seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Astronomer William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, Anglo-Irish astronomer, naturalist, and engineer, is born in York, England on June 17, 1800. He is President of the Royal Society (UK), the most important association of naturalists in the world in the nineteenth century. He builds several giant telescopes. His 72-inch telescope, built in 1845 and colloquially known as the “Leviathan of Parsonstown,” is the world’s largest telescope, in terms of aperture size, until the early 20th century. From April 1807 until February 1841, he is styled as Baron Oxmantown.

Parsons is the son of Lawrence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse, and Alice Lloyd. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating with first-class honours in mathematics in 1822. He inherits an earldom and a large estate in King’s County (now County Offaly) in Ireland when his father dies in February 1841.

Parsons marries Mary Field, daughter of John Wilmer Field, on April 14, 1836. They have thirteen children, of which four sons survive to adulthood: Lawrence, 4th Earl of Rosse, Rev. Randal Parsons, the Hon. Richard Clere Parsons, and the Hon. Sir Charles Algernon Parsons.

In addition to his astronomical interests, Parsons serves as a Member of Parliament (MP) for King’s County from 1821 to 1834, president of the British Science Association in 1843–1844, an Irish representative peer after 1845, president of the Royal Society (1848–1854), and chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin (1862–1867).

During the 1840s, Parsons has the Leviathan of Parsonstown built, a 72-inch telescope at Birr Castle, Parsonstown, County Offaly. He has to invent many of the techniques he uses for constructing the Leviathan, both because its size is without precedent and because earlier telescope builders had guarded their secrets or had not published their methods. Details of the metal, casting, grinding and polishing of the 3-ton ‘speculum’ are presented in 1844 at the Belfast Natural History Society. His telescope is considered a marvelous technical and architectural achievement, and images of it are circulated widely within the British commonwealth. Building of the Leviathan begins in 1842 and it is first used in 1845, with regular use waiting another two years due to the Great Famine. Using this telescope he sees and catalogues a large number of nebulae, including a number that would later be recognised as galaxies.

Parsons performs astronomical studies and discovers the spiral nature of some nebulas, today known to be spiral galaxies. His telescope Leviathan is the first to reveal the spiral structure of M51, a galaxy nicknamed later as the “Whirlpool Galaxy,” and his drawings of it closely resemble modern photographs.

Parsons dies at the age of 67 on October 31, 1867 at Monkstown, County Dublin.

Parsons’s son publishes his father’s findings, including the discovery of 226 New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars (NGC) objects in the publication Observations of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars Made With the Six-foot and Three-foot Reflectors at Birr Castle From the Year 1848 up to the Year 1878, Scientific Transactions of the Royal Dublin Society Vol. II, 1878.


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Birth of Robert Simms, Founding Member of the Society of United Irishmen

Robert Simms, Irish radical, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen (Cumann na nÉireannach Aontaithe) in Belfast, and proprietor of the Northern Star newspaper, is born into a Presbyterian family in Belfast on March 20, 1761.

Simms is the owner of a paper mill in Ballyclare with his brother William Simms, one of twelve proprietors of the Northern Star. A close friend of Theobald Wolfe Tone, he is one of the founders of the Society of United Irishmen in Belfast in 1791 and the author of “Declaration and Resolutions of the Society of United Irishmen of Belfast.” He serves as the first Secretary of the Society, drafting many of its early letters, pamphlets and papers.

Following the French declaration of war on Britain in February 1793, the movement is outlawed and goes underground from 1794 as they become more determined to force a revolt against British rule. Simms, along with his brother William and Thomas Addis Emmet are arrested, but swiftly acquitted. The leadership is divided into those who wish to wait for French aid before rising and the more radical elements that wish to press ahead regardless. However, the suppression of a bloody preemptive rebellion, which breaks out in Leitrim in 1793, leads to the former faction prevailing and links are forged with the revolutionary French government with instructions to wait sent to all of the United Irish membership.

In 1795, along with Wolfe Tone, Samuel Neilson and Thomas Russell meet atop the summit of McArt’s Fort, overlooking Belfast, and, in Wolfe Tone’s words, “took a solemn obligation…never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted her independence.” The Simms brothers are again arrested in 1797 and held in Newgate Prison. From there he is transported along with Russell and Emmett to Fort George, Scotland. In his absence, the printing press and building housing the Northern Star is burned.

Upon his release, Simms is appointed as Commander of the United Army in Antrim. The appointment is met reluctantly however, as he feels his lack of military experience counts against him being an effective leader. In addition, many leaders are beginning to agitate for a rising without French aid. He is unwavering in his rejection of this idea. He resigns his position on June 1, 1798 after falling out with the leadership on this issue when most had changed their minds. He is replaced by Henry Joy McCracken who leads the Society in the Battle of Antrim. Simms is accused by many of cowardice and indecision for his refusal to launch an insurrection in Antrim.

Simms is nonetheless arrested and again imprisoned in Fort George with Emmet and William James MacNeven and is released in 1802. When Robert Emmet‘s failed coup is launched in 1803, the Simms brothers do not participate. He dies at the age of 82 in 1843.

Simms is a friend of the naturalist John Templeton and his son, also Robert Simms, is one of the founders of the Belfast Natural History Society.