Ireland ‘switches on’ to astronomy in historic event at Birr Castle

Broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Drivetime, 27th July 2017

I-LOFAR, Ireland’s radio telescope at Birr Castle, pictured, was switched on today in a historic moment for astronomy here (Credit: RTE)

The most important telescope ever built in Ireland, one capable of revealing  the most closely guarded secrets of the Universe, was switched on by Minister John Halligan today (27th July 2017) in Birr Castle Co Offaly.

The scientists behind Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope say that it can listen in to signals coming from even the most distant parts of space, and could conceivable, one day, detect a signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation.


Extraterrestrial radio 

Up to today, if ET was going to send a signal to the Earth via radio – which many believe would be his preferred option for technical reasons – Ireland certainly would not be the first place to pick up the historic transmission.

After today, it is entirely possible that Birr Castle, which is now proudly home to Ireland’s LOFAR radio telescope, could be the location where the world’s press gather to hear of the first radio contact from another civilisation.

The person that has, more than any other, put Irish astronomy back on the map, in a way that it hasn’t been since the 19th century, is Peter Gallagher, professor in astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin.

Peter led the countdown to the switching on of I-LOFAR this morning, and even heavy rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of a crowd of scientists, locals, journalists, as well as Minister Halligan and his officials.


It is entirely fitting that Birr Castle is home to I- LOFAR as it is also home to the Leviathan of Parsonson, an enormous hulking optical, or light-based telescope, that sits in a field adjacent to the new arrival. The Leviathan, was the world’s largest and most famous telescope between the years 1845 and 1917.

It was built, designed and operated by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, a brilliant scientist, who used his remarkable telescope, and eyesight, to make out the distinctive spiral shape of what became known as a whirlpool galaxy, because of its distinctive shape, called M51. That was in 1845.

This discovery was huge, because it meant that there was more than one galaxy outside our own, the Milky Way and meant the Universe was a lot larger than we had thought up to then. The telescope and Lord Rosse attracted visitors from around the world who came to look in awe on the remarkable man and his machine.

The switching on of I-LOFAR today as a proud and emotional day for the current Lord Rosse, Brendan Parsons, the 7th Earl.




Today was a historic and exciting day for Irish astronomy, and puts it back on the international map in a way it hasn’t been since the 19th century. Scientists here, using I-LOFAR, will, as of today, be able to hunt for new planets, try and unravel some of the Universe’s most deeply held secrets, and even, one day, perhaps, receive a signal from whatever intelligent life form may wish to send a radio signal our way.

Let the astronomical games begin!

Charles Parsons – faster sea travel faster and electricity for the masses


Irish scientists, episode 3: Charles Parsons, inventor of the steam turbine engine was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 26th November 2016


Charles Parsons’ Turbinia yacht, pictured here, outpaced the assembled British navy at Spithead in 1897 with its steam powered turbine engine (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Parsons is considered to be in the top five of Britain’s greatest engineers of all time, by virtue of his enormous contribution to sea travel, and the shipbuilding industry, and making electricity available to the masses.

Parsons’s huge impact on the world has been far less heralded in Ireland, his native land. Hew grew up and spent his  early adult years at his family’s residence in Birr Castle Co. Offaly before moving to England.

The greatest achievement of his stellar engineering career was the invention of the steam turbine engine in 1884, an entirely new type of engine, which extracted thermal energy from pressurised steam in an ultra-efficient manner.

This thermal energy could be converted, through a series of intermediary steps, into electrical energy in such an efficient manner that, it became possible, for the first time, to generate enough electrical energy to make it available to the wide mass of people, not just the well-to-do elite.

Today, 90% of the electricity in the USA is still generated through steam turbine engines.

This engine also transformed the nature of sea travel, as steam turbines could provide the power necessary for large ships to cross the Atlantic far quicker, and for passengers to travel in comfort without rattling, shaking and noise.

The steam turbine was famously put into Parsons’s yacht, the Turbinia, and used to outpace the assembled British naval fleet at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Fleet Review at Spithead in 1897.

After this unsolicited, but powerful demonstration of the power that a steam turbine could provide, the British navy decided that it would commission the turbine to be used in its new generation of battleships, the Dreadnoughts (launched in 1906)

This helped to provide Britain with an edge in its naval arms race with Germany in the run up to World War 1.

Great Scientists of Co Offaly

 Credit (

Co Offaly, highlighted on the map on the right, might commonly be associated with our former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, or great All-Ireland winning hurling and gaelic football teams, but it is not often associated with producing famous scientists.

Fact is, though, that this small midlands county, with a current population of just 76,806 (2011 Census) has produced at least three world class scientists: William and Charles Parsons and John Joly.

Today we’ll be talking to John Joyce, a retired scientist and tour guide at Birr Castle, the ancestral home of the Parsons family, about the lives and achievements of William and Charles Parsons, and to Patrick Wyse-Jackson, geologist, and curator of the TCD Geology Museum about the life of John Joly.


Interview with John Joyce & Patrick Wyse Jackson discussing famous Offaly scientists

First broadcast on 2.02.2012 on Dublin City FM 

The inventor of the steam turbine: Charles Parsons

Charles Parson’s yacht Turbinia, pictured here, was powered by his steam turbine. He dramatically demonstrated its speed at the British Navy Review before Queen Victoria in 1897 when it was easily the fastest vessel on view. The British naval establishment was impressed and soon adopted the turbine in its latest battleships (credit: Wiki)

A plentiful supply of cheap electricity, and much faster passenger steamships and military battleships. These were some of the things made possible by Charles Parsons, who grew up in Birr, and invented the steam turbine in 1887.

Charles was born in 1854 and came from a brilliant scientific lineage. His father was the famous astronomer, William Parsons, who had built the world’s largest telescope on the grounds of Birr Castle in the 1840s.

The steam turbine invented by Charles, hugely increased the power that could be harnessed from a steam engine. The invention made him a rich man, and it changed the world.

LISTEN:   Charles Parsons interview with  Birr Castle tour guide, and retired scientist, John Joyce

First broadcast on 103.2 Dublin City FM

The Telescope King: William Parsons

The world’s largest telescope, seen here above, was for more than 70 years, the so-called Leviathan, built by William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, and the local people of Birr, Co Offaly in 1845.

In the year the Great Famine officially began, the massive telescope at Birr Castle was put to work, peering out into the heavens and making new discoveries.

One of the discoveries made by the Earl, when using the telescope was that galaxies often formed into a spiral shape, and the first one of these spiral galaxies he discovered was the Crab Nebula.

The Earl was a genius with chemistry and materials, and this was crucial in the building of such an effective and powerful telescope, which people travelled from all over Europe and beyond to see.

Listen: Interview with John Joyce, Birr Castle Guide, on the life of William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse

First broadcast on Dublin City FM.