Home between Beijing and Birr


INTERVIEW:The Parsons family of Birr Castle in Co Offaly have had a long connection with China, one that has been deepened by the future Earl of Rosse whose wife is Chinese and whose two children are being raised in both traditions, writes  CLIFFORD COONAN in Beijing

THE STORY OF the links between the Parsons family, whose home is Birr Castle, and China stretch back over a century and include tales of adventure, scientific achievement and botanical exploration. It is also a story of a very traditional family discovering an entirely new dimension in the booming economic heavyweight that is contemporary China.

The relationship has taken on fresh significance today because Anna, the wife of Patrick Parsons, the future eighth Earl of Rosse and Beijing resident, is from Tianjin. Their young daughter, Olivia Rose Xuewei, and son William Charles Yufan, are being raised equally at home in both Western and Chinese traditions.

For many years the family home, which is decorated with antique Chinese furniture, has been Beijing, but Parsons is set to expand the family reach to include a European staging post in London, to be closer to Birr Castle, although China will remain his chief area of business. “I will very much keep my presence in China. I have the most important link with China, which is that my wife is Chinese – there isn’t a stronger link possible, and that will always remain the case with the children being half-Chinese,” said Parsons, 42.

His own links to China began in 1992 when he was kicking about, keen to go abroad, away from the considerable comfort zone that Birr Castle and environs has to offer. Aware of his family’s history in China, and most often compared to his great-uncle Desmond, an aesthete and traveller, Parsons started studying Chinese at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. The former Crown colony wasn’t quite what he expected when he thought about China, and he made the bold decision to move to the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute for nine months.

He then worked for various investment companies in China, back in the heady days at the turn of the century when China was only really beginning to internationalise. He mostly focused on real estate, working primarily with Chinese companies, although he spent time at Jones Lang Wootton, now Jones Lang LaSalle, where he was head of research consultants.

Parsons is a familiar face on the Irish expatriate scene in China, and during his time he has variously been chairman of the Irish Network China (INC), and Olympic Attaché during the Olympic Games in 2008. But he has always valued his close links among the Chinese.

Anna Parsons was a colleague at a real estate company in Beijing. She studied accountancy in Tianjin, one of China’s more international cities, and she has some Russian blood somewhere down the line, and has been a TV presenter. It was a lot to take on board, although she is more than aware of the responsibilities that marrying into the family which runs a castle like Birr brings. Anna and Patrick Parsons married in 2004, with a Chinese and western ceremony in Beijing followed by a blessing at Birr Castle.

“Anna very much understands that Birr is part of our future, and the importance of family heritage and the castle. Sometimes it’s a little bit daunting for her. She’s strong and seems to accept things well,” said Parsons.

Some Chinese people find adjusting to life overseas difficult, they miss the food and the culture and never really adapt. Anna Parsons has a love of Western food, of Western culture, and she enjoys the way things are done in the West. She is 36 and believes that making such a profound move is easier when she is young. “It doesn’t seem to be a very difficult process. That’s one thing in a city, of course it’s different, a castle in the country. Adapting from an urban to a rural lifestyle is more difficult that adapting from a Chinese to a Western way of life,” said Parsons.

“Languages and travelling are the two most important educational things we can give our children. The fastest way to educate children is both giving them many languages so they can understand different cultures and become expressive, and travelling and seeing lots of places,” he said. This could be a line you imagine being spoken by Parsons’ great-uncle Desmond, who is like a character out of a 1930s novel. Desmond was a legendary figure among the Bloomsbury set, and according to some accounts, the great travel writer Robert Byron developed a passion for him.

Byron’s books First Russia, Then Tibet: Travels through a Changing World and The Road to Oxiana are wonderful accounts of this fascinating period in the region, inspiring great travel writers like Bruce Chatwin to tread a similar path. Although the passion was unrequited, Desmond Parsons and Byron shared a courtyard house in the Ts’ui Hua hutong (laneway) in Beijing in 1934, and he collected objets d’art, including porcelain, fans, screens and robes, as well as scrolls which are still in Birr Castle.

Among the visitors to the house was Harold Acton, one of the most illustrious of the Bloomsbury set. Always interested in art, Desmond was keen to see the famous early Buddhist cave paintings at Dunhuang. He succeeded but these were the turbulent days of the “Great Game” played for influence in the region between Britain and Russia, when much of China was under the sway of local warlords. Desmond was kidnapped by a local warlord on the way back and fell ill.

Parson’s grandparents were coincidentally in China and brought him back to Europe on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was diagnosed with two rare, incurable diseases – one of them apparently Hodgkins Disease, and he died in Switzerland in 1937, aged just 26.

Byron was devastated. He himself died just four years later aged 36 when the ship he was travelling on was torpedoed in 1941 as he was sailing to Iran on assignment for the London Times.

Desmond Parsons’ fascination with China is a compelling story, but he was not alone in developing a passion for the country and the family links go back even earlier.

More than 40 per cent of the total number of plants at Birr Castle are of Chinese origin, most of them from the verdant provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in the southwest. Many of the seeds were brought back by Augustine Henry, who worked for the Imperial Chinese Customs Service along the Yangtze Rive. Henry started collecting and sending specimens of the seeds back to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew for identification in 1885 and are now on display at Birr Castle. Parsons’ grandfather Michael continued this tradition, supporting plant-hunting expeditions.

Parsons’ grandparents went to China on their honeymoon and among the people they met was Prince Pu Ru, a cousin of the last emperor, and the director of Peking’s Fan Institute of Biology, Prof HH Hu. Parsons’ grandfather arranged plant-hunting expeditions with Professor Hu, which took place between 1937 and 1939.

Patrick Parsons’ younger brother Michael also has links, having taught at the Bai Nian Vocational School in Beijing, which provides free education for the children of migrant workers. While much of his work has been in real estate in China, Parsons is now moving into private equity. The government, worried about an Irish-style property bubble, has started putting dampeners on the market, and it looks set to slow in the next few years. Instead, Beijing is trying to encourage other forms of investment, including overseas, which Parsons believes offers opportunities.

“They’ve been doing a lot in squeezing finance and that means there has been huge of room for private equity firms to grow. I believe that the stock market and private equity will have a much bigger role in the future in China,” he said.

The family will keep a home in Beijing, and once he has established the family in Belgravia, he will come back every month for at least a week. One area he is particularly keen to encourage is tourism, to get Chinese tourists to come to Ireland in general, and Birr Castle in particular.

A new visa waiver programme should encourage more people to visit Ireland, but without a direct flight from China to Ireland it is sometimes difficult to get Chinese tourists to come before they go to Britain – because of the Shengen agreement, tourists need different visas for Ireland and Britain than for mainland Europe, so people tend to visit one or the other. “If you had a direct flight to Dublin, they would immediately spend a week in Ireland,” he said. “If they spent a week in Ireland, I imagine we could catch 60 per cent of those on tours coming to Birr. Every time they do come to Birr, they are amazed and impressed with all the links to China, with the plants and the trees. The other things the Chinese love is that Anna is Chinese , and the continuity is something the Chinese find a lot of fun as well.”