The Muniments Room
The Muniments Room in Birr Castle is a special space. Based in the eastern flanker of the castle, it was once a smoking room and contained a much painted-over and practically hidden Jacobean plaster frieze, the oldest complete example of its kind in Ireland. In 1980, on inheriting the castle, the present Earl of Rosse, set about restoring the frieze to its former glory and applied for an Irish Georgian Society grant which allowed master stuccadore Séamus Ó hEocha to undertake the painstaking restoration work soon after. It was the first act of modern restoration work in the castle and its results were startling.
The near 400-year-old frieze, which had been barely visible, was brought back to life and is now teeming with entwining floral garlands and anthropomorphic animal heads, so redolent of insular Irish art.It is fitting also that it frames entirely the present contents of the room – the 400-year-old archives of the Parsons family, who have lived in the castle since 1620 when Sir Laurence Parsons moved up from Youghal, Co. Cork, having exchanged his interest in a property at Leiter Lugna near Cadamstown with Sir Robert Meredith for the latter’s 1000 acres at Birr. Sitting in the Muniments Room, Lord Rosse recalls that after the restoration of the frieze, it seemed the most natural place to store the archives, a project he had been interested in since the early 1960s, and he organised for floor to ceiling shelving to be installed and completed the room with a charming skirting board of shamrock design.
Letters, volumes, drawings and miscellaneous bundles of papers had accumulated all over the house down through the generations, and Lord Rosse’s grandmother, Lois, Countess of Rosse, had asked for the bundles to be moved to a part of the house where they would be safe, or rather, as Lord Rosse suspects, where she wouldn’t see them. This room is now his present office, a ground floor space with a high ceiling and damp walls. It was here to a specially constructed set of shelves with a precarious mezzanine plank to reach the top, that all the papers and volumes from around the castle were moved in the 1910s during the 5th Earl and Lois’s time. They were placed on the shelves in no particular order or sequence and directly abutted the damp castle walls, lying forgotten, until Lord Oxmantown, as the present Earl was then styled, returned from Oxford in the early 1960s.
His thesis on the concept of nationhood in post-Napoleonic Europe had inspired a passion for history and sources, and led him to climb up onto the narrow plank and indulge in what historians from time immemorial have regarded as ‘digging’. Few historians, however, have had the experience of discovering a treasure trove of documents of national significance in their own house. Lord Rosse recalls nearly falling off the plank with the excitement of seeing Edmund Burke’s signature at the foot of a letter. Burke was followed by Maria Edgeworth, Henry Flood, Charlemont, Peel, Castlereagh, Lansdowne, Pitt and Wellington – the list of 18th and early 19th century notables was endless. These were the papers of the 2nd Earl of Rosse – an Irish parliamentarian, agitator against the Act of Union, political mentor of Henry Flood, and later joint post-master general of the Irish Post Office.
The young historian delved headlong into an exploration of the papers, particularly letters relating to the 1798 Rebellion. He published ‘Letters of the ‘98’ (Rebellion) in The Irish Times (6 Nov. 1963) containing transcriptions of letters from Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Charlemont, and other leaders of the rebellion to Sir Lawrence Parsons. Another article published some months later in The Yorkshire Post explored the letters between the 2nd Earl and Maria Edgeworth. The historical research came to an end the same year when he took up his posting as a Principal Officer with the United Nations Development Programme. This took him and his family to places as diverse as West Africa, Iran, and Bangladesh, culminating in his only political appointment as Deputy/Acting Resident Representative, Algeria, in 1978. The ‘digging’ was put on hold for almost 20 years.
Enter Dr Malcomson
In 1977, archivist Dr. A.P.W. Malcomson of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) contacted the 6th Earl to enquire as to whether he could come to Birr and categorize and calendar the papers as part of PRONI’s Constituency History of the Irish House of Commons 1692-1800, a 32-county project, of which Offaly was under-represented. The National Library of Ireland had made some photostatic and microfilm copies of 17th century material some years previously, but Malcomson was interested in the 2nd Earl’s papers. Knowing how interested Lord Oxmantown had been in the papers years earlier, the 6th Earl handed over the correspondence to him and thus began over 10 years of visits to Birr by Malcomson, during which time the title passed to the 7th Earl and his wife, Alison, who moved back to live in Birr Castle in 1980 with their young family.
