Dark skies light up Ballycroy


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

Anton McNulty

The gates to the Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre are currently closed due to the Covid-19 restrictions, and the buzz created by people coming and going to the centre and exploring the surrounding wilderness is sorely missed in the village.
In her role as the Community Employment Supervisor with the Ballycroy Community Council, Breege Grealis has witnessed firsthand how the opening of the visitor centre changed the village, located between Mulranny and Bangor along the N59.
“You can feel the buzz around the village when people come in, and we miss it so much at the moment,” Breege told The Mayo News.
“It is usually open for St Patrick’s weekend, and we do be looking forward to it reopening. It goes quiet then when it closes in October and the buzz is missed. You are really looking forward to it reopening in spring with all the hype which comes with it, it is fantastic.”
Breege said that before the visitor centre opened ten years ago, nobody would stop in Ballycroy; people would drive straight through on their way to another destination. That has all changed, and the Community Council is now planning to turn the old courthouse into a gift shop.
Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park is home to the Mayo Dark Sky Park, which was granted the gold-tier International Dark Sky status in 2016. There are plans to incorporate a planetarium and observatory into the visitor centre, which could result in the centre opening all year round.
Breege said that people in the local community are working with the NPWS and other stakeholders on the Dark Skies project, and she has high hopes for the community if it goes ahead.
“We had a Dark Sky symposium last November, and we had people from 16 different countries here in the visitor centre … and people coming into Ballycroy in the middle of November was unheard of.
“We would have great hopes for it [the visitor centre], especially when the planetarium and the observatory comes. You will have activity in the winter time, which will be great not just for the local businesses in Ballycroy but for the hinterland as well. You will have groups coming in, and my hope – and it is my own personal opinion – is that it will be run like the Gaelscoils, with groups coming from Europe just to study the dark sky in conjunction with the national park,” she said.
Margaret Flaherty, Superviser Guide at the Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park Visitor Centre, explained to The Mayo News that the park’s vastness and lack of light pollution make it one of the best places in Europe to observe the stars.
“They say you can see over 4,000 stars on a clear night over the park, which is again a major selling point. Living in the countryside we take it for granted that we can see the stars, but most of the population of Ireland don’t see them.
“At the moment, the visitor centre is open from March to October, but the winter time is the best time to observe the sky. Having a planetarium and observatory will extend the tourism season and will definitely be a positive in increasing the visitor numbers – but also a positive for the locality, with people visiting the area in the off season.”