It’s funny how many Irish terraced houses are painted jolly colours (their quoins often highlighted in even brighter hues) while country houses are usually grey. Even though Birr Castle is cheek by jowl with William Street, it’s no exception, being faced in ashlar. The building appears hewn out of an escarpment like architectural topography. Perhaps that’s what happens when built form has weathered 350 years. There is more stone on display in Birr than most Irish towns, particularly on the houses lining Oxmantown Mall.
It’s a Georgian garrison town,” suggests Marguerite O’Conor Nash, châtelaine of Clonalis in County Roscommon. “Birr is really a planned town, a bit like Castlepollard in County Westmeath or Westport in County Mayo.” The Hillsborough of the south. “Birr is a very good town indeed,” offers conservation architect John O’Connell. Why is it not better known? Where are the coachloads of architectural aficionados? The answer lies in a comment uttered by the late Ivy Cavendish-Bentinck, 7th Duchess of Portland. She complained on a visit to Birr, “It’s not on the direct line to any other place!”
Lost in the heart of Ireland, Birr nonetheless has royal connections. Anne Parsons, 6th Countess of Rosse and mother of the current Earl was also the mother of the royal photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones (half brothers) and consequently mother-in-law of Princess Margaret. Her London home in Holland Park is now the Linley Sambourne Museum. A coffee table book about set designer Oliver Messel is in the library of Birr Castle. On the coffee table. He too was a relative – Anne’s brother.
There was decorating drama when Princess Margaret and the newly titled Lord Snowdon honeymooned in the castle. The 6th Countess enthusiastically wallpapered a bedroom for their arrival. Unfortunately she chose a room above the boiler. Imagine HRH’s surprise to be woken in the dead of night by sheets of wallpaper sliding down the walls before collapsing over the four poster. “Tony…!”
Lord Rosse, the 7th Earl, may have turned 80 last year but his standards, unlike the wallpaper, haven’t slipped. Dining at Birr Castle is still a formal affair. Lord R sits at the bay window end of the long table opposite Lady R. Female VIPs sit either side of the Earl; male VIPs, either side of the Countess. Overseen by Damian the Butler, Lady Rosse is served first, then female VIPs, then male VIPs, then whoever’s stuck in the middle and finally, a hungry Lord Rosse. Presumably guests brush up on Debrett’s.
The dark room of the pioneering photographer Mary Rosse, 3rd Countess, was only discovered in the castle in 1983. Hidden in a maze of corridors and tunnels with three metre thick walls in places, it’s not that surprising the world’s oldest dark room in existence lay untouched for 100 years. Across the parkland, beyond the star shaped moat cum haha, stands the world’s largest telescope (or at least it was for a century) built by her astrologer husband. Birr Castle is full of record breakers (Ireland’s oldest cookbook; Ireland’s tallest treehouse; the British Isles’ tallest tree before it came a cropper) and it’s not even Guinness owned!