Chambers at Large in Birr Castle, County Offaly, viewing the Leviathan telescope.

I love anything to do with space, the cosmos, galaxies, suns, stars, moons, planets... Astronomy fascinates me, even though I find some concepts difficult to grasp. When I learned the largest telescope in the world, prior to Hubble, was less than 200 km away in Birr Castle, County Offaly, the trip was a no brainer.

The castle wasn’t open when I visited, but the gardens in which this phenomenal telescope resides was and I delved into a world where the exploration of space is alive and kicking in Ireland.

Birr Castle is the location of I-LOFAR (Ireland: Low Frequency Array) a low frequency radio telescope, which to my untrained eye looks like an expansive, black, silage bale.

I-LOFAR which is a low frequency array recording radio waves from space.

However, this is the western most point of a European project using low frequency radio waves to explore our universe. It is great to know that people in Ireland and Irish universities are actively involved and I look forward to learning of their discoveries in the future.

The Leviathan telescope. (The lens is covered by a wooden lid.)

The interest in science permeates Birr Castle, beginning in 1839 when William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, built what was then the largest telescope in the world. Nicknamed the Leviathan, after the mythical sea monster, his interest was in nebulae and his diaries and notebooks, which are on display in a science exhibition in the entrance to the castle, give detailed accounts and drawings of what he witnessed on a daily basis. Details of the moon were recorded, distant planets were plotted and the spiral nature of galaxies came to light.

Rear view of the telescope showing the engineering required to move it.

The Leviathan, 1.8 meters in diameter and 17 meters long, consists of an eyepiece, a tube and several mirrors, which were originally metal as glass was so fragile. The telescope was placed on a meridian line, marked today by stones and an ancient oak tree, thought to be over 500 years old.

The Meridian Oak

When William Parsons was using the Leviathan on a daily basis he needed a team of men to move it. Moving it from side to side was most problematic and after a couple of hours, due to the curvature of our planet, what was being observed disappeared from view.

The Leviathan telescope with the ladders needed to operate the machinery to move it.

The engineering required to move the twelve ton tube is impressive, and a model of the mechanism, using weights, pulleys and steel cables, is in the science exhibition.

Mary, William’s wife was a scientist in her own right, her passion being chemistry and photography. Her photographs, many on display in the science exhibition, document the many learned people who visited the castle and it doesn’t take much imagination to visualise men and women discussing their latest discoveries, theories and newly crafted equipment in the rooms of the castle, which I will revisit next year.

It is no wonder Mary and William’s son, Charles Parsons, became an engineer, inventing a steam turbine that revolutionised marine transport and brought electricity to the demesne.

Birr Castle, the Leviathan telescope and the Meridian line: the green strip of grass.

The Leviathan telescope was renovated in the 1990s, but scientific discovery thrives in the gardens of Birr Castle, whether it be engineering, astronomy, chemistry or botany, and my visit was inspiring, learning that during the Victorian Age there were people who had a desire to explore, improve and innovate. Many of us could take a leaf out of their book.

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