The Leviathan

Marnie Ogg is Manager of Sydney Observatory and currently on holidays visiting interesting astronomical places including one in the town of Birr, County Offaly, Ireland…

‘The Leviathan’, it may sound like a name for a large-ish telescope given by an over enthusiastic astronomer but it’s not, in fact it’s so much more! The VLT in Chile boasts to be a Very Large Telescope, the proposed E-ELT is one day going to scour the skies as the European Extremely Large Telescope, but nothing quite prepares you for the industrial strength, Irish Telescope: The Leviathan. This massive telescope adorning the extensive grounds of Birr Castle is anything but tiny.

If you ever get the chance to visit Ireland, and I recommend you do, take the just over two hour drive from Dublin to the centre of the country to the town of Birr. Previously known as Parsonstown, this beautiful market town hosts the greystone Birr Castle owned by Lord and Lady Rosse (family-named Parsons).
The four walls and turrets, harbour a love of astronomy and have done so since the castle was remodelled by Mary Parsons nee Field, originally from Bradford Yorkshire, and heiress to the fortune that enabled the telescope’s creation.
Birr Castle is not open to the public however, the grounds and a converted stable block which houses a Historic Science Centre are.

A tour of the grounds establishes you in an area that would make the Botanical Gardens of the world jealous. They claim ten Wollemi pines within their midst, plus several other exotic plants from the Himalayas, India, Africa and China.

Within this setting, the unsuspecting, scientifically uninitiated and the astronomical astute stand side by side staring at this giant telescope, their breath taken away by the sheer mechanical massiveness of the scope.

Astronomer, Professor Fred Watson, AM, with the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’. Image and copyright Marnie Ogg ©, all rights reserved.
Astronomer, Professor Fred Watson, AM, with the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’.
Image and copyright Marnie Ogg ©, all rights reserved.


The telescope stands boldly, with the tube housing the scope as tall as a man (with a top hat on) and the fitting, which is as big as a child’s head narrows down to the eyepiece. Weights and pullies establish the telescope to the correct declination, and a series of bridges and towers allows the astronomer to see through the eyepiece.

Some points of interest:
• The six-foot long telescope was built by Parsons to investigate the objects in the catalogues of Charles Messier and John Herschel.
• Parsons discovered that several nebulae had a spiral structure, suggesting “dynamical laws”.
• The most notable spiral nebula observed by Parsons was Messier 51.
• In 1908, the telescope was partly dismantled. The walls tube, second mirror box, and universal joint survived.
• In 1914, one of the mirrors with its mirror box was transferred to the Science Museum in London.

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