The Life and Times of an Irish
Up Close and Very Personal
With the 7th Earl of Rosse
Journalist Beverly Cohn with Brendan Parsons,
the 7th Earl of Rosse, on the magnificent grounds of Birr Castle located
in County Offaly, Ireland. Photo: Siobhan Byrne Learat
1 Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl of Rosse, talked about his boyhood
experiences during World War II, his return to Birr Castle,
the Parsons family ancestral home, his school experience, and
the path that led him to a post at the United Nations.
This exclusive interview was conducted
at Birr Castle and the following has been edited for content
Part 2: Return to Ireland &
Preserving the Legacy
While serving in the U.N., Brendan did not
use his title, but rather served as Brendan Parsons. Courtesy
hat was your experience like serving in the United Nations?
Rosse: It was the most successful and longest assignment
of my career. Unfortunately, I had to cut short my career for family
Did you agree with all their actions?
Rosse: I think one of the basic mistakes the U.N.
made was basing itself in New
York. It should be in a smaller, neutral country like Ireland
and not situated in the city of a major world power, and one to which
access is only through a visa issued by the U.S. State Department.
I've been refused entry into America many times, which caused
great embarrassment when one is an official of the U.N.
Brendan on the U.N. It should be in a smaller,
neutral country like Switzerland or Ireland. Courtesy
Did your title impact on your service in the U.N.?
Rosse: I found it perfectly natural to not announce
my title. I served without the title because I considered it to be unnecessary
baggage that would hinder rather than help. It would make me apart.
I simply served as Brendan Parsons.
The Irish Shamrock is a universal symbol for Ireland
and represents the Holy Trinity. Courtesy photo
What was your advantage coming from Ireland?
Rosse: I found it a tremendous advantage to come from
It is small and relatively neutral on a world scale, and rightly has
abstained from an organization like NATO. That gives us more
credibility or an entrée into most countries. A big super power
like Britain or America seem to come in with baggage attached
baggage that is seen as trying to dominate. We don't come in
with that baggage and don't have a political agenda. We are not trying
to sell tanks, or aircraft, or submarines, and we don't attach strings
to the advice we give.
Brendan on Haiti: I had been to Haiti and
had seen incredibly poor French-speaking blacks. Courtesy
What was your personal objective?
Rosse: I really wanted the U.N. to use my career
to spend time on the ground, beyond Europe, in some of the poorest
countries in the world to see what one could do to alleviate misery,
stress, and disease. I wanted to accomplish this before the time came
for one to return to Ireland. I wanted to know how people lived
and what their real problems were. I wanted to see what, if anything,
I could do to help people less fortunate than ourselves. For example,
I had been to Haiti and had seen incredibly poor French-speaking
blacks. I was able to communicate with them in French. Once they
realized that I came from Ireland, and was neither British
nor American, they bonded more easily with me. They would start
chatting about their experiences, which helped one understand what their
lives were like.
On Brendan's return to Birr Castle: "The estate
today is less than 10% the size it was when my father inherited it when
he was a boy of twelve." Photo: Beverly Cohn
You mentioned that you had to cut short your U.N.
career. What brought you back to Ireland, and in what condition did
you find Birr Castle?
Rosse: I had to retire from the U.N. and return
to Ireland on my father's death. It was an awful horror for me
to realize, after he passed away, how horrifically in debt the whole
place was, and how much of the heritage had to be sold without losing
the core heritage. This led one to define what the heritage was, and
what was the key to it, and what one could do to preserve it. The estate
today, for instance, is less than 10% the size it was when my father
inherited it when he was a boy of twelve.
At what point in your life were you made aware
of your royal heritage and what responsibilities came with your title?
Rosse: I certainly did realize after my relatively simple
life in wartime England how very different things were in Ireland.
It was a different world and one was increasingly aware of the luxury,
the opulence, and the unlimited food after living in a country of rationing.
But, as a child one was completely unaware of any responsibility that
went with being the son of an earl. Eventually, however, I learned that
it was our responsibility to make or earn or marry enough money to keep
the whole place going.
Brendan met his future wife, Alison Margaret Cooke-Hurle,
while attending Oxford University. Courtesy photo
Speaking of marriage, how did you meet your wife?
Rosse: After three years in the Irish Guards,
I then went to Oxford and that's where I met my future wife,
Alison Margaret Cooke-Hurle. I met her at a party at college.
We actually knew each other for a long time, and never forgot each other.
I said I wouldn't marry until I was thirty and she beat me by two or
When you returned to Ireland, was it different
from when you left to serve in the U.N.?
Rosse: When I returned, I found it a very different
country than the one I left a country not only infinitely more
prosperous, but infinitely more confidant. It also had a brand new work
ethic dispelling the myth of the drunken patties in the bars not doing
a day's work. I was appointed to a position with the Agency for Personal
Service Overseas, the advisory council on development and cooperation,
and started an international volunteer program. I found that those who
applied to the program from Britain wouldn't work hard and so
I had to send them back as the worst workers in Europe. That
was a fantastic eye-opener for me.
Some of the greatest writers in the world came from
Ireland, many of whom lived in Dublin. Courtesy photo
One of the most influential writers of the 20th
Century, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is the most
famous play to emerge from the Theatre of the Absurd style of theatre.
What bothers you the most about what other countries
think of Ireland?
