Early History

The Parsons family arrived at Birr in July of 1620. They acquired the ruined fortress of Birr. It had been an O’Carroll castle, but had for some twenty years belonged to the Ormond Butlers. Sir Laurence, one of four brothers living in Ireland at the beginning of end of the 16th century, had been working with his cousin Richard Boyle the great Earl of Cork, to whom he was related through the Fenton family, in Youghal. Laurence died suddenly in 1628 and was succeeded by his second son, William, ably supported by his mother, Anne, née Malham, a Yorkshire woman related to the Tempest family.

Sir Laurence’s elder brother, also William, became Surveyor General of Ireland and founded the elder branch of the family, living in Bellamont, Dublin. This branch died out at the end of the 18th century.

Ist Earl of Rosse

The 17th century was a turbulent one for the Parsons family in Birr. The castle was involved in two sieges, the first in the 1640s where the family moved for a time to London, before returning at the end of the Cromwellian period. In 1690 the castle was besieged again, by Sarsfield. However, this time, the Castle held out and Sarsfield moved on.

The 18th century was a quiet period for the family who were left with little money and returned to improving their estate at Birr and living off the land. Towards the end of the century, Sir Laurence, (5th baronet) became a politician and friend of Flood and Grattan. He was praised for his honesty. He opposed the Act of Union. He became 2nd Earl of Rosse in 1807 when he inherited the title from his uncle.

2nd Earl of Rosse

Science & the 19th Century

The 19th century saw the castle become a great centre of scientific research when William Parsons, 3rd Earl built the great telescope. His wife, Mary, whose fortune helped him to build the telescope and make many improvements to the castle, was a pioneer photographer and took many photographs in the 1850s. Her dark room – a total time capsule which was preserved in the Castle – has now been relocated in the Science Centre.

Their son the 4th Earl also continued astronomy at the castle and the great telescope was used up to the beginning of the 2nd world war. His son the 5th Earl was interested in agriculture and visited Denmark in search of more modern and successful methods. Sadly he died of wounds in the 1st world war.

His son, Michael the 6th Earl and his wife Anne created the formal garden at Birr Castle Demesne. Anne, who was the sister of Oliver Messel the stage designer, brought many treasures to Birr from the Messel collection and with her skill in interior decoration and artist’s eye, transformed the castle, giving it the magical beauty that is now apparent to all. The 6th Earl was also much involved in the creation of the National Trust in England after the war.

William Parsons 3rd Earl Great Leviathan Telescope

3rd Earl of Rosse

Sir William Parsons (1800 -67), 3rd Earl of Rosse of Birr Castle in Kings County (Offaly), built what was for some 70 years the largest telescope in the world.  

He served as a Member of Parliament from 1821-1834. Lord Rosse married Lady Mary Field, daughter of John Wilmer Field on 14 April 1836. Upon the death of his father, Laurence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse in 1841, William became the 3rd Earl of Rosse. He was also President of the British Association from 1843-1844. Lord Rosse was president of the Royal Society from 1845-1854, while he also served as an Irish representative peer. From 1862-1867 he was chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin. Lord Rosse was an avid scientist, a passion that he shared with his wife, Mary Rosse, and is best known for building the 'Leviathan of Parsonstown,’ a 72-inch telescope. It was built in 1845 and was the largest telescope in the world. As an astronomer, he was first to discover the spiral nature of some nebulae (now called spiral galaxies), and naming the Crab Nebula. He died on the 31 October 1867. 

4th Earl of Rosse

Laurence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse, Baron of Oxmantown, 7th Baronet of Birr Castle, was born 17 November 1840. Like his father, he pursued astronomy and is known for his attempt to design a truly flat mirror to use in a telescope. Lord Rosse succeeded his father as the 4th Earl of Rosse in 1867. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. From the year of 1867-68, Lord Rosse served as a Justice of the Peace for King’s County, and was appointed High Sheriff of King’s County. On 1 September 1870, he married Lady Frances Cassandra Hawke, daughter of Lord Edward Harvey-Hawke, 4th Baron of Hawke, and Lady Frances Fetherstonhaugh. From 1881-87 Lord Rosse was the Vice-President of the Royal Society. From 1885 to 1908 he serves as the 18th Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin. He also was the Lord Lieutenant of King’s County, and Custos Rotulorum of King’s County from 1892 until 1908. In 1896 he was elected President of the Royal Irish Academy. In 1902 he received the honorary degree of Legum Doctor from the University of Wales, sharing the ceremony of the instalment of the Prince of Wales as Chancellor of the University of Wales. The 4th Earl of Rosse died on 29 August 1908. 

