Inside Ireland

Touring: In the Irish midlands, Maryland visitors will discover a connection to home -- and a wonder called the Leviathan.

April 29, 2001|By Richard O'Mara | By Richard O'Mara,Special to the Sun

There is much to see in the heart of Ireland, things many people who visit this country, lured by coastal attractions, pass up. They include the natural and man-made, the truly ancient, the merely old, the contemporary and even one scientific marvel, the Leviathan, whose story touches upon Maryland as well as galaxies beyond our own.

The Irish midlands boast the Shannon River, leaping with salmon and perch. There's the brooding stone tower at Clonmacnoise near the river's edge, along with other cloudy ruins that refer to the work done by fifth-century monks in transcribing the religious and secular knowledge of antiquity. They did this as the Roman Empire whimpered to its end, and the rest of Europe, invaded by unlettered Vandals and Huns, sank into darkness.

These monks and saints of ancient Hibernia copied the texts of classical times and thereby preserved what we loosely call today our Western Heritage. You can read about it in Thomas Cahill's best seller "How the Irish Saved Civilization." It's in just about every bookstore in these parts.

The midlands have more castles than you can count. In Roscrea, a lovely town about 10 miles south of Birr, warm pubs crowd up to the stones of Roscrea Castle, once defended by Anglo-Norman knights. These stalwart interlopers from across the Irish Sea, it seemed, had more potent enemies within the walls than outside. Most of them developed such bronchial congestion from the damp fortress they were defending they had to sleep sitting upright in chairs.

You can climb the castle's stone steps to the great hall, and there imagine these rough and redolent knights, all hacking and coughing as they sharpen their swords and spears.

Throughout County Offaly, eastern Galway and northern Tipperary, there are golf courses everywhere, and for hikers, cyclists and climbers there are the wild Slieve Bloom Mountains, all green meadow and deep forest. And at Birr Castle, there is the Leviathan.

Maryland connection

A Leviathan is a great sea creature, and a word often used to describe something outlandishly large. The Leviathan at Birr Castle is a telescope, and for the 70 or so years after its construction in 1845, it was the world's largest. It was superseded only in 1917 by the one opened on Mount Wilson, in California. In the British Isles, no telescope larger than the Leviathan was built until the one put up at Greenwich in the 1960s.

The Leviathan was built by the Third Earl of Rosse. His was the family that arrived from England in the 17th century, after the Protestant rulers of England seized the lands of the Catholic O'Carroll clan, the owners of Birr Castle.

Having done badly in the religious wars of those times, representatives of the O'Carrolls fled for the American colonies. They settled in Annapolis, and from there they more than rebuilt the family's fortune and prestige. The O'Carrolls produced one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, and the first American-born Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, also founder of Georgetown University.

Late last year a delegation of officials, businessmen and other boosters from Ely O'Carroll Country -- as the territory the O'Carrolls once ruled is known -- flew to Maryland to remind us of our historical connection with their home turf, and to promote the untrammeled delights of the place.

They visited Baltimore and Annapolis, venues related to the O'Carroll immigrants and their progeny. They signed a friendship alliance with various Maryland political leaders, and their arrival neatly coincided with September's startup of direct flights to Ireland by Aer Lingus out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Starting June 1, the airline will fly daily out of BWI to Ireland throughout the summer.

The O'Carrolls didn't actually live in Birr Castle. It was one of 40 castles and fortresses owned by the family throughout the midlands.

The earls of Rosse (Parsons is the family name; Birr was once known as Parsonstown) never approached the illustriousness of the O'Carrolls, but they did prove to be a creative and industrious lot.

An amateur dream

Though all the earls engaged in the politics and public service expected of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the family was leery of some aspects of English upper-class culture, especially the sort imbued in the so-called public schools of England, places such as Eaton and Harrow, where sons of the mighty were taught how to look down their noses, and encouraged to disdain physical work.

To avoid that enfeebling influence, the Second Earl of Rosse had his son educated at Birr Castle, before his university years. The Third Earl, William Parsons, did the same with his son. Engineering -- the hands-on kind -- became virtually the family profession. The Third Earl's youngest son, Charles Parsons, developed into one of the most famous engineers in the world, according to the journal the Irish Scientist.

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