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    Seeing Stars….Exploring Ireland’s Dark Skies

    By Georgia MacMillan
    More by Georgia

    Ireland's Night Skies

    It’s surprising how few people have ever seen a truly dark sky. Light pollution has stolen the view of the Milky Way from the homes of over 60% of Europeans and 80% of North Americans.

    And it seems the sight of stars has influenced many of us in so many ways. For centuries natural, starry night skies have inspired art, science, poetry and even helped explorers to navigate.  

    Consider the rich abundance of music, art, poetry and philosophy that references the stars, or the sight of the night sky in all its glory. Sadly for some, it is not possible to fully appreciate a natural night sky due to the onset of light pollution. 

    Those living in large towns and cities where only the glow of artificial light is visible overhead as a yellow hue often seek a naturally dark sky site.

    Such “dark sky” spots can offer not just a stunning landscape but a sanctuary at night for the visitor to enjoy a magical skyscape overhead where The Milky Way (which is the name for our home galaxy) can flow in all its glory. On a clear night in Ireland under a dark sky, you can see over 4,000 twinkling stars, planets such as Venus or Jupiter and even meteor showers and all with the unaided eye!

    Why are Dark Skies important?

    However, Dark Skies are not just important to astronomers – all living species on this planet evolved with a day/night biological rhythm known as our “circadian clock.” We need darkness to reset this clock and regulate our sleep, digestion and physiological functions.

    Artificial light can affect the daily life cycle of all animals, leading to confusion in navigation, imbalances in the food chain and disruption to natural daily cycles. This is one of the reasons that the dawn chorus of birds can be heard in the middle of the night in some towns and cities across the world.   

    Since 2001, naturally dark places have been under the protection of the International Dark-sky Association. Based in Tucson, Arizona, this non-profit organisation was established to protect the night sky for present and future generations to enjoy. Thus over 150 places world-wide are now designated under its dark sky certification programme. This process is modelled on other conservation and environmental designation programmes such as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Biosphere Reserves, and many of the accredited International Dark Sky Places have become destinations for a growing “astro-tourism” market. 

    Here in Ireland, we are lucky enough to have some of the darkest, most pristine skies in Europe, and that’s official! Ireland is home to two Gold Tier standard International Dark Sky Places, the highest possible classification.

    Where to find Ireland's Dark Skies?

    Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve

    The first of these accreditations was bestowed upon Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve in 2014, making it the first dark sky reserve in the northern hemisphere. Located on the Wild Atlantic Way, the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve spans an area of 700 square kilometres of rich heritage, taking in some of Ireland’s most breath-taking scenery to be visited during the day as well as after dark. 

    The Reserve incorporates many iconic tourism sites on the Ring of Kerry including the towns of Caherciveen, Waterville, Portmagee and Caherdaniel. It also has connections not only with the stars, but also “Star Wars” as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael is included in the reserve boundary.

    The dark sky reserve offers astronomy events throughout the year for you to avail of such as the Skellig Star Party in August and the annual Messier Marathon in March, a chance for astronomers to spot as many deep sky celestial objects, known as Messiers, as possible. 

    Hike in Kerry

    Mayo Dark Sky Park

    Heading north on the Wild Atlantic Way, we find our second gold tier Dark Sky site: Mayo International Dark Sky Park. Co Mayo offers an off-the-beaten-track experience and despite being Ireland’s 3rd largest county with the longest coastline, it’s sparsely populated. The Mayo Dark Sky Park was accredited in 2016 and encompasses all 15,000 hectares of Wild Nephin National Park, managed by the National Parks & Wildlife Service. 

    The Mayo Dark Sky Park stretches across Ireland’s only wilderness and the remote Nephin Beg Mountain range. Here you’ll find big skies and tranquillity with vast areas of blanket bog and stunning Atlantic coastline.

    You can avail of national park visitor centre facilities from March to October, take a stargazing safari with local guides, or a self-guided tour to one of three signature viewing points. In late October/early November, attend the Mayo Dark Sky Festival, a three-day extravaganza celebrating the night skies including astronomy talks, solar system walks, storytelling and many other family friendly events. 

    Hike in Mayo

    However, you don’t have to be in an official dark sky place to enjoy the night sky. In addition to the two internationally accredited sites, here’s our list of recommended places around Ireland where you can enjoy the stars on a clear night: 

    • Sheep’s Head Peninsula, West Cork (Southwest)
    • Hook Head Peninsula, Co Wexford (Southeast)
    • Lough Gur Heritage Centre, Co Limerick (Southwest)
    • Dunquin, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry (Southwest)
    • Inisheer of the Aran Islands, Co Galway (West)
    • Inagh Valley, Connemara, Co Galway (West) 
    • Inishturk Island, Co. Mayo (West)
    • Ceide Coast, North Mayo (Northwest)
    • Glencolmcille, Co Donegal (Northwest)
    • Fanad Head, Co. Donegal (Northwest)
    • Davagh Forest Park in the Sperrin Mountains (Northern Ireland)
    • Knowth Neolithic Site, Co Meath (East Coast)

    Helpful guide to finding your way around the night sky

    The North Star (‘Polaris’) is positioned directly above the North Pole. Sailors have used it to navigate for centuries. The Plough looks a bit like a saucepan. If you draw an imaginary line from the two stars furthest from its ‘handle’, it will direct you to the North Star. 