Malcomson’s commitment to the archives at Birr is still spoken of with awe by the family. Visiting for weeks at a time for over a decade, he survived many winters in freezing conditions above the stables, surrounded by bundles of papers which were carefully arranged, described (in some cases fully transcribed), labelled, and repackaged in PRONI archival boxes. The end result is now to be seen in the Muniments Room, with row upon row of coded boxes containing inter alia the 17th century material of the Parsons Baronets relating to the building and defence of the castle; the 2nd Earl’s parliamentary papers and correspondence; the 3rd and 4th Earls’ scientific and astronomical drawings and papers; the 5th Earl’s correspondence and military records; the 6th Earl’s and Countess’s extensive personal and cultural correspondence; and a selection of the present Earl’s own papers. Alongside this are papers relating to Sir Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine, the youngest son of the 3rd Earl, and the sinological papers of Desmond Parsons, younger brother of the 6th Earl.
Local historians are served well with the collection of maps, leases, and voluminous correspondence retrieved from the old estate office of the Garveys, an inter-generational family of land agents connected with Birr Castle Estate and other neighbouring estates. The archive also contains the papers inherited through marriage of various families of the women who became successive Countesses of Rosse – Mary Field, the great photographer, wife of the 3rd Earl; Cassandra Harvey-Hawke, wife of the 4th Earl; Frances Lois Lister Kaye, wife of the 5th Earl; and Anne Messel, wife of the 6th Earl.
Sitting proudly in the centre of the reading table in the Muniments Room is ‘The Calendar’, otherwise known as ‘the bible’. Compiled by Malcomson and published in 2008 by the Irish Manuscripts Commission, the Calendar of the Rosse Papers is the key to unlocking the archives. It contains a summary list of all 22 sections of the archives and their subsequent subsections and the items described within each. It also contains Malcomson’s extensive transcriptions of a selection of the most important documents in the collection. The castle’s edition of the calendar has been amended, annotated, corrected and added to since the year of its publication. The archives are not a dead and dormant collection of papers; rather they are an organic and ever-changing accumulation of family life in documentary form. Important correspondence between the 6th Earl and a Chinese horticulturalist, Prof Hen Hsu-Hu, was discovered as recently as July 2016 in one of his old writing bureaux and has been added to the archives with a corresponding entry noted in the calendar. Similarly, the estate office transfers non-current files to the Muniments Room to join Garvey’s old papers and thus the cycle of life through the records continues.
Outside the Muniments Room in a turret known as ‘The China Tower’ sits a vast collection of photographs including the earliest negatives made by Mary Rosse in her darkroom in the 1850s, the oldest of its kind in Europe. The darkroom, which was situated in another part of the castle, has since been transferred in its entirety to the Historic Science Centre at the Castle courtyard entrance. Before this, however, Lord Rosse knew it as Mary Rosse’s ‘Camera Room’ and remembers tip-toeing through it with great reverence with his stepbrother, Tony (Lord Snowdon), whom he feels was inspired in his choice of career in photography through this early exposure to the photographic equipment and paraphernalia used by Mary Rosse and her son, the 4th Earl, in this room.
The latter’s extensive collection of glass plate negatives, which document late 19th century life in Birr and his travels around the world, are now receiving archival attention, the results of which will be available online during 2017 and also published in book form. There is much work to do with the photographs, from cataloguing to digitisation, but it is a testament to the present Earl and Countess’s long-term interest in the heritage collections in their care, that they are actively involved in ensuring that this important work is undertaken.
From muniments to monuments
The Muniments Room is now much more than a nicely restored room to store boxes of papers. It is a monument to a documentary patronage which spans four centuries of Irish life. Politics, science, culture – key local and national events in these spheres are refracted through the personal papers of the Parsons family, now carefully preserved and maintained by the Earl and Countess of Rosse, and open to the researching public for consultation. Certainly no more smoking allowed in this room!
Access to Birr Castle Archives can be made by appointment on Fridays – firstname.lastname@example.org. Current cataloguing and digitisation projects (including the hosting by Offaly History Archives of digital content from Birr through its online catalogue) are supported by Heritage Council of Ireland funding via Offaly County Council’s Heritage Office, and the generous co-operation of the Earl and Countess of Rosse.