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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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Death of Antarctic Explorer Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Anglo-Irish Antarctic explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, dies of a heart attack in Grytviken, South Georgia on January 5, 1922. He is one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Born in Kilkea, County Kildare, Shackleton and his Anglo-Irish family move to Sydenham, London when he is ten. His first experience of the polar regions is as third officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott‘s Discovery Expedition of 1901–04, from which he is sent home early on health grounds, after he and his companions Scott and Edward Adrian Wilson set a new southern record by marching to latitude 82°S. During the Nimrod Expedition of 1907–09, he and three companions establish a new record Farthest South latitude at 88°S, only 97 geographical miles from the South Pole, the largest advance to the pole in exploration history. Also, members of his team climb Mount Erebus, the most active Antarctic volcano. For these achievements, he is knighted by King Edward VII on his return home.

After the race to the South Pole ends in December 1911, with Roald Amundsen‘s conquest, Shackleton turns his attention to the crossing of Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole. To this end, he makes preparations for what becomes the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17. Disaster strikes this expedition when its ship, Endurance, becomes trapped in pack ice and is slowly crushed before the shore parties can be landed. The crew escapes by camping on the sea ice until it disintegrates, then by launching the lifeboats to reach Elephant Island and ultimately South Georgia Island, a stormy ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles and Shackleton’s most famous exploit.

In 1921, Shackleton returns to the Antarctic with the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition on a 125-ton Norwegian sealer, named Foca I, which he renames Quest. When the party arrives in Rio de Janeiro, he suffers a suspected heart attack. He refuses a proper medical examination, so Quest continues south, and on January 4, 1922, arrives at South Georgia. In the early hours of the next morning, Shackleton summons the expedition’s physician, Alexander Macklin, to his cabin, complaining of back pains and other discomfort. According to Macklin’s own account,he tells Shackleton he has been overdoing things and should try to “lead a more regular life,” to which Shackleton answers, “You are always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?” “Chiefly alcohol, Boss,” replies Macklin. A few moments later, at 2:50 AM on January 5, 1922, he suffers a fatal heart attack. At his wife’s request, he is buried there.

Away from his expeditions, Shackleton’s life is generally restless and unfulfilled. In his search for rapid pathways to wealth and security, he launches business ventures which fail to prosper, and he dies heavily in debt. Upon his death, he is lauded in the press but is thereafter largely forgotten, while the heroic reputation of his rival Scott is sustained for many decades. Later in the 20th century, Shackleton is “rediscovered”. He rapidly becomes a role model for leadership as one who, in extreme circumstances, kept his team together in a survival story described by cultural historian Stephanie Barczewski as “incredible.”

In his 1956 address to the British Science Association, Sir Raymond Priestley, one of his contemporaries, says “Scott for scientific method, Amundsen for speed and efficiency but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton,” paraphrasing what Apsley Cherry-Garrard had written in a preface to his 1922 memoir The Worst Journey in the World. In 2002, Shackleton is voted eleventh in a BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.