Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ireland Revisited: Back to the 19th Century

Day 15 of 35: Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Birr Castle's muniment room and some of the archives.

This day was one I had been looking forward to for two years, since the beginning of our planning for a return to Birr: my first day back in the archives of the remarkable Parsons family. My overall plan was to look further into the people surrounding the Third Earl of Rosse (the designer and builder of the revolutionary 6-foot telescope, "The Leviathan of Parsonstown," in the 1840s) and for any correspondence he might have had with American astronomers of the era.

The archival material doesn't all fit in the muniment room; overflow storage areas include the entrance hallway past a beautifully-appointed bathroom.

But the first thing I looked at on this morning sent the rest of my time in the archives off in a very different direction: his son, not the Third Earl himself, proved to be the connecting point not only with America but with the entire fascinating cast of characters that was the Parsons family and their friends in the 19th Century. Laurence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse, has been a topic in this space before (notably here and here) and will be again, certainly, as I continue to piece together his connections to some of the most colorful and accomplished figures in science and technology in the 1800s. The amount of material I have to go through from 2010's time in the Birr Castle Archives is daunting, though, and I'm not yet retired (!), so that will happen in drips and drops rather than a flood.

My improvised copy stand. Flash is of course not permitted, so the light provided by the window is not only pretty but necessary.

The above images are some visual impressions of the archives and their room, the muniment room in Birr Castle. It is worth remembering as you look at these photos (and others to be posted on in a couple of days) that this remarkable family has lived in this house for 400 years, and that their records and correspondence in these cardboard boxes and on these shelves go back that far as well.

Here's a little sample of what I found that helped trigger my increased interest in the less-famous of Birr's Astronomer Earls:

The Fourth Earl of Rosse's home and 1891 passport.

A pair of pages from the Fourth Earl's 1891 journey to America. On these pages he recounts his arrival in my home state of California. Click the photo to see a significantly larger image. (Diary property of the Birr Castle Archives, image used with permission.)

I am currently in the slow process of transcribing the Fourth Earl's travel diaries of his two trips to America. It's slow in part because I don't have as much time for it as I'd like, but also because his handwriting is sometimes difficult to decipher. Here's what I have for the above two pages and a little more on either side; if anyone can help me with the word I can't figure out here, I'd appreciate it (click on the diary image above to see it large enough to read.) It's also worth noting that at the time he undertook this journey, not only was he a world-famous astronomer, but he was also Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland's most prestigious institution of learning.

Monday, Mar. 23, 1891 [En route by train from Mexico to California -- SH]
Dreary country like a desert will grow nothing in most parts without irrigation & for the most part appears too sandy to be ever of much value. Cactuses up to 20 ft. high dotted over the [word? -- SH] also prickly pear variety. Near Yuma where the line crosses the Colorado river it had been washed out off & on for some miles by a tributary of the C. river & we had to slow down to 10 or 12 miles an hour. Beyond Yuma the line crosses a perfectly barren desert which gets lower & lower as you proceed until it is more than 500 feet below the sea level, general appearance like the mud banks in a river estuary, only at present dried up. Stopped at Los Angeles for the remainder of night, train being more than 3 hours late did not get in till after 1.
Tuesday Went about Los Angeles during morning in horse tram & cable trams wh are extensively developed here & thus obtained a good general view of the town, which in appearance has almost entirely ceased to be Spanish & is now in every way U.S. Continued my journey at 1-35 pm.
Wednesday Reached San Francisco at about 11 a.m. Got room in the Palace Hotel an overgrown establishment said to take in 1200. Became at once the object for the impertinent interrogations of a newspaper reporter who caught me at the manager’s desk. Three others called but I fortunately missed them. One of these called a third time at 9-30 p.m. when I was packing for next morning preparatory to going to bed so I had a sufficient excuse at hand for not seeing him.
Thursday Left for San Jose at 8-30am – journey 2 hours – got a trap & pair and reached the Lick observatory in 6 hours from S. Jose. The road is good & after leaving the flat of the Santa Clara Valley goes up most of the way by a steady & graded ascent. The distance by road is said to be about 26 miles – as the crow flies perhaps 10 miles less. The last hour of the windings up the mountain were accomplished in the mist. This mist continued off & on with tolerable intervals of views, not much interrupted by clouds during my stay, with intervals during which a good view of the country below, all round, could be seen. The Sierras, however, I did not clearly or satisfactorily see.

The Fourth Earl of Rosse's 1891 travel diary.

In the late afternoon, Diane (who had spent the day resting her wounded ankle) and I went to the Birr public library to look around and to take advantage of its wireless internet connection with our laptop computer, since the Bothy does not as yet have internet access. The library and a few other civic services had been moved since our 2006 stay into new quarters in a renovated former convent adjacent to the town's Catholic church.

Birr public library stacks.

The new library is wonderful: airy, light, easy to navigate, and almost breathtakingly beautiful. We were to spend a good deal of time there over the following weeks, not only for the internet access but also for the books and services provided by the very pleasant, friendly staff.

Children's area, Birr public library. An acquaintance of mine via the internet, Mick Dolphin, who grew up in Birr, says that this area used to be the convent chapel, where he served as an altar boy.

More images from this and the next two days will appear later in one group on

Next: August 19, 2010 -- Tea in a Tower
Previous: August 17, 2010 -- Back to Kilkenny
Beginning of the series: Prologue, August 2


Brian Fies said...

Fantastic, fantastic stuff! You know this pushes all my buttons: science, history, giant telescopes. This is your book.

BTW, I think your missing word may be "plain": "dotted over the plain." His cursive "p" and "a" are odd but match examples in other words (see "prickly" and "variety").

Sherwood Harrington said...

Thanks, Brian -- I think you're right. In fact, I'm certain of it; given the evidence you site, it's plain to see.

I was hoping that this trip would help me narrow my focus on one or two products, but instead it threatened to overwhelm me. The number of fascinating major and minor characters has mushroomed and along with that increase the amount of requisite research has also ballooned. But certainly, whatever I do (or we do -- I haven't thoroughly given up on that!) I think the 4th Earl is the logical unifying thread, not the more famous 3rd one.

I'm glad you like these little glimpses. You've given me and my family so much enjoyment (and comfort via Mom's Cancer)that it's a good feeling to give you a little entertainment back.