Most of the castle today dates from the time of Sir Lawrence.
He built a 'dwelling house' over and around the gate house of
the original fortress which forms the centre of the present castle,
and either built or restored two flanking towers n either side.
A generation later these towers were incorporated into the house
also, as shown in a drawing of 1668.
Sieges And Survival
In 1642 the Molloys, Coghlands and Ormonders set fire to the town, 'blew upon their bagpipes and beat upon their drums and fell dauncinge in the hills'. The castle was besieged and finally capitulated when one of the masons who had been involved in the construction of the flanker placed a mine underneath it.
Trouble came again in 1690 when Birr, garrisoned by the Williamites,
was besieged by the army of the Duke of Berwick. Cannon balls
flew through the parlour window, leaving marks in the walls of
the north flanker which are there to this day. lady Parsons gave
up the lead cistern she used for salting beef to be melted down
for bullets, and the besieging army was finally repulsed.
The sieges left their mark on the park as well as on the castle,
and the lines from which the castle was besieged can still be
seen leading to Cromwell's Hollow.
In spite of these disturbances the beginnings of the Formal Gardens
were laid out at this time and the famous Box Hedges were planted.
The wives and daughters of the house grew vegetables, collected
medicinal remedies - those for the curing of 'green wounds' and
'bruises inward and outward caused by 'fall or blow' presumably
proving useful in times of trouble. In a firm hand and with uninhibited
spelling they wrote cookery recipes for preserving their fruits
and vegetables for ' chicking fricasee' and hartichoake pie'!
Peace and Politics
Peace came again with the eighteenth century. Sir William Parsons, the 2nd baronet, was a friend of Handel, who gave him an engraved walking stick in consideration of the patronage which led to the Messiah being first performed in Dublin.
His grandson, another Sir William, the 4th baronet, began to landscape
the park. He turned bog into lake, planted beech trees and tore
down the last of the old towers of the original fortress so as
to complete the sweeping view of his beautiful park.
He also devoted much of his time to the Volunteer movement which
sprang up towards the end of the eighteenth century, ostensibly
to defend Ireland from the threat of French invasion, but effectively
to force the English government to give concessions to the Irish
His son, Sir Lawrence, 5th baronet, became well-known as a patriot
statesman, whose friend and colleague, Wolfe Tone, referred to
him as 'one of the very very few honest men in the Irish House
of Commons'. This honesty led him not only to oppose the Union
with all his strength, but also to expose the bribery the British
used to push it through.
Architecture and Earldom
Sir Lawrence retired from politics at the beginning of the 19th century, disgusted at the Act of Union, though he later accepted the post of Joint Postmaster General and saw Dublin's magnificent GPO build during his term of office.
He devoted the rest of his life to literature (being a great friend
of Maria Edgeworth and to building. The castle began to take
its final from at this time with Sir Lawrence turning the old
house back to from in order to face the park, heightening and
crenelating it in the new Gothic style and adding the great Gothic
saloon whose windows can be seen looking down on the waterfalls
of the Camcor. In 1807 Sir Lawrence inherited from his uncle
in County Longford the title of Earl of Rosse and had by this
time married Alice Lloyd of Gloster. He disapproved of sending
his children away to school and they were brought up by tutors
at home in an enlightened atmosphere of building and construction
and even engineering. For instance it was during his time that
the Suspension Bridge was built over the Camcor. This is the
earliest known anywhere and is first described in 1826 as a 'curious
wire bridge which hangs as it were suspended in the air just under
Astronomy and Engineering
The 2nd Earl's eldest son William who became the 3rd Earl of Rosse, constructed in the 1840's, the giant telescope which is located in the middle of the Park. He designed and built it himself with no more than the means then available in central Ireland. The huge 6' speculum was cast in a furnace which was constructed at the bottom of the moat and was fired by turf off the local bogs. The immense power of the telescope enabled the Earl to see far further into space than anyone had done before, and attracted astronomers from as far afield as the U.S., Australia and Imperial Russia, whence they made the pilgrimage to Birr as the only observatory in the world which could see so far into space.
The third Earl became especially interested in the nebulae and
particularly in those of a spiral nature. He recorded them in
drawings whose clarity was not matched until the powerful photography
of the next century, and reproductions of some of these may be
seen on display, together with some of the original eyepieces
and artefacts, in the viewing pavilion alongside the Telescope.
Like his father, he educated his sons at home, and the eldest,
Lawrence, who succeeded as 4th Earl in 1867, also became a famous
astronomer, though he concentrated mainly on the moon, whose heat
he succeeded in measuring with a special instrument of his own
invention. His youngest son, Charles Algernon Parsons, was an
even greater inventive genius and developed the Steam Turbine,
which is commemorated by the issuance of an Irish postage stamp.
Botanising and Beautifying
This period has been devoted mainly to developing the garden with the introduction of increasingly rare plants, trees and shrubs from all over the world. When the 5th Earl inherited in 1908, he flattened the earthworks beyond the moat along the river, making the Terraces where herbaceous borders no give colour below the walls of the moat.
After his early death in the First World War, his son succeeded
as 6th Earl and became a plantsman of great renown. His marriage
to Anne, daughter of the Messels of Nymans, a famous garden of
the National Trust in the South of England, greatly strengthened
this latest development. The 6th Earl sponsored and subscribed
to plant collected expeditions to the Americas and Eastern Asia
and arranged for the first major expedition to be undertaken by
a Chinese, when he was on his honey moon in Peking in 1935. The
seeds from all these expeditions flowed back to be sown at Birr
which now has, as a result, one of the world's greatest collections
of trees and shrubs, and one that is particularly strong in species
of Chinese and Himalayan origin.
At Birr today shrubs and trees are growing from seed that was
collected as far away as Chile, Mexico or Guatemala, the Caucasus
or the Himalayas. Lord Rosse himself even collected some from
the Temple of Confucius in Peking. Some of these trees are still
so rare that seeds have in turn been taken from them for the Royal
Botanic Gardens in Kew, where the species were not yet represented.
The catalogue of this collection has recently been up-dated and
is available at the gate, together with an educational guide to
the fifty trees of greatest distinction, known as the 'Red Tree
Trail'. Special mention may also briefly be made of plants in
the gardens actually named after the 6th Earl and Countess of
Rosse. These comprise a pair of magnolias, which are the real
pride of the gardens when they are out in the spring, and the
famous peony, Anne Rosse, which won an Award of Merit and the
Cory C. This last was a pollinated cross between a peony discovered
on one of the Chinese expeditions in 1937, and another, discovered
the year before in the Tsangpo Gorge in S.E. Tibet.
Thus international significance is still maintained botanically,
as it was established astronomically a century before.