In 1887 a group of people decided that Birr needed a "large structure that would suit multifarious requirements for the benefit and entertainment of the inhabitants at large ….a Hall that would serve a variety of purposes from a Sunday school down to a social tea party." (King’s County Chronicle, 17 January 1889.)
Within two years a Grand Opening Night was held on 15 January 1889. The Chronicle gives a detailed history of the design and construction of the hall and the names of the guests who attended. It rained on the night, the hall was crowded, some people got standing room only and many were turned away. The programme began with a play, continued with ‘theatricals’, a vocal and piano concert and ended with another play.
The opening night was an undoubted success and set the tone for the next century. The Oxmantown Hall became an integral part of the social and cultural life of Birr until the 1980s. Week in, week out, the two local newspapers advertised lectures, entertainments, dances, plays and even grand opera. The Bowyer-Westwood Company, grandparents of Brendan Bowyer presented a week of opera in September 1928. With 30 first class artistes, chorus and orchestra, the people of Birr were treated to Maritana, Carmen, The Lily of Killarney, Il Trovatore and The Daughter of the Regiment - all for the sum of three shillings (19 c) per night.
Judging by the advertisements that appeared throughout the greater part of the twentieth century, the Hall was in constant use. Birr people still recall the dances held there; many have their own romantic memories and perhaps occasionally wish for a return to the nights of the Practice Dances and Supper Dances of a bygone age.
The Hall became a venue for badminton during the late 1960s and early 1970s The Good Olde Days, a highlight of early Vintage Week Festivals, attracted large crowds and showed the Oxmantown Hall had lost none of its appeal. Unfortunately, this momentum failed and the Hall lay idle for most of the 1980s. It became a focus of attention again when Rosalind Fanning organised a renovation for her exhibitions of Granny Thompson’s Dolls.
Many locals felt that the Hall should be restored. Fortunately, Birr was declared a Heritage Town in 1993 and a group of people under the chairmanship of Salters Sterling undertook to purchase the building. The then Offaly County Manager, Seán McCarthy guaranteed €25,400 (£20,000) of public funds. Arnold Fanning, Stevie Grant, Michael Hanna, Michael Ramsden, Lord Rosse, Salters Sterling and Mrs. Julia Trench donated the remaining €27,500 (£22,000).
In February 1995, Frank McNamara, on behalf of Birr Stage Guild, contacted the Oxmantown Hall Management Committee with a view to leasing the Hall. Following which, a company, Birr Stage Guild Ltd. was incorporated with Frank McNamara and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy as Directors. After much discussion, a 105 year lease was granted at a nominal rent of €1.27 (£1) per annum. An application for funding was made to The Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under the Ministry of Michael D. Higgins. This application was successful and a grant of c. €317,500 (£250,000) was obtained.
Derek Coulter was appointed architect with Gordon Campbell as quantity surveyor. The total cost of restoration work was €711,000 (c. £600,000). Despite generous grant aid from The Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Offaly Leader 2 Company, Offaly County Council and The Arts Council as well as local fundraising, we still have an outstanding debt of c. €90,000 (c. £70,900). Local people have contributed most generously to all fundraising efforts.
Tenders for the refurbishment were sought in early 1999. The committee were very pleased to accept the tender of Paddy McIntyre, Ballindown, Birr as the main contractor and work commenced in September 1999 with the re-slating of the roof. Paddy met with few problems and was amazed at the quality of the original timbers and stonework. Retractable seating was installed - a feature which enables the hall to be used for exhibitions and displays.
The first Performance in the renovated Theatre and Arts Centre was in July 2000 by Liz Carroll, international fiddle player. The Good Olde Days during the Vintage Week Festival and The Playboy of the Western World in October were Birr Stage Guild’s first productions in the hall. Maureen de Forge and Enda O’Connor directed HMS Pinafore in April 2001; it was an outstanding success and Birr Stage Guild was delighted to be nominated in 5 categories of the national AIMS awards.
To date, many diverse productions have been staged at Birr Theatre & Arts Centre. Musicians Luka Bloom, Mundy, Jack L, Don Baker, Johnny Carroll, Frances Black, Ronnie Drew, Comedians Pat Short, Kevin McAlleer, The Drawing Room Opera Company, Co-Opera, Lamberts Puppet Theatre, Ballet Ireland and many local and national Theatre groups have all received a warm welcome in this wonderfully intimate venue.
Children and adults alike have enjoyed the Puppet Festival over the past 2 Mayday weekends. A very successful Annual Jazz festival has been established over the August bank holiday weekend, drawing top musicians including Acker Bilk, Paddy Cole, and Professor Peter O’Brien.
Photo and Art exhibitions by local artists have been held.
A Film Club with over 100 members has been established. The new dance programme for County Offaly, led by Flexusdance, is based at Birr Theatre and Arts Centre. Master classes on all aspects of production, led by Actor Aidan Quinn, Designer John Rocha and Directors Garry Hynes and Patrick Mason are planned for the year ahead, culminating in Birr Georgian Society’s production of The Marriage Of Figaro in the autumn.
It may be appropriate now to acknowledge the spirit of all those souls who valiantly trod the boards to entertain, uplift and inspire the people of Birr over the years.
With this beautiful building refurbished and the stage once more cleared for action, we can look forward to another hundred years of artistic and creative endeavour at Birr Theatre and Arts Centre, Oxmantown Hall.