Council protects historic astronomical site

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Westmeath County Council has responded to lobbying by scientists by moving to protect a country house near Streete where important astronomical discoveries were made more than 100 years ago.

Daramona House housed a private observatory established by William E. Wilson (1851-1908), who is credited with making the first series of photo-electric measurements of the brightness of stars in 1885, using a Grubb telescope.

Wilson, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society, also made the first accurate determination of the temperature of the solar photosphere, as well as a series of superb celestial photographs.

According to Dr John Hearnshaw, professor of astronomy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, Daramona is a site of "enormous significance for the development of astronomical science".

Expressing concern about plans to develop the site for housing, he told Westmeath County Council that Daramona "has a place in astronomy comparable to Kitty Hawk to aviation, and this fact is being increasingly though belatedly recognised in the scientific world".

Daramona was for many years owned by the Dunne family. Last year, it was bought by a firm of builders, Slevins of Moate, Co Westmeath, who are seeking permission to build 38 houses in the grounds.

However, the county council has deferred a decision on the application and last week it published a notice of its intention to confer "protected structure" status on the house, its ancillary buildings, demesne wall and gates. The deadline for submissions is December 6th.

Even while a planning application is under consideration, local authorities are empowered by the 2000 Planning Act to protect historic buildings at risk.

Mr Ian Elliott, of Dunsink Observatory, described the move as "a step in the right direction".

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