Life

Friday 6 December 2019

Insider Life: Michael Parsons, estate manager, Birr castle

Michael Parsons pictured on the grounds of Birr Castle.
Michael Parsons pictured on the grounds of Birr Castle.

Michael Parsons is the director of Birr Castle Gardens & Science Centre

"Fortunately for me, our baby Celeste is sleeping right through the night, so I'm up before my wife and daughter most days. If the weather's nice, I like to put records on in the morning. I'm going through some of my parents' old records right now and it's a lovely start to the day. We live on the Birr Castle estate - I live in the Victorian farmyard about a mile from the actual castle - so I cycle to work or walk through the beautiful gardens and make sure everything's in top shape. All sorts can present themselves when I get to the office, from unblocking a toilet one minute to finding a good spot to plant saplings collected by my father the next. Right now people are coming from all over the world to see the Birr Castle Gardens; the Chinese market has really opened up recently.

At lunchtime, I go over to the castle itself and have lunch with my parents. They've been living in the castle since 1979 - I was born in 1980, so I grew up there. My brother and sister, and their families, live in or around the castle too. My mum describes it as King's Cross station - she's certainly not short for company there. Lunch is a good time to catch up and chat a bit about work. My sister and I have worked very closely refurbishing the Science Centre here recently. She's a qualified scientist in her own right. We're all trying to make Birr Castle as best a family destination as we can, and we're trying to safeguard the longevity of the family living in the castle for generations coming forward.

It's hard to describe growing up in a castle: I was pretty young when I was sent to boarding school in Meath. I really understood how special it was when I was 17 or 18 and saw how fairytale-like it was. Now that I've had a child myself, I realise how fantastic an opportunity it is to grow up with all this space around.

The castle is a bit of a time capsule: it's very romantic but not necessarily all that glamorous. Certainly, when my brother and sister got back from their travels a while ago, the place was more like something out of The Young Ones than a Ferrero Rocher ad. In the winter it's quite cold because the heating bills for the castle are outrageous.

Birr Castle was opened to the public in the 1960s but people would just wander in and walk around and there wasn't much in the way of facilities. My father endeavoured to turn it into a viable destination and he turned it into an internationally acclaimed garden.

Do we have to worry about money? Of course. It's not like we're breezing off on jets all the time. We're here and there's a place for all of us on the estate, but to be here, we have to make a contribution. There are no free rides.

We opened up the castle a bit more in recent times so that people can tour inside. During the summer months it's possible to have a tour of the hall, the dining room and saloon. My parents were a bit hesitant about it at first as you might imagine, but they're fine with it now. They have to clear their muddy boots out of the hall and put their coats away. I think my father really enjoys meeting people on the tours, in fact.

In the near future, I'd love to get the science centre carbon neutral and working from hydro power. In my downtime I'm really into gardening. I love being in nature, and enjoying my own little piece of the world. I love listening to music in the evenings too; I've picked up lots of African music, jazz and swing recently. This probably sounds a bit daft but I've been really enjoying the Gardener's Question Time podcasts recently. I'm guessing they're largely for the over-60s but I find them really comforting.

We have revolving house suppers with the family once a week, so there's a real community feel to life at the castle. In the evenings I love having mint tea, using mint from the garden. There's a certain point here I don't need to turn the phone off, and there's no reception in my house anyway. I try not to think too much about work after a certain time at night… but I'm not overly stressed by the world one way or the other, that's for sure."

For more information on Birr Castle's new Science Centre, see www.birrcastle.com.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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