Overview of the Galleries

The Historic Science Centre is very much worth a visit, the remarkable story of this unique site and family is revealed through the wonders of early photography, engineering and astronomy.

This wonderful collection of stories, heritage and interesting artefacts sets you up for a more fulfilling experience before you head on to explore the demesne.

The Historic Science Centre is housed in what was the stable block designed by the 3rd Countess over 7 galleries.

This building not only includes the science galleries but also our welcome reception, toilet facilities, café, offices, our gift shop, and Copper Tree Gallery which we use for events and exhibitions.

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Gallery One Introductory Video


The Astronomy of Birr Castle is one of its greatest attractions and, in many ways, one of its surprises. It is unusual for a Castle in the centre of Ireland to have become a great centre of astronomical discovery. However, in 1845, the 3rd Earl of Rosse built the biggest telescope in the world and it remained so for 75 years. Here you may see the great telescope – the Leviathan – still standing in the middle of the park with its huge 52 foot (15 metres) long tube with a diameter of 6 foot (1.8 metres).

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3rd Earl of Rosse
4th Earl of Rosse
Engineering Gallery Switchboard


Charles Parsons was the youngest child of William, 3rd Earl and his wife Mary. They had 4 sons who grew to adulthood, and Charles was some 15 years younger than his eldest brother who became the 4th Earl. All four of William’s sons were brought up among construction, engineering, and work on the telescope so Charles was involved in practical work in the workshops at an early age. The boys were educated at home here in the Castle with their brothers until Charles left for Trinity and then Cambridge, where he got an honours degree at St John’s College.

Steam Turbine

There was a long tradition of what might be called engineering in the family. His father, William. self-taught in that field, produced the mechanics for lowering and raising the telescope.  Charles is best known for his invention of the steam powered turbine which was used eventually to power the engines of ships. His invention of a turbine engine in 1884, making cheap and plentiful electricity possible, revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare. This turbine changed the world, and Charles can be said to be the father of the jet engine.

Charles Parsons realised the potential of his new turbine to power ships and in 1893 he, along with five associates, formed the Marine Steam Turbine Company. It was decided that the first experimental vessel be named Turbinia. The vessel was 104 feet (37.8) in length but only had a beam (maximum width) of 9 feet (3.2m). Turbinia was built of very light steel by the firm of Brown and Hood, based at Wallsend-on-Tyne. Initially the vessel was powered Eventually improvements resulted in a top speed of over 34 knots, equivalent to 40 mph (64 kph). Turbinia completed her high speed trials in the North Sea.

The Turbinia and the Spithead Review

By 1897 Charles Parsons’ Turbinia had proved herself, now all her inventor had to do was sell his new idea to the British Admiralty.In an audacious sales pitch, he arrived uninvited at the Navy Review for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Spithead on June 26th, 1897. Among those present would be the Prince of Wales, representing the Queen, Lords of the Admiralty, as well as a complete cross section of the British establishment of the time.

Also at the event would be foreign dignitaries and ambassadors. With its ability to reach speeds of 34 knots (60 kilometres per hour) Turbinia was so much faster than anything else on the water that she could not be caught. Charles hoisted a red pennant and took off in a high speed burst between two lines of large ships. The Royal Navy had set up patrol boats to keep ships in line and to prevent antics such as the Turbinia was to perform. The patrol boats were completely unable to catch her. Charles cut it very fine and came perilously close to some of the ships and patrol boats in the display. In one incident, Turbinia nearly collided with a French yacht and just managed to scrape past her bow. Turbinia had certainly made her presence felt as the fastest boat in the world. Charles Parsons had made his point, not only to the Admiralty but also to the foreign naval representative present a the demonstration.

Mary Rosse and her Dark Room

Mary, the wife of the 3rd Earl, was born in 1813 at Heaton Hall, near Bradford in Yorkshire, daughter and co-heiress with her sister, of a wealthy landowner. Her father, having no sons, brought up the girls with an excellent education, which included mathematics and scientific subjects. Mary and William married in 1836. William, was already greatly interested in astronomy, and had ambitious plans to build the biggest telescope in the world. Mary’s money would allow him to do this. She too was interested in the sciences and was well suited to William and understood his plans.

The marriage was a happy one. Their eldest child was a daughter, Alice, and then came Laurence, their heir, later to be the 4th Earl, and by 1848 they had three more boys, William and John and Randal. Sadly Alice their only daughter died of rheumatic fever aged eight. After Randal came two more boys, Clere and eventually Charles the youngest who was to be the great engineer. But in 1855 her second son William died aged just 11, and little more than a year later John, her third son, now too aged 11, also died.

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Ireland's Historic Science Centre Hologram

Mary's Photography

Mary had started, perhaps tactfully, by photographing her husband’s great passion, the telescope, but she soon moved on to subjects of her preferred choosing, photographing her children and portraits of some of the eminent visitors to Birr Castle. Though sadly very few of Mary’s photographs have survived, those that have show great skill in composition.

The skill with which she composed these evidences a sensitively trained eye: no detail is overlooked and though exposure often to twenty seconds was necessary, she achieved spontaneity in her work.’

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The Dark Room

The Dark Room is believed to be the oldest dark room in Europe – indeed the world. It was established as early as the 1840s when the 3rd Earl began his photographic attempts.

Mary used the room extensively for more than a decade, as did her son the 4th Earl until 1908. The room was a photographic time capsule, having lain untouched until 1983, and its rediscovery was an exciting date in the history of photography.

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