The Life and Times
of an Irish Royal
Up Close and Very Personal
With the 7th Earl of Rosse
Part 1: The Early Years
One of the family crests
of the Parsons family. Courtesy photo
n a recent press trip to Ireland, I had the distinct pleasure
of spending a day with William Clere Leonard Brendan Parsons,
the 7th Earl of Rosse, who goes by the name of Brendan Parsons.
He lives in the historic Birr Castle and Demesne* with
his wife, Alison, the Countess of Rosse. The eldest son
of Laurence Michael Harvey Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse and Anne
Messel, he was known as Baron Oxmantown from his birth until
he succeeded to the peerage in 1979.
Located in the center of Ireland, Birr
was the ancestral home of the Parsons family and a medieval stronghold.
He inherited his title on the death of his father in 1979. Historically,
Birr was the Silicon Valley of its day, attracting scientists,
engineers, and astronomers from around the world. Under Brendan's
watchful eyes, the Birr Scientific and Heritage Foundation, a
charitable institution, administers the Domaine.
The imposing Birr Castle located in County Offaly,
Ireland. Photo: Beverly Cohn
A bridge over the moat which young Brendan and his
siblings avoided falling into. Photo: Beverly Cohn
The 7th Earl of Rosse stands near the Camcor River
which flows through the castle gardens. Photo: Beverly
The huge telescope created in the 1800s by William
Parsons was the largest in the world for over 70 years. Photo:
The castle is not open to the public, but they
are welcome to explore the fifty acres of lavish grounds, which
contain plants and trees from all over the world. The river Camcor
flows threw the property. Standing in the center of the park is
a huge telescope created in the 1840s by William Parsons,
the Third Earl of Rosse. The telescope, named the Leviathan
of Parsonstown, was the largest in the world for over 70
Another ancestor of note was Mary Rosse, Countess
of Rosse. She was a British astronomer and photographer
and was one of the first people to create photographs from wax-paper
negatives. She eventually won a prize for her photograph of the
TOP: Mary Rosse, who lived in the 1800s, was an
astronomer, an award-winning photographer and one of Brendan's famous
ancestors. Courtesy photo
ABOVE: Brendan points out a special flower from one of the trees
that dot his gardens, which are sprawled over fifty acres of lush greenery.
Photo: Beverly Cohn
Brendan kindly consented to have his photograph
taken with your reporter. Photo: Siobhan Byrne Learat
Following my garden tour with the Earl, the Countess
arranged for a lovely lunch. Photo: Beverly Cohn
After strolling through the lush grounds with Brendan,
and a lovely lunch in the castle with him and the Countess, the
exclusive interview was conducted in a hidden room up a long, winding
staircase, which was stacked from floor to ceiling with dozens of boxes
containing documents relating to his ancestors.
The following has been edited for content and continuity
for print purposes.
Brendan's father, Laurence Michael Harvey Parsons,
6th Earl of Rosse served in The Irish Guards during World War II. Courtesy
What was your world like as a little boy?
Rosse: My world as a little boy was pretty simple because
most of my childhood was spent during the Second World War. I
remember being in the north of England with my mother, sister,
and two brothers. My father was serving in the Irish Guards.
After the army had requisitioned the greater part of it, we lived in
what was left of a large house in Yorkshire. The house had come
to us through the family of my great-grandmother, Cassandra.
Following the war, my dad joined us in Yorkshire where we got
our visas so we could go to Ireland.
How did you access food during the war?
Rosse: Even in a rural area, there was strict rationing.
We lived off the land, eating vegetables, fruits of the orchard, the
kitchen garden, and things like rabbits, rooks, nettles, and cow lips.
We went foraging for goodies like blackberries. It was a happy, healthy
life, but not one of great luxury that one became aware of after the
war, when we could take possession again of the lovely seeds of Birr
What was it like moving into Birr Castle at age
Rosse: We didn't have the castle entirely to ourselves.
