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Sky’s the limit


WALKWAY TO HEAVENThe stars as seen from Ballycroy National Park.  Pic: Brian Wilson

Áine Ryan

SPRING may be in the air and the clocks may have lopped an hour off our lives in a bid to bring brightness back, but we are in the middle of International Dark Sky Week. And where better to celebrate the spectacle of infinity and beyond offered by the night skies than in Mayo?
From ‘Cosmic Blunders’ to ‘Dánta in the Dark’, ‘An Astronomers’ Tale’ to ‘Magic, Myth and Moonlight’, this week’s programmes of events suits all ages and levels of interest and expertise.
International Dark Sky Week was established back in 2003 by Jennifer Barlow, a high-school student from Virginia. Her aim? To foster the appreciation of ‘the beauty of the cosmos and consider ways to reduce the spread of light pollution’. Her idea caught on, and International Dark Sky Week has grown into a worldwide event and an important element of Global Astronomy Month.
Like the secondary school students who have put a lens on climate change in recent weeks, Jennifer Barlow was just 15 years old when in 2002 she responded to a suggestion that the lights should be dimmed on a dedicated night each year so that people could enjoy the beauty of the night skies. By April 2003 Dark Sky Week was being observed across the United States.
In her own words: “To be reconnected with the night sky. Most of us have forgotten the legacy of the night sky as it seems to fade away behind the blanket of light pollution. The universe is an important part of our history that should not be forgotten.”

Wilderness wonderland
THREE years ago Ballycroy National Park & Wild Nephin Wilderness was awarded Gold- Tier status as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA). As was reported in these pages, this prestigious classification classification is ‘an honour reserved for the most exceptional of dark skies and breathtaking nightscapes’.  Speaking at the time, IDA Executive Director J Scott Feierabend said that such a recognition completes the ‘360 degree experience’ that the north Mayo national park has to offer, boasting pristine beauty underfoot, all around and up above’.
Ballycroy National Park and the adjoining Wild Nephin Wilderness  extends over some 15,000 hectares of Atlantic blanket bog, mountainous terrain and forest. Viewing sites for visiting astronomers, stargazers and dark-skies enthusiasts are graded by ease of access and facilities available. Signature viewing sites include the Claggan Mountain Boardwalk, Letterkeen Bothy and Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre, which has excellent interpretive and parking facilities.
To get Dark-Sky recognition, an area not only needs to prove that it is sufficiently dark from an astronomy point of view, it must also engage with the wider community in nearby urban spaces through education and outreach events to raise awareness of light pollution and energy waste, and their impact on environmental issues.

Stellar line-up
Organised by Mayo Dark Skies Community Group, this week’s events include a talk in Ballycroy National Park on Thursday at 8pm, entitled ‘An Astronomer’s Tale’ by Dr Gary Fildes, the head of Kielder Forest Observatory in Northumberland. Another highlight is on tomorrow (Wednesday), April 3, in Mulranny Park Hotel at 8pm. This experiential evening in night-themed poetry, ‘Dánta in the Dark’ will have contributions by poets Seán Lysaght and Póilín nic Somhairle.
On Saturday next, April 6, Mayo Dark Skies patron and leading environmentalist, Duncan Stewart will host a workshop, ‘Creating a Community Vision of Light’. It will be held in Hotel Newport at 8pm. The final event of the dedicated week will be held in the atmospheric grounds of Ennsicoe House on Sunday, April 7, at 8pm. Entitled, ‘Magic, Myth and Moonlight’, the event is a presentation by the cultural tourism group, Terra Firma.