Monday, 30 October 2017

An autumn afternoon
in Birdhill, Ireland’s
tidiest town and village

Birdhill was voted this year’s Tidiest Town in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

On the road from Dublin to Askeaton at the end of last week, two of us stopped for lunch at Matt the Thresher in Birdhill, one of the best-known gastropubs in Ireland.

At one time, a huge volume of traffic passed through on the village on the N7. Now the village is at a junction on the R445 (formerly the N7), about 20 km from Limerick City, and close to the M7, just two minutes off exit 27.

The M7 has diverted much of that traffic from Birdhill, making it a quiet and tranquil village. The hills to the south-west stretch down to the banks of River Shannon, surrounded by woods and grassland, meadows and stonewalls, streams and rivers, with a rich variety of wildlife and views of Lough Derg.

Birdhill was named the ‘Tidiest Village’ in the Tidy Towns Awards in 2007, 2008, 2016 and again in 2017, and the village also took the overall award this year and was named Ireland’s ‘Tidiest Town.’ But when it was named this year, it stirred a humorous conversation on one radio chatshow about tidy towns, tidy villages and tidy crossroads.

Birdhill (Cnocán an Éin Fhinn, the Little Hill of the Fair Bird) is a small and picturesque village between Limerick and Nenagh, 5 km from Killaloe to the north, and 7 or 8 km from Newport to its south.

Birdhill takes its name from a mythical encounter between Oisín of the Fianna and a giant bird that was causing widespread destruction in the area. Birdhill is in the Barony of Owney and Arra, between Lower Ormond to the north, whose principal town is Cloghjordan, and Upper Ormond to the east, whose principal town is Nenagh.

Matt the Thresher takes its name from a character in Charles Kickham’s book ‘Knocknagow’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The village uses as its motto ‘For the sake of the little village,’ words spoken by Matt the Thresher in Charles Kickham’s book Knocknagow.

Matt the Thresher has been providing award-winning food under the family-run team of Ted and Kay Moynihan since 1987, and was the perfect place to stop for a bite to eat. It was voted Best Gastro Pub 2010.

The building is an attractive component of the local streetscape due to its location, form and massing. Its stepped roofline and decorative detail such as the bargeboards and windows add interest.

This detached multi-phase house was built around 1890 and the first vintner’s licence for the premises was granted in 1891 to Martin Hassett, who also ran a general provisions and light hardware store from the building, as well as a bakery, a taxi service, and Birdhill’s first post office.

Bill Hassett ran a bicycle repair shop nearby until he died in 1973 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The bar and grocery business was continued by Martin Hassett’s daughter, Mary Anne Bradshaw – better known as ‘Babe’ – from 1927 to 1964. But the premises closed in the second half of the 1960s, and Babe died in 1972. Meanwhile, her brother Bill Hassett has been running a bicycle repair shop nearby until he died the following year.

The pub was refurbished and reopened in 1975 by the Crowe family from Broad Street, Limerick, who renamed it the Old Pike. In 1978, the licence was transferred to Peter Laffey.

In 1985, the premises were bought by Tony Ryan of GPA (Guinness Peat Aviation) and Ryanair. He carried out major renovations on the pub, and reopened it as an ‘olde worlde’ style gastropub with the name Matt the Thresher after the character in Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow.

Initially, the pub was managed by Denis O’Brien, Tony Ryan’s personal assistant. In 1987, it was acquired by Ted and Kay Moynihan, who developed it into a popular restaurant and bar. The business changed management in 2016, and is now run by the Moynihan and Lyons families.

Inside ‘Matt the Thresher,’ once managed by Denis O’Brien (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

This is a four-bay, two-storey block with gablets to the first floor and a canted bay window to the ground floor, with a slightly-higher single-bay block to west end with a shopfront.

It is connected to a three-bay, two-storey former coach house by a seven-bay single-storey block. There are pitched slate roofs with carved timber bargeboards to the gablets and rendered chimneystacks and rendered walls.

Throughout the building, there are timber sash windows, and there is a timber battened front entrance door.

From Bloomfield to barracks to baristas in Birdhill … the Old Barracks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Nearby, the Old Barracks is a detached three-bay, two-storey former RIC barracks built around 1820, although a nearby plaque says it was first built around 1720 as a home for retired nurses.

The barracks building was one of several founded by Bloomfield, who built four police barracks at Birdhill, Newport, Lackabrack, and Foilduff, all on the perimeter of his estate, on the four points of the compass.

The barracks was built with local stone, which provides a positive contribution to the streetscape. The round-headed arch over the central doorway partially blocked. The pair of cast-concrete bollards at the entry are marked ‘Jacob Clonmel 1847.’

The building is significant because of its connection to Lord Bloomfield, who owned the nearby Ciamaltha House.

The Bloomfield family first settled at Eyre Court, Co Galway, in the early 18th century. Benjamin Bloomfield of Eyre Court had three sons: John, ancestor of the Redwood family, Co Tipperary; Joseph; and Benjamin, ancestor of the Barons Bloomfield.

In 1742, John Bloomfield of Redwood married Jane Jocelyn and their grandson, John Colpoys Bloomfield, married Frances Arabella, daughter and co heir of Sir John Caldwell, Baronet, of Castle Caldwell, Co Fermanagh. In 1851, the estate of John Colpoys Bloomfield of Castle Caldwell, amounting to 1,977 acres in Co Tipperary, was bought by William Hort and George Armstrong for almost £13,000.

Benjamin Bloomfield (1768-1846) of Newport, Co Tipperary, fought as an army officer at Vinegar Hill in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, during the 1798 Rising. Later, he was MP for Plymouth and became private secretary to George IV, earning his reputation for trying to curb the excess spending by the king in the early 19th century. In 1825 he was given the title of Lord Bloomfield.

His son, John Bloomfield, the 2nd Lord Bloomfield, was British ambassador to Berlin. His mistress, the Sweidh actress Emilie Sophie Högquist (1812-1846), later became the mistress of King Oscar I of Sweden. After Lord Bloomfield died in 1879, his estate of almost 10,000 acres was inherited by his sister, the Hon Harriett Mary Anne Kingscote of Gloucestershire.

Later in the 19th century, the Old Barracks served as accommodation for servants of the Twiss family, and from 1905 to 1923 it was Buckley’s provision and grocery store.

It then returned to police use and served as a garda station from 1927 to 1962, with living quarters, a cell, a day room, an interview room and a store. When the garda station closed, the house became a family home for a number of families, including the Spain, Moran, Sheridan and McDermott families. It was bought in 1985 by Tony Ryan of GPA and Ryanair, who planned to use as part of an extension of Matt the Thresher.

In 1990, the building was refurbished under the guidance of the architect Sam Stephenson, and it opened a year later as the Tipperary Trading Company to showcase Tipperary-made products. In 1998, it became a retail outlet for Tipperary Crystal.

The house was bought by Browsers Furniture in 2003, and they sold home and garden furniture from here for the next decade. The building was leased to the Coffee Culture Trading Academy in 2015, and the surrounding grounds have been made available as a community allotment for growing herbs and vegetables.

Autumn colours at ‘Matt the Thresher’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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