We had the top floor to run around in, provided we didn't make so much
noise that the grown-ups underneath heard us. I realized how lucky one
was to have such an enormous home. We even learned how not to fall into
the moat. It was a life of great luxury, less so for us perhaps, than
for the visiting guests.
Did you dine with your parents?
Rosse: We ate separately in our own schoolroom for most
of the meals, except for lunch, when we came into the dining room for
only two of the courses, out of the four or five courses for the grown
ups. We sat at a table near the window and spoke to each other, or with
our nanny or tutor, or governess. We waited to be brought into the adult
conversation. Our mother would have her back to the children's table.
She would turn around and say, "How are the children? What are
we doing this afternoon?"
Brendan and Alison seated in the Birr Castle entrance
hall surrounded by paintings, tapestries, and weapons passed down through
generations. Courtesy photo
Did your parents dress for dinner?
Rosse: My parents always dressed for dinner, which was
very formal. A footman rang the gong, which was the signal to change
for dinner. The evening dress for men at home, rather than black tie,
was a velvet smoking jacket and a pair of velvet trousers, as well as
embroidered slippers. It gave mother the occasion to dress up in her
finery and beautiful jewelry every night, which she adored. It gave
my father great pleasure to see her so elegantly attired. We played
games where we dressed up from a fancy dress box that's still in the
Brendon on Summer Fields: It's a traditional
school where one learned the classics in Latin and Greek, as well as
French. Courtesy photo
What about your schooling?
Rosse: When I was seven, I was taken by my sister to
Summer Fields, a school in the northern side of Oxford. My parents hadn't
seen the school but thought it would be a good place for me. It's a
traditional school where one learned the classics in Latin and Greek,
as well as French. I was there a couple of years and my parents
never came to see me.
In a hidden room stacked from floor to ceiling with
dozens of boxes containing documents relating to his ancestors, the
7th Earl of Rosse, Brendan Parsons, reminisces about his childhood.
Photo: Beverly Cohn
Do you remember how you felt being away from home?
Rosse: I remember vividly my first day and night. My
sister handed me over to a uniformed matron. I got a slap on the back
and an embrace. The first night, I found myself in a dormitory next
to a boy who was a refugee from Romania. He spoke French,
but not a word of English. It was also his first night at school.
With his head buried in his pillow, he was crying his heart out. I was
the only person who could communicate with him because I spoke French.
Even then, I realized that I am a happy person and had much more to
be thankful for than he had.
Students at Eton stand at attention as the headmaster
enters the hall. Courtesy photo
What was the rest of your school experience?
Rosse: At age twelve I was sent to Eton, the
school of the British establishment. My father and his father
and other peers had also been sent there. It was an absolute disaster
for me. I was abused and mistreated. I just hated every aspect of it.
There was no one who I could befriend or who befriended me. I was subjected
to abuse partly because I was too small to be any good at games.
Brendan: The only "sport" I did
fairly well at at Eton College was coxing boats because I had a loud
voice. Courtesy photo
The only thing I was good at was coxing boats because
I had a loud voice. However, if the boat I coxed did not win, I got
beaten. This happened regularly, always by the boys, never by the masters,
who turned a completely blind eye, as did parents. One doesn't begin
to understand why adults never intervened to stop the big boys bullying
the little boys. I was the only Irish boy in my house and was seen as
a dirty little foreigner the boy from the bogs. Despite my royal heritage,
I was not considered a member of the upper class or society. (The
coxswain is the person in charge of a boat's navigation and steering.)
On Aiglon College in Switzerland: I spent
an immensely happy year there and had the advantage of being able to
speak French. Courtesy photo
How long were you at Eton?
Rosse: I was thirteen or fourteen and after a year there,
I got seriously ill with TB. It wasn't fashionable to call it
TB, so it was called "a touch on the lung." I came
home and spent a few months in bed where my father read me stories of
Irish history. This gave me a sort of bond with him that I hadn't had
before. Then, the local doctor gave me a great prescription, which said
I needed a pint of Guinness a day, and a year in the mountains.
