Branching out at Birr
A treehouse and playground are the latest additions to Birr Castle, an estate that has moved with the times since it began in the 1600s
Lady Alicia Clements with her twins Henry and Charlotte in the grounds of Birr Castle, Co Offaly Photograph: Alan Betson
Twins Charlotte and Henry Photograph: Alan Betson
Climbing the steep ladder into the giant treehouse at Birr Castle Demesne in Co Offaly I get a tingling in my stomach. It’s not the height of the treehouse – which is at 14m – but rather an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and adventure: I’m transported back to childhood in this Rapunzel-esque structure.
“Go on – have a bounce!” says Lady Alicia Clements of Birr Castle. Bouncing on giant pillows in public is not normally my strong point but who can resist leaping on a pillow the size of most people’s lawn?
Besides there’s something about Alicia’s relaxed yet decisive tone which both invites you in and simultaneously suggests her as the type of woman who gets things done.
The €200,000 tree house was financed by the Birr Foundation and Offaly Local Development Company, a State-funded organisation that supports projects designed to make Offaly “a better place to live” by enhancing community life and developing enterprise. Birr Castle has also benefitted from on-going support from Fáilte Ireland.
The tree house It has the romantic shape of fairytale castles with round turrets and will have an insignia flying from the top, emblazoned with the family crest of three leopards.
Great care has been taken in its positioning – it nestles between a giant redwood and a chestnut tree and the seventh Earl of Rosse, known as Brendan, Alicia’s father, has been keeping a close eye on proceedings in relation to his trees.
There is a rope bridge, an extra-long fireman’s pole, a huge slide, plenty of nooks and crannies, to hide in, and Gothic-style windows to peep out of from a height.
The tree house and bouncing pillow are the crowning glories of the new playground on the site of former tennis courts to the rear of the old stable buildings.
There’s a “banqueting hall” – a covered long table and benches made by slicing a tree felled on the demesne.
There are sandpits, open play areas and a “Hobbit Hole”, or den, built into the side of the embankment.
As mother to four-year-old twins Charlotte and Henry, Alicia knew that in order to make Birr Castle a great destination for families, it needed to cater more to children. For her, it is about “adapting to how society is going and recognising that change needs to be ongoing”.
Change and innovation have been features at Birr Castle since 1620. The family claims to have had electricity before London and Dublin.
For 75 years the site was home to the largest telescope in the world, built by William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse in the 1840s, while his son made many discoveries, such as predicting the temperature of the surface of the moon – calculations which would be confirmed years later.
In the science galleries at the castle a note from Neil Armstrong reads: “With all good wishes and appreciation for the contributions of an astronomical family. Apollo 11.”