Strokestown & Its Famine Museum: A Somber Sort if Grandeur
For nearly 4 centuries, from 1600 to 1979, Strokestown Park House (www.strokestownpark.ie; 071/963-3013) was the seat of the Pakenham-Mahon family. After the Restoration, King Charles II granted the vast estate, which stretches for miles in every direction, to Nicholas Mahon in appreciation for supporting the House of Stewart during the bloody English Civil War. (Quite a reward indeed!) Nicholas’s grandson, Thomas, considered the original house, completed in 1697, too small and unimposing, so he upped the ante by hiring Richard Cassels—a.k.a. “Richard Castle,” the architect behind Russborough House and Powerscourt House—to build him something more impressive. The result? This stunning 45-room Palladian mansion, a monument to upper-class privilege—in the north wing, note Ireland’s last existing galleried kitchen (where the lady of the house could observe the culinary activity without being part of it), and in the south wing, a vaulted stable so magnificent that it has been described as an “equine cathedral.”
These days Strokestown is also the permanent home of the Irish National Famine Museum, one of the country’s very best museums devoted to that deadly period in Irish history. It dramatically sets forth not only the natural disaster, but also the shocking cruelty of the British establishment’s response. Exhibits include letters penned by some of the tenants of Strokestown during the Famine years.
The pairing of these two historic attractions may seem incongruous, until you learn a little more of Strokestown Park’s history—particularly the behavior of Major Denis Mahon, the landlord at Strokestown during the 1840s. When the potato blight struck, and famine started to spread, Mahon and his land agents could have done many things to help the hundreds of starving people who lived and worked on the property. Instead they evicted them, as soon as it became clear they couldn’t pay their rent; callously, Mahon even chartered ships to send his own tenants away from Ireland. In 1847, Major Mahon was shot to death near Strokestown. Two men were hastily (and dubiously) convicted of the crime, but it seems clear that many hungry people had motives.
Strokestown Park is on the main Dublin-Castlebar Road (N5). Admission costs €14 adults, €12 seniors and students, €6 children, and €29 families. It’s open daily from mid-March to October, 10:30am to 5:30pm (from Nov to mid-Mar 10:30am–4pm). The house can only be seen on a 45-minute guided tour, at noon, 2:30 and 4pm (in winter, 2pm only).
The Great Telescope
At noble Birr Castle ★★, one of the key attractions is not the historic castle itself, nor the beautiful grounds, but a fascinating exhibition on 19th century science. William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Birr, was a scientist and astronomer, obsessed with discovering all he could about the night sky. Under his leadership, Birr Castle became an unlikely hub of research into astronomy, photography, and botany. One of his inventions—now known as the Great Telescope—was built in 1845 and soon nicknamed (somewhat sarcastically) the “Leviathan of Parsonstown.” Until the 20th century, this was the largest telescope in the world.
The huge astronomical machine may resemble a medieval siege engine, but the key thing about it was that it worked. Using it, Parsons discovered and documented numerous nebulae, some of which were later determined to be hitherto unknown galaxies. He found and named the Crab Nebula, among others. He also discovered that certain galaxies were shaped like spirals. Birr Castle was the only place in the world where the phenomenon could be observed until 1914, when new, more advanced telescopes were developed.
To this day, the Great Telescope is kept in full working order, and demonstrations of its power are held regularly in summer. If you want to witness one of these displays for yourself, call ahead to check times.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.