I only drank a half-pint and it was the first time I got drunk. So,
I was sent off to Aiglon College in the French-speaking
part of Switzerland. I spent an immensely happy year there and
had the advantage of being able to communicate reasonably well in French.
What was the overarching experience in Switzerland?
Rosse: I owe great deal to my Swiss school experience.
It was a marvelous opening to see that there is a wider world beyond
anything dominated by the Brits in the English-speaking
world. It helped to not only bring out one's Irishness, but also
helped to get over an inferiority complex caused by rejection of one's
Irish heritage by the British establishment. It also gave
one a yearning to see what other people were like, how they lived, how
they worked, what their countries were like, and to get a broader understanding
of the world at large. It was probably thanks to that experience that
I decided later to serve in the U.N. in less developed, poorer
countries outside Europe.
Brendan: I spent three great years with the
Irish Guards, which gave me a great concept of service and hard work.
What happened after your recovery from TB?
Rosse:. I had a miserable return to England.
I was again abused. I think it was because my parents couldn't afford
the fees for me to continue in Switzerland. Finally, at seventeen,
I volunteered as an Irish national and went into the army and
served in the Irish Guards. I spent three great years with the
Irish Guards, which gave me a great concept of service and hard
work. I managed to get on the skiing team and spent months skiing for
the Army. I loved it.
Your half-brother was Lord Snowden. Were you close
Rosse: I was much closer to my younger brother Martin
because only two years separated us, while Tony (Anthony
Armstrong) was seven years my senior and Susan (sister)
was nine years my senior. Also, Martin was a full brother and
Tony was only a half brother. We had the same mother, (Anne
Messel) but a different father.
Brendan on attending the wedding of Princess Margaret
and Anthony Armstrong-Jones: "It was a marvelous event to see such
royal pageantry." Courtesy Photo
Were you invited to the wedding?
Rosse: The royal wedding with Princess Margaret
in 1960? Oh yes, of course we were. But we were placed a long
way away in the back pew so we had limited vision of the ceremony. It
was a marvelous event to see such royal pageantry.
You are Queen Elizabeth's Brother-in-law. Do you
have any occasions to visit her?
Rosse: Not really. However, I have enormous respect
for the royal family and generally for monarchies, which have done more
for democracies than republics have. I have great respect for the queen,
particularly everything that she has done to foster and encourage the
development of the Commonwealth. One of my very few regrets about
the evolution of Ireland is that it left the Commonwealth.
I think that is one of the very few mistakes Ireland has made.
I say this not because of its benefits, but because Ireland could
have contributed hugely to the Commonwealth.
You mentioned earlier that men wore smoking jackets
to dinner. When did you get your smoking jacket and was it a big occasion?
Rosse: When we became adults, we were given our own
smoking jackets. I got mine when I turned twenty-one, which was bottle
green because my father's was claret colored. Coming of age was a big
Marking his 21st birthday, Brendan was given a party
with a spectacular fireworks display. Courtesy Photo
There was a huge party given for me. There were fireworks
that had to be specially imported. It took weeks and weeks to get the
permit. It was the largest fireworks display that had been seen in Ireland
since the Great Fireworks Display of 1851 to mark the Great
Exhibition. However, I was only allowed to ask one friend, and that
was a Persian girl who I had met at Oxford. That caused
a certain amount of talk in town, shall we say. We're still very great
friends, and I have a love for all things Persian.
Did you want to marry her?
Rosse: It was said in the papers and rumors were circulating.
But no. We were both much too young to seriously consider getting married.
*A demesne, or domain, is a country estate with feudal
Just like hidden door in this bookcase, more secrets
will be revealed in the next installment, so stay tuned. Photo:
Ireland: The Land of Castles, Legends and Myths, Part 1; Magical,
Mystical, Delightful, Enchanting Part 1/Part
to the Emerald Isle; Faces
of Ireland; Aran
of Smiling Irish Eyes; County
Cork, Ireland: Remembering the Famine