Birr Castle Archivist, Lisa Shortall, delivered a most informative talk to members of Birr Historical Society at their recent November meeting.
The subject of the talk was Edward William Parsons, 5th Earl of Rosse who died on June 10, 1918, aged 45, as a result of catastrophic head wounds received in action at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915. An interesting fact that emerged, was that Lord Rosse’s injuries reached the ears of Birr people through letters from the Front written by Birr men to relatives including a Mrs Kirwan of Newbridge Street. In another local connection, Private Dunne of Mill Street was killed in the same battle.
While her husband was at war, the Countess of Rosse began corresponding with British Army Prisoners of War in German camps , some of whom came from the Birr area. With other ladies, she supplied food and clothing parcels. Letters still exist in the archives from Irish soldiers expressing their gratitude for Lady Rosse's friendship and generosity.
Lisa gave a fascinating account of the Earl’s early life, including education at Eton, Oxford and Sandhurst Military Training. In 1908, on the death of his father, the 4th Earl, Edward Parsons assumed the running of Birr Castle Estate. Unlike the previous two Earls, his interest lay in agriculture rather than astronomy. Together with Dr. Otto Boeddicker, his father’s astronomer, he greatly increased the milk yield of the Estate’s dairy herd. This enabled him to open Birr Castle Dairies in 1909. Locals will be familiar with the dairy float which still features in Birr Vintage Week Parades. Milk of the highest quality was delivered daily at an artificially low price, a practice which was maintained by the Earl throughout the Great War. This was a great source of nourishment to the people of the town at a time when malnutrition was rampant.
In 1909, the 5th Earl along with Dr Boeddicker were responsible for establishing a Technical School at Green Street. This would later evolve into Birr Vocational School.
Throughout the war, in letters to his brother Geoffrey and land agent Toler Garvey, the Earl was constantly concerned with the condition of the farm and the running of the Estate. Despite the horrors of war as described in his letters, concerns of Birr Estate were a pleasant distraction to him. The Earl also spoke of the need for more troops at the Front and the necessity for those remaining on the Estate to manage with fewer workers and better machinery.
After his head injury on the battle field, the Earl spent time in rehabilitation in England before returning to Birr in November 1915. Despite his Army Medical Report noting that the Earl suffered an 80% disability, including difficulty in speech, he maintained his lifelong interest in farming. In 1917 and 1918, he was to the forefront of encouraging more tillage to prevent a food crises.
The Earl’s sudden death on 10 June 1918 came as shock as, he had remained active in local affairs despite his injuries. Following his death, local and national newspapers acknowledged his work in military and agriculture affairs. His remains were removed to St Brendan’s Church of Ireland Church and a large cortege accompanied his last journey to his resting place in the family vault at the old St Brendan’s Churchyard. He was the last Earl of Rosse to be buried in this vault.
Concluding the evening, Brendan, 7th Earl of Rosse, thanked Lisa for her work in the archives. Her research had revealed so much information about his grandfather which he had never been aware of. He remarked, he knew far more about the astronomer Earls. Referring to Lisa’s talk, he recalled how the late Willie Eades had shown him the room in the current Science Centre where the food parcels were assembled for the prisoners of war. The Earl was delighted that as a community, we can now celebrate all the strands of our history.
Brian Kennedy, President of Birr Historical Society, thanked Lisa for her wonderful research which revealed to the public the memory of a man who had been forgotten over the last century.