Part 1: The Early Years
On 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 administers the Domaine.
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 years.
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 telescope.
After strolling through the lush grounds with Brendan, and a lovely lunch in the castle with he 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.
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 in 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. 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 Castle.
What was it like moving into Birr Castle at age nine?
Rosse: We didn’t have the castle entirely to ourselves. We had the top floor to run around in, provided we didn’t disturb the grown-ups underneath 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 most of the meals separately, except for lunch. We came into the dining room for only two 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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 from 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.
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.
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 with him?
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.
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 way 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 occasion. 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 origins.
Stay tuned for Part 2, which will cover Brendan Parson’s service in the United Nations.