Birr - Irish Pictures (1888)

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1888) by Richard Lovett

Chapter VI: The Shannon … continued

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A few miles to the east of Portumna is Birr or Parsonstown, the residence of the late Earl Rosse, whose achievements in connection with the telescope are well known. Birr Castle is a fine pile of buildings, some portions of which are very ancient. About 1610 it came into the possession of the present family by a grant on the part of James I. to Sir Lawrence Parsons. The great telescopes were built by the father of the present earl some fifty years ago. They are three in number, and are all reflectors; one 18 inches in diameter, one 3 feet in diameter, and the Great Telescope, six feet in diameter and 60 feet long, the largest astronomical instrument in the world. It was first erected in 1842, and although some improvements have been made in the mounting, these are not very important. The concave mirrors are metal in all three, that of the Leviathan weighing nearly four tons. By the aid of these splendid instruments the late and the present earls have added greatly to our knowledge of the nebulae and of some branches of astronomical physics.

Below Portumna the river widens out into Lough Derg, about 25 miles long, with an average width of from 2 to 3 miles. The scenery along the whole of the lake is very fine, especially at Scariff Bay. From Mount Shannon on the north shore of the bay, Iniscalthra, one of the many Holy Islands of Ireland, should be visited. St. Caiman founded a monastery here in the seventh century. The church he built was restored by Brian Boru, and of this building considerable ruins are still extant. There is also a fine round tower, partly ruined, but still 80 feet high. At the southern end of Lough Derg is the town of Killaloe, once the seat of power of King Brian Boru. The situation of the town is most picturesque, and it is rich in the possession of a very ancient church. An abbey was founded here in the sixth century by St. Molua, and on its site now stands the cathedral, which dates from the end of the twelfth century. Hard by the cathedral is a small stone-roofed church, which Dr. Petrie believes may be referred to St. Flannan, Molua's disciple, who was consecrated Bishop of Killaloe about A.D. 639. On a beautiful wooded island in the river stand the ruined nave and choir of a stone-roofed church belonging to the oldest buildings of the class in Western Europe, and considered by Dr. Petrie to be a church originally built by St. Molua. In these days the island is frequented by anglers, amongst whom it holds a high character, as affording ample facilities for their sport.

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