‘The town of Birr or Parsonstown, is the prettiest inland town in Ireland.’ – The Illustrated London News of 1843.

A two-page feature on Birr and its new telescope (s) was featured in the Illustrated London News of 9 September 1843. It was the first such international treatment for Birr and was combined with valuable illustrations of the town. It was also the first treatment by a national or international publisher promoting ‘Offaly Tourism’. It was the third earl of Rosse who organised the publicity for Birr and was now on the UK stage himself with his presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The window on Birr would be the first of many arising from the completion of the larger telescope in 1845. Birr town was the principal settlement in Offaly since the 1650s and was the premier shopping town, as is clear from the Pigot directory of 1824. Cooke would go on to write of the town’s significant history in his 1826 book – a first in the midlands and just six years after Hardiman’s Galway. What is interesting about the article of 1843 was the active role given to Mary Rosse in her work in the demesne and the town of Birr.

Thomas Lalor Cooke (d. 1869) had published his Picture of Parsonstown in 1826. Cooke had gone to the trouble of having nine plates included with his 1826 book and these he regarded as ‘rude engravings’. It is certain that all nine drawings were prepared by Cooke himself and are a valuable source now for the history of Birr buildings. Cooke’s history has provided material for writers on the town since and he may have also contributed the entries for Birr in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (1837) and possibly that in the Parliamentary Gazetteer of 1846. The latter commented on the two names for the town as follows:

‘Birr is both the ancient and the popular name of the town; and Parsonstown is its name of etiquette, imposed in honour of its proprietors, the Parsons, Earls of Rosse.’

In the seventeen years since the printing of the Picture of Parsonstown great strides had been made in the art of printing as is clear from the success of the cheap Dickens’ serials and in Ireland the Irish Penny Journal (1831–37)  and the Nation in 1843. Locally, the Leinster Express was published in Portlaoise and Birr from 1831. The partner in this enterprise commenced printing Birr’s own newspaper in 1845 and the title continued to be issued until 1963. The mid-1960s saw the publication of Mark Girouard’s four articles on Birr Castle and Birr town  in Country Life and these inform readers since. The story of Birr continues to attract attention and in March 2020 Birr Castle, the telescope, and the work of Mary Ward featured in a Nationwide programme on national television. The 100th anniversary of the third earl’s death in 1867 was marked in 1968 and led to a revival of interest in astronomy at Birr.

William, the third earl of Rosse (1800–67), succeeded his father in 1841 and had been actively interested in astronomy since 1824. He was a keen astronomer and also well aware of the importance of publicity in getting government support for research (Schafffer, 2014). Rosse would have welcomed the founding of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831. Sir David Brewster is credited with the idea of the British Association as a reaction to the elitist Royal Society and Charles Babbage was also a founding member in 1831. Mary Ward, Rosse’s cousin, was known to both scholars and her illustrations appear in Brewster’s Life of Newton (1855). Rosse supported the work of Babbage but was not successful in getting government funding for Babbage’s work. Her 150th anniversary was marked in 2019.

The machinery on the lawn. This is the 36-inch telescope.

William and Mary Rosse provided a remarkable combination of money, intelligence and love of learning put to use for public benefit

The British Association visited Dublin in 1835, Cork in 1843, Belfast in 1852 and Dublin again in 1857. Rosse used the British Association for coverage of his astronomical activities and his first major involvement was at Cork in 1843 when he was elected president. The earl encouraged visits to Birr’s ‘stupendous telescope manufactory’ and it became an unmissable attraction for many members of the Association with some visiting Birr in 1843 and a much bigger group in 1857. This is the context for the Illustrated London News article on Birr and the telescope in September 1843 which rightly pays tribute to the work of Mary Rosse (1813-85, née Field) in managing the improvements in Birr at this time. She did much more work on the demesne from the mid-1840s. William and Mary Rosse were a remarkable combination of money, intelligence and love of learning put to use for public benefit. It is said that it was her money that helped fund the cost of the larger telescope at €12,000 or more than €1 million in current value. The overall cost may have been as high as £30,000 (Scaife, 2000). The Illustrated London News article commented on Rosse and the town as follows

The Earl of Rosse’s Great Telescope at Parsonstown

The annexed series of engravings illustrates the history of one of the greatest scientific triumphs of our time – the construction of the LARGEST TELESCOPE IN THE WORLD, by the Earl of Rosse, at his residence, Parsons-town Castle, in King’s County Ireland, about 87 English miles from Dublin. Of his lordship’s able presidency at the recent meeting of the British association, at Cork, we spoke in our last number; where, also, our readers were promised the very interesting illustrations we now introduce to their notice.