Laurence Parsons 4th Earl of Rosse Lunar Heat Machine
Charles Parsons

Charles Parsons

Charles Parsons (1854 - 1931)  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 honors degree at St John’s College.

Mary Rosse

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  aged eight. After Randal came two more boys, Clere and eventually Charles the youngest who was to be the great engineer. 

Altogether of her eleven children only the four boys, Laurence, Randal and the two youngest Clere and Charles lived to grow up.

Michael Parsons 6th Earl of Rosse

6th Earl and Countess of Rosse

Michael the 6th Earl and his wife Anne created the formal garden at Birr Castle Demesne. Anne, who was the sister of Oliver Messel the stage designer, brought many treasures to Birr from the Messel collection and with her skill in interior decoration and artist’s eye, transformed the castle, giving it the magical beauty that is now apparent to all. The 6th Earl was also much involved in the creation of the National Trust in England after the war.

At Home with the Earl and Countess of Rosse

While there are many treasures to be found within the 120-acre Demesne, in the gardens, the parklands and Ireland’s Historic Science, the Parsons family, having lived in the castle for over 400 years, have many other treasures not on display. The family are happy to share these with special interest groups which, if their schedule permits, will be hosted by Lord and Lady Rosse themselves for a day in the castle and demesne.

When special interests have been notified in advance, treasures from the castle’s many collections can include: the beautifully illustrated works from the botanical library, whose earliest works date back to the mid sixteenth century, or needlework, silver or historical manuscripts and letters from the castle’s archives where even the cookbook of the 1660s is still preserved among many other papers. The family  can explain the details and stories that may attach to these objects in the beautiful rooms of the Castle.

Should you like to find out more about a private tour of the Castle please email estate@birrtrust.ie

For Guided Castle tours, please click here

Lord and Lady Rosse tree planting

China Links

The Hon. Desmond Parsons was the younger brother of Michael, the 6th Earl. He was born in 1910, studied at Oxford. Good looking and charming, he was also a brilliant linguist and in 1934 he went to China where his friend Harold Acton was already in the Beijing lecturing at Peking National University. His stay was the start of a great intercultural collaboration between Birr Castle and China.

With Desmond in China, his brother Michael decided to visit with his new bride, Anne, on their honeymoon. They all enjoyed a wonderful time in Beijing and here Michael, with his interest in plants and trees at Birr, began his friendship and collaboration with Professor Hu from the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing. Chinese seeds began to make their way back to Birr – now many of which are large trees and can be found in Yunnan area of the demesne.

Desmond had recently completed an amazing journey to Dun Huang, with many adventures including imprisonment by warring tribes. He took excellent photographs of the caves there, so important that they were later acquired by the Courtauld Institute. Sadly, when Anne and Michael arrived they found Desmond was not well. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease, a form of cancer which at that time was usually fatal.  They returned to London with Desmond, leaving Desmond’s house and collection of scrolls and furniture in the hands of his friend Robert Byron, who had also arrived in Beijing.

Desmond, Lois, Anne & Harold Beijing

Desmond never returned to China and died, aged only 27, in 1937. His collection of Chinese art came back to Birr Castle at the outbreak of the war, carefully packed and returned by his friend Harold Acton who was himself devastated at having to leave China.

Patrick, Lord Oxmantown, Michael’s grandson and Desmond’s great- nephew, as a child at Birr was fascinated by this Chinese heritage. Partly inspired by Desmond, he too made the journey to China at a young age. Unlike Desmond he had better luck and stayed for some 16 years.

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Lord & Lady Oxmantown Beijing Street
Lord Rosse & Lord Oxmantown Madame Gong

Present Family

The 7th Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons, spent his career in the United Nations Development Programme, living with his wife Alison and their family in many third world countries. He returned to Ireland on his father’s death in 1979. Brendan and Alison have also spent much time on the garden, especially collecting and planting rare trees. Their three children are all passionate about the estate and continue to add layers to the story for the future.

Patrick, Lord Oxmantown currently lives in London and is working on plans to bring investment into Birr which will enable him and his family to move back to Ireland.

Alicia Clements, General Manager to the Birr Trustee Company and lives on the estate at Tullanisk House.

Michael Parsons, has just returned from London and time with the National Trust to continue a career in Tourism.

The Parsons Family
Lord Rosse Sequioa Planting