Birr Castle and the Parsons Family

Birr Castle is a Victorian house in the middle of Ireland with a spectacular garden and arboretum threaded by rivers and lakes. It is the home of the Parsons family, the Earls of Rosse. So far not so unusual.

Garden at Birr

What is unusual is that in the second half of the 19th Century the family threw out individuals who led the way in three fields; astronomy, photography and engineering. I had never heard of them before. 

The first was the third earl who was fascinated by astronomy and built himself a 36 inch reflecting telescope. A reflecting telescope requires concave polished metal plates which have to be machined with great accuracy and cooled very slowly to stop them cracking. The light is magnified and reflected up to the eye piece which is at the top of the barrel. His son, the fourth earl, went even further and built the Leviathan, a 72 inch telescope which was the biggest in the world until 1917. With this he discovered and drew (photography wasn't up to it then) the famous Whirlpool Nebula which he realised was a separate collection of stars. What he couldn’t know was that this was actually a separate galaxy - something that was only found out by Hubble in the 1930s by using red shift to discover that this was vastly distant from the other stars around it and moving away from our own galaxy, the Milky Way. His drawings in the museum are beautifully executed. It was a remarkable achievement considering he was working outdoors in Ireland which is not known for its clear skies and lack of rain. 

The Leviathan telescope 

At the same time his wife, an heiress whose money made much of his astronomy possible was a pioneer of photography. The used all the techniques of the time but mainly photographic plates to record local life and execute portrait many of which are in the museum.

The fourth earl’s younger brother, Charles Parsons was, in the family tradition, educated at home surrounded by engineering workshops and science. He went to Oxford and then, most unusually for an aristocrat, was apprenticed to an engineering firm. His great achievement was the invention and production of steam turbines which revolutionized both ship propulsion and electricity generation - the technology which is still in use today in nuclear power stations. He was nothing if not a showman and built a turbine driven steam yacht called Turbinia that could travel at 36 knots and sailed it right into the middle of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Spithead Review with the whole home fleet watching. The result was Dreadnought and the Lusitania which were respectively the fastest battleship and cruise liner in the world.

Not bad for an aristocratic family from the middle of Ireland.


1 comment

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