The workshop close to the castle. ‘In the view of the tower of the workshop there is seen a long pole running from the top.  On the summit of this is a little crossbar, to which is attached a small dial of a watch.  It is directly under this that the speculum was polished.’ The workshop was painted by Crompton

 A pleasant history might be written of Parsonstown castle; the changes it has been subject to since the time of the O’Carrols, its original possessors, being not a few.  In 1642, it was besieged by the Irish, and relieved by Sir Charles Coote; in 1643, it was taken by General Preston; in 1648, it was attacked by O’Neile; in 1650, it was taken by General Ireton from the Irish, who, for some time, had possessions of it; in 1688, Sir Laurence Parsons was besieged in it by Oxburgh, and it was garrisoned by his soldiers for some time afterwards; after the defeat of King James, Sir Laurence was again established in the castle, which was again besieged by Sarsfield, &c. &c.  The present appearance was given to it years ago, after it had been severely damaged by fire [1832]. These actions and events might be made interesting to our readers; but we are   sure we shall meet their wishes more fully by attending, for the present, to the scientific pursuits of its possessor. His lordship has gained for himself a name of much celebrity; his high talents are combined with great perseverance, and both are happily guided by sound good sense.  He seems to love science for its own sake, and, untempted by any desire for applause, he has been working silently and for himself, until the magnitude of the results have forced themselves on the notice of the world.

There followed a long piece on the casting of the mirror and the making of the large telescope. The writer closed with a few words on Mary Rosse, her work in demesne and the town of Birr.

Wall for the machinery of the Great Telescope (shown as completed in the 1844 issue of Wood’s Monster Telescopes). The 72-inch telescope is featured in the Crompton drawing of 1845.

Lord Rosse’s pleasure grounds are most elegantly and tastefully laid out. A large lake has been lately added to the other beauties of the places, and has given his lordship an opportunity of trying his skill as an engineer; the water for the lake being supplied from a distant part of a river which runs through the demesne.  As the bed of the river was low near where the lake was intended to be an aqueduct was cut communicating with the river high up its source, and when it was brought to the required situation, a tunnel was sunk under the original bed of the river, and thus one stream runs over the other, both supplied by the same source.  The tunnel answers its purpose completely.  There is also a wire bridge of light and elegant appearance, suspended over the river close to the castle, which is likewise the produce of his lordship’s workshop.

It would be an injustice to the Countess of Rosse were this short notice of the demesne concluded without acknowledging the debt the people of Parsonstown owe to her.  She has with most exquisite taste improved and made delightful the grounds about the castle, and freely opens them for their accommodation.  She has made the town the residence of all who can command the means, and the envy of those who cannot.  She has raised the tone of its society; but she has done what reflects much more credit on her mind:  she has taken the most lively interest in the poor, and is constantly improving and changing in order to afford them work.  The lake was commenced solely to give them employment, and, since then, hundreds have been daily hired to do what but for beneficence might well remain undone.  The consequence of this conduct is, that she is universally esteemed and looked up to, and that her town is almost entirely free from the discontent and distress that is so rife in other places. The people are quiet and contented, and well disposed, and are as much indebted to the good sense that produced all this as the world is to the talent that has astonished and is so likely to benefit it.

Parsonstown/Birr Castle, the seat of the earl of Rosse.

The town of Birr, or Parsonstown, is the prettiest inland town in Ireland. There are more private families live here than in any other town of the same size.  There are public libraries and a mechanics’ institute: first rate markets, and everything that money can purchase.  In fact, we think the town likely to progress rapidly, and we wish it God speed.

The Illustrated London News carried an additional report on the telescope in 1845, drawing on the book by Dr Woods (first issue 1844); the valuable account of the fireworks of 1851 (featured in an earlier issue of this Blog), the British Association visit of 1857, some photographic inventions of Dr Woods, the obits of Dr Hubert Kelly (1847) and that of Lord Rosse (1867) with an engraving.

I wish to record my thanks to Ireland’s leading scholar on the recordings of John McCormack, Jeremy Meehan, for making the images of Birr in 1843 available to me from his original copies of the Illustrated London News.

Michael Byrne

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