Impressed in the west by magnificent autumn moons


ANOTHER LIFE: A DIFFERENT LIFT TO the wind, a new slant to the sky: as autumn unfolds, the west comes into its own. Like the great spring tides that surge across the strand, wiping it clean as a mirror, a realignment of light and space creates a bright new stage for the landscape, suddenly colourful in ways the summer people never see.

Summer’s high, flat light is as bland and clumsy as a passport photograph, if not attenuated by mist or drizzle, then soaked up by grasses in their beige shroud of high-season pollen. An October sun is a portraitist, a sculptor, glittering in the spikes of morning rushes, the cobwebs of hedges and lichened walls.

The mountains are given back their drama, sharp-edged and shadowed, reunited with their past, their glacial shaping lovingly detailed, the last erratic boulder spotlit in the bog. A moorland suffused with the death of sedges – madders and crimsons – sets its own fires from the torch of the sun: the smouldering siennas of falling bracken, the lion’s mane flare of moorgrass, bleached late into winter. It’s then that the little lakes shine bluest, like shards of lapis lazuli or cobalt.

For the moment, though, let’s settle for the autumn’s magnificent moons: the harvest moon tomorrow night, when the final 2 per cent of the orb becomes visible, cloud permitting, in Ireland, and the full hunter’s moon of October.

They must, of course, be shared with lesser skies (did I never notice them in Dublin, even on starstruck party nights?), but here they rise, already golden and enormous, from the ridge above Six Noggins. They sparkle for a while in the hill stream at the bridge, then lift above the peak of Mweelrea to make a silver ribbon of the boreen to the sea. If I am lucky, early at my desk, one still towers above the islands, mocking the earthbound scan of my computer.

Both moons invite what is termed the moon illusion: the conviction of so many people that full moons look biggest of all soon after clearing the horizon. Science admits the illusion but still can’t quite account for it. Ptolemy’s notion is still current: that the low moon looks bigger because we have foreground objects against which to measure it. The rich colour of the low moon, warmed to marzipan by industrial haze, may play a part too.

In 1709 George Berkeley, Irish bishop and philosopher, isolated the rising moon by looking at it through a tube, but he found that it still looked bigger.

Patrick Moore, the moon’s ambassador on Earth, once stood on his head on the shore at Selsey Bill to see if that made any difference. It didn’t.

I have wondered, if the moon rose in the west, in the pristine air of the Atlantic, would the moon illusion fade? Mayo’s fabulous sunsets, after all, often most brilliant in November, owe nothing to dust or haze for their incandescent colours. If that were true, as one American weatherman has pointed out, “cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Mexico City would be celebrated for their twilight hues.” Stephen F Corfidi is lead forecaster for the storm-prediction centre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (, a great source of meteorological enlightenment. Late autumn and winter produce eastern America’s best sunsets, too, most memorably, as here at Thallabawn, when the right kind of clouds enrich and reflect a low but unadulterated sunlight.

The blazing reds and oranges are what remain of the visible spectrum when the beam from a low setting sun has been robbed of the violet and blue light that illumine our perception of the daytime sky. The purer the air, the more its molecules scatter the violet wavelengths; droplets of haze or pollution merely dull or subdue the colours, robbing the sunset of brilliance and intensity. That the west’s Atlantic sunsets of late autumn are so vivid, often suffusing even the lowest clouds, is evidence of clean air, right down to the swells of the ocean.

All this, and I have not even spoken of the stars. On those night photographs of Earth from space, the coast of Connacht is one of the last, blessedly dark fringes of Europe. The overpowering awe of a clear starry sky is another spectacular offering of the west; some city dwellers, indeed, on their first revelation, stand transfixed with jaws ajar, adrift in the infinite Milky Way.

Great moons, spectacular sunsets, starry skies, a landscape transformed by the angle of the sun: how real is all this, how probable, how bookable in advance? Will the websites of country-house hotels offer last-minute deals to match a promising weather forecast? Or have I, from decades in the west, woven an off-season idyll from too many singular visions?

Eye on nature

In a dark place between our fig tree and the fence we found a clump of nettles. The tallest measured 11ft 3in (3.43m). Is this a record?

Anna Cluffe, Sandyford, Dublin

Yes. The tallest so far recorded in Ireland was 10ft (3.05m).

In Ballymount we have a small lake with swans, ducks, moorhens, coots and the occasional heron. Recently two cormorants have taken up residence. Is it unusual for them to move inland?

Ben Dundon, Dublin 24

Cormorants often move to inland lakes, and even nest there.

I saw up to 60 cormorants or shags on the rocks at Old Head, near our home, with their wings hanging out to dry.

Barbara Cox, Louisburgh, Co Mayo

At South Park in Galway, where the Corrib enters the sea, there is a line of two-foot bushy tomato plants at the high-tide line on the stony beach. They have been, presumably, washed down from picnickers’ sandwich lunches.

Michael MacGloinn, Gaillimh

Paul Gregan from Bray and Declan Tarpey of Blackrock sent photographs separately of a bird of prey that landed on Dún Laoghaire pier on September 15th. The bird’s small size, the jesses on its legs and its tolerance of people suggest an escape from a falconry.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email Please include a postal address

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