    What are constellations and asterisms?

    Simply put, they are our Earth-based interpretation of star patterns in the sky. 

    The ancient Greeks attributed mythical characters to many of the constellations we know today. Every culture around the world has created their own stories and legends about the shapes they saw in the sky.  In 1930 the International Astronomical Union set official boundaries on groups of stars and recognised 88 constellations across the north and south hemispheres. 

    Asterisms are smaller groups of stars that may be part of one or more constellation.  They are typically well known groups such as The Big Dipper (the Plough) or The Summer Triangle.

    Looking North

    Circumpolar Constellations – as the name suggests, these star groups circle the celestial pole. For that reason, they are constantly visible (from the Northern Hemisphere). 

    Cassiopeia – Look out for the group of stars forming a giant “M” or “W” (depending upon time of year).  Cassiopeia is the vain & boastful mythical Queen of Ethiopia.

    Ursa Major – Latin for “the Great Bear.” This well-known constellation includes the seven stars that form “The Plough.”  

    Ursa Minor – Polaris marks the tail end of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear). The two stars at the other end are known as Guardians of the Pole (Kochab and Pherkad).

    Looking South

    Stars in the southern sky change with the seasons.

    Look for a group of stars in the shape of a reverse question mark. This is the head of the constellation known as Leo (the Lion).

    Cygnus ‘the Swan’ appears to be flying down the Milky Way. Look out for the Summer Triangle too – a formation of three bright stars: Deneb, Vega and Altair.

    Pegasus – the legendary winged horse. The body of Pegasus is formed by the Great Square.

    Just beside Pegasus is our nearest large galaxy – Andromeda. It appears as a fuzzy stretched blob in the constellation of Andromeda.

    In winter months, Orion ‘the Hunter’ from Greek mythology is prominent. His belt is easy to spot – formed by three bright stars.

    Did you know...?

    You’re Time Travelling with the stars…

    The light you see from a twinkling star has taken millions of years to reach you, so when you look at the stars, you are actually looking back in time!

    Meteor showers are named after the constellation their meteors appear to come from, so Perseids appear to come from Perseus. Look for this in August!

    Stargazers’ Checklist:

    Situated at the edge of Europe, Ireland really is the last haven of pristine dark skies and the beauty of stargazing is that you don’t need much, if any, equipment.  It can take your eyes up to 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness so be patient! Here’s a check list to help you get ready so switch off the lights, look up and enjoy the celestial skies above.

    Warm Clothes Read More

    Having the right clothes when you head outside is always important, particularly when you are on the west coast of Ireland where the weather is changeable, and we might get all four seasons in a single day. At night, this is even more pronounced.

    We recommend the following items:

    • Hat
    • Gloves (and hand warmers if you get particularly cold)
    • Plenty of layers (avoiding cotton when possible) – base layers, fleece, gilet/vest, outer layer
    • Waterproof jacket
    • Scarf
    • A small bag to carry the above items
    • Waterproof boots or sturdy shoes
    • Good wool socks (avoid cotton!)
    • A flask/thermos with a hot drink (not a clothing item,  but will help keep you warm!)

    Learn more about what to wear while hiking in Ireland

    Also, check out the differences between hiking boot and shoe – and which is best for you. 

    The Right Equipment Read More

    The whole idea of stargazing involves going out at night in particularly dark places. While this is great for stargazing, it can also be a bit dangerous, especially if you aren’t a regular stargazer or used to the terrain.

    Having the following items can help reduce the risks. Also keep in mind that stargazing with a guide will not only be safer, but it will also make your experience better!

    We recommend: 

    • A pair of binoculars – but never point them towards the sun!
    • A red torch light – it helps your ‘night vision’ and avoid any white lights 
    • Stargazing is best on your back – so bring a mat or blanket to lie on.
    • A Star chart or Planisphere – www.skymaps.com (even if travelling with a guide!)
    A Knowledgeable Guide Read More

    As mentioned above, wandering around rural Ireland at night in search of stars can have its risks. The best way to mitigate any risks tis to come prepared – and have a guide.

    Having a knowledgeable guide will also help you to interpret what you are seeing – the constellations, the planets, the stars, etc. They may also help to relate stories about Ireland’s history of stargazing, navigating, sailing, establishing Dark Sky spots, and other related topics.

    Irish Weather

    It’s always good to check the weather before you go out – particularly in Ireland where the weather can change so rapidly.

    When planning a trip to Ireland, it’s always a good idea to get a sense of seasonal weather (as well as hours of sunlight)! For example, stargazing in summer in Ireland is quite difficult as there are only a few hours of night sky (sometimes as little as for midnight to 4 am!).

    Autumn and winter are much easier for enjoying sunrises and sunsets (which are often at their most beautiful in winter), stargazing and enjoying moonscapes. Winter days can start as early as 4 pm (16h00), with sunrises as late as 8 am.

    Meet the Author: Georgia MacMillan

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