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Stars align for first Mayo Dark Sky Festival

Going Out

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

Ciara Moynihan

In May, the Ballycroy/Wild Nephin National Park in North West Mayo became Ireland’s first Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park as recognised by the International Dark Sky Association. A Gold-Tier classification is an honour reserved for the most exceptional of dark skies and breathtaking nightscapes.
Just five months later, a new festival – the Mayo Dark Sky Festival – has been set up in honour of this glittering accolade. Taking place in Newport from October 28 to 30, it will include a galaxy of talks, exhibitions, workshops, sky observing and family-themed events. There’ll be something for everyone, from professional scientists to amateur astronomers, from young inquisitive minds to more-mature star gazers.

A universe of knowledge
The festival will be officially opened in Hotel Newport at 7pm on Friday night, October 28, by celebrated broadcaster and scientist Leo Enright, known far and wide as one of the country’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocates of science and space.
Former Head of Radio News with RTÉ, Enright has broadcast live commentaries on every major space event since  Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. During his varied journalistic career, he has worked as RTÉ correspondent for the Middle East, and later North America and London, as well as with the BBC, as its correspondent in Ireland. He is also joint author of ‘The Encyclopaedia of Space Travel and Astronomy’, and in 2003, he was appointed Chairman of the Government’s Discover Science and Engineering programme.
Following a short introductory talk by Georgia MacMillan, Project Leader of the Mayo Dark Sky Park, Martin Byrne will discuss ‘Irish Megalithic Alignments and Astronomy’. Byrne is a Bord Fáilte tour guide who has been giving guided tours for 20 years to Neolithic sites across Ireland but mainly in Connacht.
Saturday will include a series of talks by a stellar line-up of leading scientists and amateur astronomers, including ‘One Thousand Years of Great Comets and Great Disappointments’, a talk by Nick James (secretary of the British Astronomical Association and assistant editor of The Astronomer magazine); ‘Ireland: Our Place in Space’, by Dr Norah Patten (adjunct faculty at the International Space University and Co-Chair of the Space Humanities Department for the Space Studies Program); ‘Extra Solar Planets and the Potential for Life’, by Tony O’Hanlon of Shannonside Astronomy Club; ‘A High Ecliptic Survey of the Outer Solar System’, by astronomy researcher Eamonn Ansbro; and ‘Europe at Mars: Red Hot News from the Red Planet’, by Leo Enright. Following a festival dinner, Shannonside Astronomy Club’s John O’Mahony, an Irish/Australian amateur astronomer, will give a talk on the amateur astronomy scene in Australia and how it is organised.
Sunday’s activities will include another slew of interesting talks. Nick James will discuss ‘Observing the Moon: then and now’; amateur astronomer John McKeon will look at ‘High Resolution Planetary Imaging’; amateur astronomer Dave Grennan will focus on ‘Building and Operating a Robotic Observatory’; Tony O’Hanlon will discuss observing from a Dark Sky site and how to get the most from your equipment; and Professor of Astronomy Lorraine Hanlon will give a talk on ‘From Atoms to Astrophysics – How we know what we know about the Universe’.

Family fun
Sunday will also include fun for all ages, with a Free Family Sunday Funday taking place at Newport National School from 11pm to 4.30pm. The day will include all sorts of fun, from the Discovery Science Lab, with scheduled activities designed for school children, to astronomy story telling, facepainting and drawing. There’ll also be cosmic exhibits and displays, discussions with amateur astronomers, and a display of some colourful cosmic-themed paintings by Dublin-based Polish artist Iwona Stefanczuk Blasi.
Big Bear Planetariums will also be at Newport National School. Their state-of-the-art mobile planetariums using Fulldome 360-degree 3D digital projection technology have stunning graphics and advanced computer simulations. A fully interactive learning environment designed to be both educational and fun, children will get the chance to discover many fascinating facts about the universe and talk to the planetarium’s fully qualified Astro Officers.
For children aged nine to 16, there’ll also be a rocket-building workshop with Eric Stenzel of the the Irish Rocketry Society (places for this event are limited) – bound to get imaginations fired up.

Observing nights
Naturally, the festival also includes some real ‘in the field’ star gazing. Weather permitting, the organisers hope to hold an observing session on the first clear night at two locations simultaneously. One, for serious astronomers only, will be at the Brogan Carroll Bothy in the Letterkeen Forest. The second, a public event, will take place at the Burrishoole Abbey car park, where there will be some large telescopes and laser-guided night sky tours.  
The day before the festival officially opens, Derek Dempsey of the Newport Astronomy Club will give a free talk entitled ‘A Beginners Guide to Cosmology: The Science of Everything’ in Newport’s Gráinne Uaile pub. This event is being held in association with the Mayo Dark Sky Festival.

For more information on these and other Mayo Dark Sky Festival events, as well as booking information where applicable, visit