand location in which to enjoy the brightening end of the day. One of the unanswered puzzles of the walk is how I can start and finish it on the same street without being on the same street at all. They must be the same street. They are both called Oxmantown Mall yet they make no spatial connection. One is on the western side of the town off the centre and the other heads east and can be found in the north of the town. If there was some way of joining the ends together it might make sense but they are neither adjacent nor opposite but both are made for twilight strolling.
The peculiar thing about Ireland is how similar and simultaneously different it is from England. Here the architecture is distinctly Georgian but the streets are completely Irish. Fanlight windows abound in both single and two storey residences. This is where I’d like to live if I was Irish. I couldn’t do it though. I couldn’t become an ex-pat. If I was Irish I wouldn’t want some English fellow with a desire to kiss the shamrock moving in next door.
I walk the eastern bound Oxmantown Mall first. It inclines you to mosey. Even this version of the street isn’t content with being one street. Like a mini Champs Elysees it has an up route and a down route. The houses all look comfortable, well maintained and aged. There’s a temple like structure and a statue. The building is St John’s Hall and the statue is of the third Earl of Rosse. The both look very handsome in the evening light.
I turn back, along the main street where my solitary condition means I’m not tempted by the restaurants. There are one or two I would be pleased to take T to if occasion allows in the future. It is with considerable surprise that I find myself back on a street I left in another time and another place, but this is quite apt. The sense of the different ages, that this second Oxmantown Mall has lived through, is very strong on this Western bound road.
It is shorter and even more lovely. A near perfect terrace of Georgian houses on the right, an avenue of tall, well grown trees on my left and a second road with a range of rather attractive houses behind these. This is proper evening strolling. I don’t want to look into shop windows or tour museums. I want to have, for the brief time that fate has allowed me to be here, the same experience as the people who are lucky enough to live on this street. It is perfect for this. To amble along, not staring or gawping but just looking and absorbing and imagining. At the end of the Mall is a second treat: Birr Castle.
I don’t go in. It’s a private residence but the grounds and gardens are open to the public. Every castle has considerable history attached. Birr is no different. It is the oldest inhabited home in County Offaly. It has been the home of O’Carrolls, the Parsons and is now the home of the Earls of Rosse.
It is a handsome and well positioned building and I would like to make more time to wander through the grounds. For many years Birr Castle was at the very centre of world exploration of space. The Leviathan of Parsonstown was, until 1917, the largest telescope in the world. There isn’t a great deal of light pollution in twenty first century Birr. There can’t have been any in the early years of the twentieth. The 72 inch metal mirror uncovered many of the early mysteries of modern astronomy including the spiral structures of nebulae. It also played its part in unravelling some of the mysteries of our own galaxy. Since being a child I have stared at the stars and the planets. I’ve largely been happy to identify some constellations, to spot a planet or two and to thrill at the occasional meteor shower. It gives me a deep feeling of calm just to look up on a dark night. The effect is magnified if you can find a place where the darkness is almost complete.
I sleep well in my little double room and am treated to a fine Irish spread for breakfast. There aren’t many other guests and we are of the smile politely and wait for the toast fraternity. I’m dressed for cycling and fail to sport the cravat that seems to be the required uniform. I’m wondering if my lifelong aversion to wearing a helmet is such a good idea. Birr holds the tragic distinction of being the scene of the first road traffic fatality in history. On 31 August 1869 Mary Ward fell from a steam powered car on a bend and went under the wheels. She was a cousin of the third Earl of Rosse and a distinguished scientist.
She was something more than a keen amateur. Birr Castle was the centre of astronomical investigations. The telescope was being built during the period of her frequent visits. She made many accurate sketches of its construction and these were used in more recent renovations.
She wasn’t allowed privileges and access on the grounds of her gender but her status and esteem can be gauged from the fact that she was one of only three women on the mailing list for the Royal Astronomical Society. The other two were Queen Victoria and Mary Somerville (after whom Somerville College Oxford is named).
Steam cars looked to be the future. The technology had worked for trains and it seemed a natural progression to transfer it to road vehicles. They were heavy and dangerous though and caused considerable damage to the uneven roads of the time. The famous law where someone had to walk in front with a red flag and speeds were limited to 4 mph in the countryside and 2mph in the towns was brought in in 1865 for steam cars. Thirty years later they were consigned to history by the development of the internal combustion engine.
I hadn’t heard of the town of Birr before I visited it. I was in it for less than 17 hours and yet it made itself a place in my affections. Here was a place it was worth travelling hundreds of miles to see. It was a modern town and an ancient town; a town of the pleasantest citizens; a town where you had everything you needed for a good life and a good life was being lived by those lucky enough to call Birr their home.