The second of two reports on the IBIOLI members visit to Birr Castle Demesne, Co. Offaly, on July 16th 2016. After our morning coffee in the Courtyard Cafe, we were welcomed by our very entertaining and informative guide, Damian Harte. At Birr, there is an extensive science centre with exhibitions covering the Parson’s family’s achievements in astronomy, engineering, philosophy, photography, and botany. Charles Parsons, son of the 3rd earl, invented the first high performance steam turbines for the generation of electricity. In the courtyard, we saw the blades from one of his turbines from a local power station. However, our focus for the morning was on the natural history of the demesne and on the restored great telescope The gardens are home to an abundance of rare trees, collected by the Earls of Rosse on their travels around the world over the last 150 years. In addition, it was the first garden in Ireland to receive specimens of the Dawn Redwood after its discovery in China in 1945. Treading cautiously, tongue in cheek, with professional biologists, Damian challenged us to identify two trees at the gates of the castle avenue: we recognised a hawthorn and beech but couldn’t name them as they were southern hemisphere species.
The Moat Walk
As we strolled along the Moat Walk in front of the Castle, the great O’Carroll oak which is over 500 years old, came into view. Between this oak and the castle moat, the grassland meadows have not been ploughed since at least 1620. In Spring the grass grows long, and native wild flowers seed freely. This rough hay is eaten only by traditional highland cattle. There was a giant Sequioa which had survived repeated lightning strikes as shown by the black streaks along the bark; the damage to the tree is limited due to a flame- resistant substance in the bark.
As we left the Moat Walk, we saw a blaze of colour along a terrace by the Castle: it was a beautiful herbaceous border selected by the present Countess of Rosse. Looking across the Camcor river from this point, there is an extensive magnolia collection which flowers in Spring. Michael, the 6th Earl started the great collection of magnolias, finding that although the garden is mostly on limey soil, magnolias grow very well there, especially in the River Garden. On his honeymoon, after his marriage to Anne Messel from Nyman’s Garden in Sussex, they visited China. Here they made contact with a professor from the institute of Biology in Beijing and subscribed to Chinese plant-hunting expeditions. This contact was the beginning of continual co-operation between Birr and China in the botanical field. Trees, especially from Western China flourish at Birr. Seeds of the first metasequoia to be discovered came to Birr in the 1940s and there is now a fine tree from this date.
The Great Telescope
In the early 1840’s, the Third Earl of Rosse designed and built the largest telescope in the world. With this telescope, he discovered the spiral nature of some of the galaxies. From 1845-1914, anyone wishing to witness this phenomenon had to come to Birr. And they came in their hundreds, from across Europe and beyond, to observe the stars with Lord Rosse, or simply like us, to marvel at this feat of engineering in the middle of Ireland.
This Reflecting telescope remained the largest in the world for over 70 years and is arguably the largest historic scientific instrument still working today. This ‘leviathan’ , as it is named, remains in the centre of the Demesne as Ireland’s greatest scientific wonder and represents a masterpiece of human creative genius. The Science centre demonstrates how the extraordinary telescope, now magnificently restored, was built in the castle workshops by the people of Birr. Scientific instruments are displayed alongside interactive models to explain how they were used.
The Formal Garden
We entered through the romantic hornbeam cloister walk, planted by Anne, Countess of Rosse in 1936 to celebrate her marriage to the 6th Earl of Rosse. It boasts the world’s tallest box hedge. Boxwood, because of its strength, combined with lightness and flexibility was used to make aircraft during the first world war; this practice continued into the 1930s.
Tucked in an intimate courtyard is a pergola with a spectacular Wisteria. A collection of old roses complements the delphinium border in season. After almost two hours of most pleasant commentary we repaired to the Courtyard Cafe for sustenance once again.