Rosse: What interests me is the complete indifferent
perception of Ireland and the Irish. The way the English
saw Ireland, and the Irish, or the way the French
saw Ireland and the Irish, was very different. France
has a literary culture, as do the Russians, who saw the Irish
as a literary people. However, in many countries, the Irish were
just seen as Scots, Welsh, or English.
Brendan on Irish inventions: The Irish haven't
always gotten credit for their inventions, which people assume must
have been developed by the British.
Photo: Beverly Cohn
Can you give me an example of the lack of recognition
Rosse: My great-grandfather built a telescope, which
was seen as the greatest telescope in the world. But it was seen as
a British invention because he was seen as a Brit rather
than an Irishman, despite the fact that he came from Ireland
and built it in Ireland, and everyone who built it with him was
from Birr. There wasn't one single Englishman involved
in the whole process. But, despite that, it was seen as a great British
success story and it was only failures that were seen as Irish.
One of the things I try to improve is the unbalanced projection of that
image because if people from Ireland had invented this, that,
or the other, it must be a British or an American invention.
That is how Irish accomplishments were presented.
What action have you taken to change perceptions?
Rosse: I tried to show that more has come out of Ireland
than great music, poetry, and a literary tradition from the land of
great writers. But even that needs clarification because what the world
has seen is only what has been written in the English language
versus what has been written in the Irish language. Although
I don't have Irish myself as one of my languages, and very much
regret it, I think even without those influences, one is immersed and
impressed by the magic of the beautiful countryside. That moves one
to love the land the scenery, the romance, and the poetry. We must
not only love our land, but must serve our land in different ways.
When you've lectured abroad, was there one overriding
Rosse: As an Irishman who went to America
to lecture, I've had many problems of identity again. The first question
I invariably was asked was, "Are you Catholic or are you
Protestant?" I found that question so surprising, so unhelpful,
and so sad, as it was always the dominant question.
How would you describe your religious affiliation?
Rosse: We are of a family that has been very ecumenical.
We have always supported the Roman Catholic and Protestant
churches. We have funded both branches of the church and were brought
up to believe there aren't two different churches but branches of
the same church that share a great deal with those religions of a monotheistic
nature, such as Islam and Judaism. We share more in common
than actually divides us.
The conflict between Catholic and Protestants in
Northern Ireland known as The Troubles," raged from 1968-1998,
resulting in the death of over 3,600 people, with thousands of injuries.
Brendan on "The Troubles:" There were
tragic problems in Northern Ireland, yes, but here, (in the Republic)
no. Courtesy Photo
What are your thoughts on the war between the
Protestants and Catholics known as "The Troubles?
Rosse: This supposed war in Ireland between Protestants
and Catholics that I found on returning to Ireland was
complete nonsense. There were tragic problems in Northern
Ireland, yes, but here, no. We simply had gone way, way beyond
that. Ireland is a country that is one. It's an island as one.
It's a people as one with a vision that's one. That was far more
important than this supposed wall like a Berlin Wall -
dividing Catholics and Protestants within Ireland.
When I was serving as an Irishman in the U.N., we always
worked together as men, as women, as Protestants, as Catholics.
We would celebrate St. Patrick's Day and other holidays happily
together as one.
Brendan on his love of land: "We must not only
love our land, but must serve our land in different ways." Photo:
Brendan wants people to know that Ireland is filled
with magnificent gardens such as (above) Castle Ward and (below) Mt.
Stewart. Photo: Beverly Cohn
Photo: Beverly Cohn
What steps are being taken the change the image?
Rosse: At the time of my return, The Irish Tourist
Board was trying to sell a lovely environmental picture of the mountains
and valleys the blues and the greens a country with a
great literary tradition, but certainly not a country known for its
great gardens as opposed to great Georgian houses. To use the
terminology of the tourist literature of the time: "Green valleys
and mountains so blue, that a hundred thousand welcomes are waiting
for you." The image of Ireland was presented as one of luscious
valleys, beautiful poetry, great imagination, drama, and dance, but
certainly not a country that had ever done anything ingenious or scientific
or technological. It was a hard sell to try and get Americans,
in particular, or the British to accept that anything like that
had come out of Ireland.
Cars that the young Brendan might have driven in
1948 were (top) Rolls Royce and (above) Jaguar. Courtesy
Do you have a special childhood memory?
Rosse: It was very early on when I learned to drive
myself, even unofficially from age twelve on. Neither of my parents
ever learned to drive. They had a driver. So, it became handy to have
someone else to take the cars away from the front door. I was taught
to drive very young, and to take one's parents around later and to get
around. So, I knew the estate probably better than my younger brother
or anyone else. I love land. I've always had a passion for land whether
woods or farmland or whatever, and that has stayed with me to this day.
Left: The American Bald Eagle represents freedom
as well as power and strength; Right: The Celtic bird stands for freedom
and transcendence. Courtesy photos
We have about 30 seconds left on this tape. Is
there something you would like to say in bringing our interview, which
I've enjoyed immensely, to a close?
Rosse: Well, I hope I said something useful. I wish
to build a new, better bond with the communities in the United States,
in particular. I hope they see the evolution of a new Ireland
that appreciates all the elements of our society, culture and community,
and is carrying no baggage, or any negativity, or anything reflecting
an artificial division of religion or anything else between us.
Thank you so much for this fascinating journey
into your extraordinary life
Close and Very Personal With the 7th Earl of Rosse, 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