Birr Castle and Demesne
Birr Castle and Demesne is the ancestral home of the Parsons family. (A demesne, or domain, is a country estate with feudal origins.) Birr is located in Co. Offaly, formerly King’s County, in the geographical centre of Ireland. The castle is lived in today by Brendan and Alison Parsons, Earl and Countess of Rosse – Brendan is the seventh earl – who have transformed an old stable block into Ireland’s Historic Science Centre, celebrating the extraordinary achievements of their ancestors.
The castle is not open to the public, but the demesne include 50 acres of beautiful parkland that visitors can explore. At the centre of the park is the great telescope created in the 1840s by William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse, who was President of the Royal Society 1848–54. Known as the Leviathan of Parsonstown, it was the largest telescope in the world for more than 70 years.
William Rosse (1800–69) and his wife, Mary, had eleven children, only four of whom survived to adulthood. Their son Randal Parsons, who entered the church and became rector of Sandhurst military college, wrote a brief history of Birr and his family, from which much of the following account derives.
The history of Birr
Two brothers named Parsons migrated to Ireland from Norfolk in Tudor times and settled in Co. Wexford. (The title Rosse derives from lands they owned in the county.) A century later, the fortress of Birr and the surrounding land – taken from an Irish chieftain called Ely O’Carroll – was bestowed upon Sir Laurence Parsons by James I of England and VI of Scotland. Sir Laurence called it the Manor of Parsonstown. He improved the village and made it into a small town, strengthened the fort and made it into a castle, and increased the area originally granted by buying more land.
Birr Castle occupies a defensive position overlooking the river Camcor, the town of Birr and a large area of parkland. Its massively thick walls contain holes made by cannon shot during the Catholic siege of 1641–45, which ended in (short-lived) victory against Sir William Parsons, the crown representative. A second siege took place in 1689–90, when the Parsons incumbent, an ardent Protestant, capitulated to the forces of James II. Taken prisoner, Parsons was released after James’s defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.
The next important event at the castle occurred in 1835, when a great fire broke out during the family’s absence, destroying the middle of the building. It was later restored by William Parsons, third Earl of Rosse, who made numerous other alterations and improvements in collaboration with his wife, Mary. In the moat between the castle and the town a forge and large workshop were constructed and furnaces for melting brass were built in a tower. An engine house, polishing machinery and lathes were installed in the keep for the construction of Lord Rosse’s telescopes.
Mary Rosse was skilled in wax modelling and made all the moulds for the ornamental work of the large bronze gates at the castle’s front entrance. These gates were cast in the workshops and the ornaments adorning them were cast from her models. She was also a great photographer. At the time when photography was invented, she had a photographic room fitted up next to the workroom and spent much time there. The process of printing on wax paper was a speciality of hers and she took many beautiful photographs. She joined the London amateur photographic society and won a prize for a photograph of the Leviathan.
William Rosse excavated an area of marshland and diverted the river Camcor from its natural course to form a beautiful ornamental lake in the grounds of Birr. His eldest son, Laurence, who succeeded his father as earl in 1869, used the water power of the Camcor to supply the castle with electric light.
Birr Castle and Desmesne passed down through William ‘Ocky’ Parsons (1873–1918), fifth earl, and Michael Parsons (1906–79), sixth earl, to the present incumbent, Brendan Parsons (1936– ), seventh earl.