Kerry’s night sky: ‘It’s like a punch in the stomach’
Julia Ormonde, a city girl who moved to Kerry, helped secure Dark-Sky Reserve status for her adopted home
Julia Ormonde looking at an almost full moon in Kerry. Photograph: Michael Sheehan
In the 2010 novel Italian Shoes, by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, the character Louise moves from the city and lives deep in the northern forests among artists, intellectuals and pugilists, in a place where “the stars seem to be within reach, almost glittering”.
In the book, Louise declares that she is going to start a company “selling these glittering, silent nights”. Now after boldly going where she had never gone before – when she moved to Kerry in 1996 it was her first time in the county – Dubliner Julia Ormonde is doing just that. But instead of Swedish skies she is selling the beauty of the night sky of Kerry to the universe.
Five years ago, as the founder of the South and West Kerry Astronomy Group, she began to put together an application for dark sky reserve status for what she recognised was an extraordinary view of the stars.
Then last January the 700sq km area in southwest Kerry was named an International Dark-Sky Reserve, securing the top or gold-tier designation for the exceptional quality of its night sky by US based International Dark-Sky Association in Arizona. While there are a number of certified dark-sky parks, only six locations worldwide have been given the higher distinction of international dark-sky reserves. Only two other gold-tier reserves have been awarded: the Aoraki Mackenzie (New Zealand) and NamibRand Nature Reserve (Namibia, Africa).
The area is sandwiched between mountain and sea, and includes Kells/Foilmore, Caherciveen, Portmagee, Valentia Island, Dromid, the Glen, Ballinskelligs, Waterville and Derrynane/Caherdaniel. It is regarded as an exceptional nocturnal location, with minimal pollution.
The reserve offers the full array of visible sky phenomena, including the Milky Way, zodiacal light and faint meteors, and is a renowned area of exceptional night-time beauty. It also has no artificial glare and is unique in the dark-sky reserve world in that there small towns and villages within it.
The reserve has just received planning permission for an observatory on Geokaun Mountain, Valentia Island. The location over Fogher Cliffs has a stunning 360-degree view of the night sky over the Atlantic and inland.
Seduced by the Atlantic
Ormonde’s move to Co Kerry in 1996 was part of the rural resettlement programme, and she was seduced by the sound of the Atlantic and “most of all the stars. I was never in Kerry in my life before.”
Despite being a city girl, she had never felt at home in the urban sprawl. “The most lonely place you can be is when you are trying to be what other people want you to be – other people sense you are a fake and they don’t trust you. They pick it up in you.”
She glides easily from stargazing to philosophy, natural partners since ancient times, because looking at the night sky encourages reflection, something that a lot of people now have no time to do.
“This comes with stargazing. It opens up the philosopher inside. Looking at the stars brings out something very natural. We are losing so much of ourselves, steamrollered by technology. I don’t think it is deliberate. It’s just happening and we are losing the connection with the natural world.”
People living in south Kerry, and in many places in rural Ireland, do not appreciate the richness of their night sky, she says. But then blow-ins always look at things in fresh ways, she adds. “People say to me they don’t know anything about [the stars], but you don’t have to know about a flower to know it’s beautiful.
“I love astronomy. I always have. I was born loving peace and quiet.”
The move to Co Kerry, with her five children, then aged three to 11, “allowed them opportunities they never would have had in Dublin. They mixed with the children of TDs, farmers, artists, well-off and not-so-well-off and went to university.”
‘A place with no noise’
St Finian’s bay looking on to Skellig Michael was the family’s first stop, a bit lonely for the children she says, but Ormonde loved it. “I live in Waterville now, on an estate, Ard Aoibhinn. I live in a place with no traffic lights, no noise, with the quiet of the night and the sound of the Atlantic when I step outside my door.
Her mission now is education. “Everyone should know about the stars. But it’s not on the curriculum. It’s not taught.”
There is no Irish newspaper column on astronomy. Astrology, on the other hand, can be found everywhere, and although she does not believe in it, Ormonde understands the need people have to search for direction. Even Galileo was hooked on astrology, she says.
“All the natural wonders are about daylight things. We all know about the Grand Canyon and rivers and such, but the night sky too is part of the universe. If we were made aware of it, we would all feel part of one universe, part of a bigger picture.”
Escorting stargazing tours, she has noticed how the night sky affects people of all ages and backgrounds. “When for the first time as a city person, on a moonless night under a lunar sky, you stand under it and from horizon to horizon it is filled with stars, it’s like a punch in the stomach. It overwhelms you. It’s like opening a window of wonder.”
“The reaction of grandparents and children is exactly the same. There is a child-like wonder, a rediscovery lost in the haze of growing up. Stupid cares are waved away and everybody whispers in case they break it. It’s just peculiar.”
Astro-tourism is growing, particularly in the East, and it is something she says the tourist boards here need to get behind. Recently a Japanese TV station could be found filming the night skies around south Kerry with the aid of military night lights.
“We need to learn to lead. We are always following,” says Ormonde. “We now have a world-class opportunity if we would just look to the stars.”