A short drive from Lawrencetown (see map) you will find Birr Castle, in the town of Birr.
Birr Castle today is noted for many things: its contribution to science, particularly in the firlds of astronomy and engineering; its five-star gardens open to the public every day of the year; its sporting events in harmony with the spirit of the setting; its archives preserved down the ages, and simply for its beauty as the home of the family which has lived in it for fourteen successive generations.
Sir Laurence Parsons, who was knighted as Attorney General of Munster in 1612, acquired Birr Castle with some 1,277 acres of land, wood and bog in 1620, after the death of Sir Charles O'Carroll, the last undisputed lord of the territory then known as Ely O'Carroll.
Having engaged two English masons at the then considerable wage of 2 shillings a day, he started building, concentrating not on the main Black Tower of the O'Carrolls which has since disappeared, but on its gatehouse, to which he added 'flankers' diagonally at either side, given the castle the unusual plan it retains today. As can be seen, however, the building faced, not the park, but the town, and indeed was part of it, as at Kilkenny.
After the death of Sir Laurence Parsons and of his elder son Richard, Birr passed to his younger son William who was appointed Governor of Ely O'Carroll in 1641, just in time to face the great rebellion. He was then besieged at Birr for fifteen months by the Catholic forces, who, as he noted in his journal, 'blew up their bagpipes and beat up their drums and fell a dauncinge on the hills' when they saw the town on fire.
After the civil war, William's son Laurence, who was created a baronet in 1677, entirely refurnished the castle with yew wood, making of this too the great staircase, 'sayd', according to Thomas Dinely in his journal of 1681, 'to be the fairest staircase in Ireland',
Having suffered so extensively in the seventeenth century the family turned in the eighteenth century first to music, the Second Baronet being a friend of Handel, and then to the volunteer movement, of which the Fourth Baronet became on of the leaders as Colonel of the Parsonstown Volunteers. Their original banner survives at Birr, together with plans of the volunteer army on parade.
His son Sir Laurence Parsons, who susequently inherited the Earldom of Rosse from his uncle in Co. Longford, was a politician whoe entered the Irish House of Commons in 1782.After the Act of Union, which he bitterly opposed, Sir Laurence turned to building. He heightened and gothicised the castle to which he added the great Gothick saloon. Possibly of even greater importance for the future, he, or his wife, Alice Lloyd of Gloster, whose interests included significantly astronomy, insisted that their sons be educated by tutors at home, instead of at public schools in England. This moulded, at least the first two into men of unusual brilliance and though tragically the brightest of these, John Clere, died as a young man of scarley fever the other, elder brother, William, became one of the best known astronomers of his age.
He began by constructing a telescope with a reflecting speculum 3ft. in diameter, which he erected in front of the castle in 1826 and published the results of his experiments and observations the following year. He did everything himself, indeed he had to, as there were no telescopes like this to be bought, or astronomers ready to help him. Still not satisfied with the results of his 3ft. telescope, he started construction of one twice that size when his father died and he inherited in 1841. The result was the Leviathan of Parsonstown, the greatest telescope on earth for over three-quarters of a century. Its tube, over 50ft. long and 7ft. wide, may still be seen today between the great supporting walls built with Gothick arches crowned with crenellation in the centre of the park.
When the Leviathan was ready, and turned towards the night sky, it proved indeed capable of gathering more light and seeing far further into space thean any telescope had ever been able to do before. Lord Rosse saw objects more than ten million light years away in space, and discerned their spiral nature as galaxies. Birr became the mecca for all interested in astronomy, because it was the only place on earth from which such distant galaxies could be seen. The first visitor to sign his name in the Observatory's visitor's book was Charles Babbage, the father of the computer. Others came from all over Europe, including Imperial Russia, from America, Australia and even Van Dieman's Land. Among the visitors was the Prince Imperial, the son of Napoleon III, who appointed Lord Rosse a Knight of the Légion d'Honneur.
When the Third Earl died his sons were well prepared to carry on in the same scientific tradition. It is essentialy for measuring the heat of the moon that the Fourth Earl is most widely acclaimed. He designed and made an instrument on which the 3 ft. telescope could focus the lunar radiation. This instrument, which is one of the most important astronomical artifacts to have survived at Birr, gave readings of rather less than the boiling point of water for the maximum heat on the Moon's equator in the middle of the lunar day.
After the death of the fourth Earl in 1908, the giant telescope fell rapidly into disrepair. The mirror was taken to the Science Museum in London and around 1914, all the metal involved in supporting the telescope was removed and melted down to be used in the First World War. One of the original mirrors is now on exhibition in the Science Museum in London. The second mirror has long since vanished. In 1925 the wooden structures around the walls were demolished for reasons of safety.
Although sporadic efforts had been made since 1968 to restore the telescope, it was only after the succession of the present seventh Earl of Rosse that a really serious and determined effort was made to restore the telescope to its former glory. The patronage of various prominent Irish business people, as well as the support of several Irish Government Agencies, in addition to European financial aid, allowed the present Earls vision to become a reality.
The work of restoring the Great Telescope officially commenced on the 22nd of February, 1996 with great care has been taken to recreate the telescope and its supporting structures as closely as possible to the way they appeared 150 years ago. The old telescope tube and mirror housing was removed in March 1996 and a new tube was installed within the supporting walls in September 1996. The new mirror arrived from University College, London, on midsummers day, the 21st June, 1999. After calibration of the optical train, the telescope wil be ready for occasional observational work in the years ahead. The three movable viewing galleries have been reconstructed and are now fully operational. All moving parts are now hydraulically or electrically controlled.
Until the 100 inch telescope at Mt. Wilson in southern California began observations in 1917, Lord Rosse's 72 inch reflector was the largest telescope in the world.