Ireland’s dark skies: We’re a world leader in star-gazing

Experience Ireland’s starlit skies by getting to one of the island’s dark observation points

Photograph: Ronan Melia, via Getty Images

Photograph: Ronan Melia, via Getty Images

 

The days are getting shorter and alas we must all concede that the amazing summer of 2018 has come to an end. But there’s no need to get too morose about it. There are plenty of reasons to celebrate the arrival of autumn.

Many of us tend to head for the shelter of the indoors as temperatures drop and the evenings darken. But those who have ventured out beyond the city lights on a clear dark night will be aware of the magic of a star-filled sky. Immersed in total darkness, it gives you an opportunity to appreciate the vastness and artistry of a night sky while connecting you to the universe as a whole.

Star-gazing is best in areas that are free from any light pollution. Not an easy feat in this day and age. But despite its small size, Ireland is a big hitter on the world stage when it comes to star-gazing. We have two “gold tier international dark sky parks”, one in Mayo and the other in Kerry. Not bad when you consider that only 60-odd other places have secured this accolade across the world.

Other gold tier dark sky parks include the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park. Luckily for us, Kerry and Mayo are a lot easier to get to.

Georgia MacMillan of Terra Firma, a company offering a number of tours by day and night in Ballycroy National Park, was instrumental in putting Mayo on the international dark skies map.

“Ballycroy National Park borders with Wild Nephin so we have an expansive 15,000 hectares of land well away from any artificial light sources. We have a natural catchment of dark skies with the mountain border and the Atlantic blanket bog with good access via forest tracks. It’s a great place to go and observe the night sky.

“We are trying to encourage families to get out with the kids and get them to start looking at the sky instead of looking at their screens,” explains MacMillan.

We want to show people how they can get away from these artificial lights and re-set the batteries

“We all have too much artificial light in our lives. Our night skies are something a lot of people take for granted but rarely get to see. We are all more aware of the handhelds and the tablets and the blue lights we get from them. We want to show people how they can get away from these artificial lights and re-set the batteries.”

Terra Firma offers Dark Skies Safaris, Gastronomy and Astronomy Tours and Storytelling Tours, all of which incorporate stargazing.

“We pick people up in our Starlight Express minibus and take them into the dark sky park. We point out nocturnal wildlife before our storyteller tells us some myths and legends about the night sky. We then use a laser to point out the different constellations. We aim to send people home with a little bit of knowledge so they can continue to enjoy the night sky wherever they live,” says MacMillan.

Where and how to enjoy Ireland’s dark skies

Kerry International Dark Sky Park

Local guide Steve Lynott hosts guided tours of Kerry’s Dark Sky Park from Ballinskelligs. Over the course of an hour, Lynott uses laser aids, telescopes and high-powered binoculars to guide you across the night sky and all of its wonders. A complimentary evening sky map is included. Tours start at €15 per person. iti.ms/2P65dVg

Those looking to stay the night can avail of the Dark Skies Package at the Moorings in Portmagee. This package includes one night’s bed and breakfast and a Dark Sky Tour with Lynott for just €60 per person sharing from January to April and October to December.

iti.ms/2Rp3Kv0

Mayo International Dark

 

Sky Park

Terra Firma offers an array of tours across the Ballycroy National Park and the Nephin Begs. These tours range from relaxed walks and storytelling tours to more adventurous hikes and wild camping trips. Tour prices start at €25 per head.

iti.ms/2OZWeF8

Carrick-a-Rede and Oxford Island national nature reserve, Northern Ireland

Of the more than 150 dark sky discovery sites in the UK, two are in Northern Ireland. Carrick-a-Rede Island near Ballintoy in Co Antrim is reached by a rope bridge that dates back to 1755. It is now owned by the National Trust, and periodically hosts stargazing evenings with the Northern Ireland Amateur Astronomy Society. Oxford Island, on Lough Neagh in Co Armagh, also holds occasional stargazing events at its discovery centre.

iti.ms/2Rk7jmb; oxfordisland.com

Astronomy for beginners

October 2nd, 2018 (eight-week course)

If you are looking to find out a little bit more about the world above us then the Astronomy for Beginners course, hosted by Astronomy Ireland, is a great place to start. The classes will take place at Trinity College Dublin and will run for eight consecutive weeks. No knowledge of astronomy, science or maths is needed.

iti.ms/2P5pGd1

International Observe the Moon Night

October 20th, 2018

Taking place at the Astronomy Ireland Headquarters in Blanchardstown, this event is a celebration of all things lunar. Held in association with Nasa, attendees will get the chance to experience looking at the moon through Astronomy Ireland’s telescopes.

iti.ms/2RgN4Wh

Mayo Dark Sky Festival

November 2nd-4th, 2018

This action-packed festival will offer stargazing hikes, moonlit walks and environmental events over the course of the weekend. The event will take place in Ballycroy National Park in Co Mayo.

mayodarkskyfestival.ie

IAS Astrophotography Exhibition

November 11th-December 2nd, 2018

The Irish Astronomy Association is hosting an exhibition to showcase the work of Irish astrophotography. These splendid images of the stars, the galaxy and solar system will be on show at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin.

iti.ms/2P5NHRg

Skellig Star Party: Europe’s Darkest Skies

August 24th-25th, 2019

Organised by a group of amateur astronomers from across the country, the Skellig Star Party offers like-minded folks the opportunity to gather at Kerry’s Gold Tier Dark Sky Reserve. Talks, workshops, a table quiz and a barbecue are just a few of the activities on offer.

skelligstarparty.com/

Heather Snelgar edits the outdoor and adventure website outsider.ie

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