Birch, Peter (1911–81), catholic bishop of Ossory, was born 4 September 1911 in Tullowglass, Co. Kilkenny, eldest child of Martin Birch, farmer, and Alice Birch (née Downey). Educated at Clinstown national school and St Kieran's College, Kilkenny, he entered St Patrick's College, Maynooth (1930), and was ordained a priest of the diocese of Ossory (1937). Having completed a higher diploma in education at the Dunboyne Establishment (1938), he was appointed professor of English at St Kieran's College. He remained at this post (completing an MA in English (1941) and a Ph.D. in education (1951)) until 1953, when he returned to Maynooth as professor of education and catechetics. A prominent proponent of adult education, he became in 1949 provincial director of UCD's extramural course in social and economic studies. During his time at Maynooth he was also closely associated with the Legion of Mary, acting for nine years as spiritual director of one of Dublin's oldest praesidia. His appointment as assistant secretary to the Catholic Clerical Managers' Association (1958) marked the beginning of his rise to hierarchical prominence, culminating in his consecration as coadjutor bishop of Ossory and titular bishop of Dibon on 23 September 1962.
On succeeding to the see (10 January 1964) on the death of Bishop Patrick Collier (1880–1964) he immediately set about ministering to the vulnerable of his diocese, initiating a scheme of home help for the elderly. As the scheme spread, coordinating the work of several charitable institutions in the area, it extended itself to embrace all family problems. The renowned Kilkenny social service centre, which by the time of his death had expanded to sixteen centres with a staff of forty-five and over ninety volunteers, was the ultimate result of these initial endeavours. In 1966 he established a school for children with learning difficulties, the School of Our Lady of Fair Love, and in 1969 he founded a number of sheltered workshops for adults with intellectual disabilities, an initiative that later developed into the special occupation services at Seville Lodge, where his school for disturbed children was also housed. While he was instrumental in founding St Patrick's special school and establishing Vanier House for those with disabilities, he also remained a firm advocate of social studies. With the cooperation of Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, the School of Social Education was launched in 1971. In the same year he opened a retreat house, ‘Peace in Christ’, in an attempt to link spiritual and social welfare. Intent on equipping the diocese with priests qualified at postgraduate level in the sacred sciences, he provided the diocesan seminary with a well-trained staff at a time of great theological, liturgical, and pastoral change. Devoted to the progressive ideals of Vatican II, he encouraged an open, active catholicism, which made him an unpopular, and often peripheral, figure in the Irish hierarchy. His support for the travelling community and his calls for an improvement in the conditions of rural women further alienated him from prevailing catholic orthodoxy. Convinced of the futility of a coercive church, he believed in accommodating the young, introducing folk music to masses in his diocese in the late 1960s. He wrote widely for learned journals in Irish and English and published a history of St Kieran's College (1951). A lifelong supporter of hurling, he was a familiar figure at Nowlan Park and Croke Park.
He died 7 March 1981 at his home, Sion House, Kilkenny. Following the lead of the various public bodies of the diocese, a dáil debate was adjourned as a mark of respect. Political and religious leaders joined the large crowds that lined the streets of Kilkenny for his funeral, and he was buried in the grounds of St Mary's cathedral, Kilkenny.