Reproduced courtesy of Ireland of the Welcomes – Vol. 36 No. 2, March – April 1987
The unusually well-proportioned midland town of Birr owes its layout to the Parsons family, Earls of Rosse, who acquired and extended Birr Castle in 1620. Theirs was not the stereotyped family of hunters, shooters and fishermen, usually associated with the nobility. For generations, the Parsons have been deeply involved with music, politics, letters, science, travel and astrology. The 3rd Earl designed and built a telescope which, for three-quarters of a century, was the most powerful in the world. His wife, Mary, was a pioneer photographer and the first lady member of the Dublin Photographic Society, and her grandson, Charles Algernon, is renowned throughout the world as the inventor of the steam turbine. The 6th Earl stocked the gardens with rare plants, trees and shrubs which he caused to be brought from places as far away as China, Japan and the Himalayas. Certainly no lives of idle frippery here!
Castles are the playgrounds of every young boy’s dreams and the present owner, Brendan, the 7th Earl, remembers his own childhood in Birr Castle as a fascinating and happy time. He and his younger brother, Desmond, ran wild on the top floor, back stairs, schoolroom wing and basement and, of course, in the spacious grounds surrounding the castle where, as he recalls, ‘the moat made a wonderful slide for Dinky toys.’ The children were not, however, allowed into the drawing room, or even the library, unless properly brushed, combed and dressed — and then only on special occasions for a short time. Life was directed by a Nanny, who saw to it that the boys kept within bounds, never escaping into the main rooms or up the grand staircase. They did so, of course — but always successfully keeping the precept of the eleventh commandment: never be caught.
Outdoors, too, was fun for the Parsons children. A favourite hideout was the old turf house. The fuel for the castle’s many fires was hauled from here by a labour-saving set of pulleys and winches. Yet it was not fuel, but each other, that the two boys would winch higher and higher, until mother or nanny would come running out and gasp at the sight of the precious darlings swinging gently in the wind, three or four floors above ground level.
But times have changed now, even for the Rosses. The days of nannies are a thing of the past. ‘Our children roam freely through rooms which we were never allowed into until we were 15 or 16,’ says the present Earl. Michael, aged five, is the Earl and Countess’s first “Irish” child. Their two older children were born during the seventeen years that the Rosses spent with the United Nations, and were brought up in the nomadic and cosmopolitan lifestyle which they led — with postings in Dahomey, Ghana, Iran, Bangladesh and Algeria.
It was only after his father’s death in 1979 that Brendan Rosse and his family returned to Ireland to make Birr their permanent home. ‘When we came back to live in the castle, we really did not know what it contained,’ he explains. Like all old families who have lived in the same house for generations, they naturally have a fine collection of furniture, tapestries and pictures. But they are only beginning to realise that the most fascinating parts of the contents are what they are discovering stored away in half-forgotten attics, basements, cellars, nurseries, cupboards and drawers. They have recently brought to light again a weird and wonderful collection of oddments —horn toys, dolls and garments to hats, shoes, underwear, tools, old instruments and the scientific apparatus of earlier Earls. And everywhere there are piles and piles of papers of great historical interest, often on damp and decaying shelves and walls. These have generously been catalogued recently, free, gratis and for nothing, by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, under the watchful eye of their chief archivist, Anthony Malcomson.
‘My mother-in-law was an extremely careful person’, says Lady Rosse. ‘With over one hundred rooms in the castle, there has never been any need nor reason to throw things away, so they have accumulated over the years, carefully folded, wrapped in tissue paper, tied neatly with ribbons, annotated with slips of paper in cupboards and trunks all over the house, to be found now and regarded by us with fascination, and providing a new insight into the lives of previous inhabitants of the castle.
With increasing enthusiasm, the Countess continues, ‘we thought that the best way of sharing this accumulation was by mounting a succession of different exhibitions on aspects of our heritage by collecting and arranging the relevant material’ . . . One talks easily of things being a collection, but it is not really a collection until all those isolated objects are put together. With the aid of outside institutions, such as the College of Art in Dublin, the Thomond College of Education and the School of Art and Design in Limerick, the Rosses have been mounting a series of interesting exhibitions since 1982.
One of the most successful of these was a collection of fine photographs taken by the 19th-century Countess, Mary. Recently, an old and imposing hayloft close to the castle has been cleverly convened to serve as a suitable display area. The theme of the 1987 exhibition there is ‘Childhood and Education,’ a subject particularly close to the hearts of both the Earl and his Countess. This year they are displaying the toys of the present family, and those of their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. The variety is endless. Miniature hand carved wooden toys from Nuremberg: a collection of mainly continental dolls formed by the Dowager Lady Rosse’s family, as well as books from the huge and eclectic collection of English, French and German classics, including the family’s particular favourites ‘Struwelpeter’ and the tales of Barbar.
Amidst the family’s collection of clothes worn by successive Parsons children is the magnificent christening robe hand-embroidered by the Earl’s mother, and there are also historic papers recording the lives of their ancestors when they were children, among them a charming letter from the present Earl’s great-great-great-grandmother to her own father. From the nursery comes a lovely old rocking horse, and a superb doll’s house, all of five feet tall, built by craftsmen in Birr, in imitation of the houses in the town’s Mall, which was being built at the time. Not to be overlooked is a splendidly decadent and by no means pristine teddy bear, which William Brendan Parsons, 7th Earl and 10th Baronet, is not embarrassed to have owned — and still own. There are also pictures and portraits of ancestors showing the tools, toys and instruments of former times, and well illustrating the changing fashions of former centuries.
But in addition to the exhibition and, of course, the world-famous gardens, Birr Castle’s owner always finds means to interest the public, young and old, in the scientific pursuits of his ancestors. The Earl explained that ‘each year, in the Spring, “Star Shows” (to study the celestial bodies) are held in a special laboratory for schoolchildren. There are also projects with the universities for the restoration of our scientific heritage. One student from Trinity College, Dublin, has restored the machine made by my great-grandfather, Charles Algernon Parsons, to measure the heat of the moon. It is now working again, and producing the same sort of results which amazed and flabbergasted the world when it was first used over a century ago.’ Another interesting project is the proposed computerisation of the splendid plant collection in the Birr Demesne by another student of Trinity College. The Earl and Countess of Rosse feel strongly that if their own heritage, and those of others like them, are to survive and prosper, the educational benefits should be shared more fully with the Irish men and women of tomorrow and the years ahead.