The high levels of interest shown in one of our latest books, The Monster Telescopes Erected by the Earl of Rosse, revived memories of a visit to Birr Castle after the reconstruction of the famous nineteenth-century telescope. In 1997, I helped organize an outing for the Rare Books Group, Library Association of Ireland, during which we visited the castle (which is not open to the public), the telescope and the library, and had a wonderful lunch hosted by Brendan Parsons, 7th Earl of Rosse, and his daughter Lady Alicia. The nineteenth-century Parsons were an extraordinary family, who left a considerable technological legacy, not just for Ireland but worldwide.
William Parsons, the 3rd Earl (1800-67) began experimenting with engineering and perfecting telescopes in 1824 when he joined the Astronomical Society. Unlike Herschel, he regularly published his findings in scientific periodicals, and invited fellow enthusiasts to visit. On succeeding to the earldom in 1841 he began his most important project, the Leviathan of Parsonstown, which he completed in 1844 using £12,000 of his wife’s money. It remained the largest telescope in the world for over 60 years, with a 72 inch aperture, and became a tourist attraction. Using it Lord Rosse made significant observations of previously unknown phenomena, particularly spiral nature of the nebula Messier 51. He served as President of the Royal Society and as a Commissioner of the Great Exhibition (on which we will soon be publishing – watch this space!), and received many international awards for his work.
However, he was not the only experimenter in the family. His wife Mary was a pioneering photographer, and the Castle contains many of her cameras and photographs. She took her first photograph in 1845, and, like the later (and better known) Julia Margaret Cameron, took portraits of notable persons as well as groups of her family and friends. Her work won prizes at the Dublin Photographic Society (later the Photographic Society of Ireland).
Her son Laurence, the 4th Earl, was also a talented astronomer and engineer, who assisted his father with much of the work of the telescope, and continued it after he inherited the title. He enjoyed inventing, and made many of his own instruments. He served as Chancellor of the University of Dublin, and did much to encourage the development of scientific study there. He also acted as director of the firms set up to develop the inventions of his brother, Sir Charles Parsons, whose work on turbines revolutionised the generation of electricity and also marine engines.
Since the restoration of the Leviathan, Birr has become the home of the Historic Science Centre. Centred on the work of the Parsons family, it also commemorates the work of other great Irish scientists, some of whom worked with the 3rd and 4th Earls, such as Sir William Rowan Hamilton.
We have a growing collection of books on astronomy, many of them written with the interested amateur in mind. You can see the complete list here.