Stellar line-up for Mayo Dark Sky Festival



Speakers include Guy Consolmagno, affectionately known as ‘the Pope’s astronomer’

Ciara Moynihan

“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world into another.” So wrote Plato in the 4th century BC.  
Throughout our history, humankind has been obsessed with the stars and the universe as it stretches beyond the confines of our Earth. From primitive fear and ancient lore to modern exploration and its awesome breakthroughs, the celestial bodies – their origins, their makeup and their movements – continue to fill us with wonder and a hunger to know more.
Astronomy is now more popular than ever. The recent James Webb Space Telescope images have blown our minds, allowing us to view objects too old, distant or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope. Suddenly, everything seems possible – observations of the first stars and galaxies, of yawning black holes, of distant worlds around other stars.
While we rely on NASA to supply us with these jaw-dropping images, we need only step out under the Mayo night sky to feel that humbling sense of awe and wonder. And during the chaos of Covid, many did just that, seeking out the comfortingly reliable rhythms of nature, the familiar constellations above us moving predictably across our field of vision when all else felt in flux. Mayo News readers sent in umpteen images of local nightscapes, capturing beautiful pictures of the Milky Way, the aurora borealis and more.   
Of course, here in Mayo we are blessed with our own internationally recognised Dark Sky Park, an indication of the exceptionally clear views of the heavens that we get, thanks to our low levels of light pollution.
The Wild Nephin National Park and Mayo Dark Sky Park expands over 110 square kilometres of mountainous Atlantic blanket bog and forest. Viewing sites for visiting astronomers have been designated and graded by ease of access and the facilities available. Signature viewing sites include the Claggan Mountain Boardwalk, Letterkeen Bothy and the Wild Nephin National Park Visitor Centre at Ballycroy.
The annual Mayo Dark Sky Festival is taking place this year from November 4 to 6, with a host of events scheduled for Newport, Mulranny and Ballycroy. Since its inception in 2016, this popular festival has attracted leading astronomers, top cosmologists and amateur star gazers from all over Ireland and beyond. This year’s stellar line up should once again prove a massive draw.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, will be giving a talk on the different takes on the big questions of the universe, from St Paul and St Augustine through Galileo, Kepler and Newton and on up to Stephen Hawking. He has coauthored two astronomy books, ‘Turn Left at Orion: Hundreds of Night Sky Objects to See in a Home Telescope – and How to Find Them’ (with Dan M Davis) – a seminal book for amateur astronomers – and ‘Worlds Apart: A Textbook on Planetary Sciences’ (with Martha W Schaefer).
Professor Mark McCaughrean, the Senior Advisor for Science and Exploration at the European Space Agency, is also on the line-up. McCaughrean is working with the James Webb Space Telescope team and will be sharing all the latest exciting data from there.
Professor Sera Markoff from the University of Amsterdam will talk about her work with the Event Horizon Telescope team, which captured the first ever photograph of that most mysterious of cosmic phenomena – a black hole. (If you want to freak yourself out, have a listen to NASA’s recently released audio clip of sound waves rippling out from a supermassive black hole, located 250 million light-years away in the Perseus galaxy cluster. It will haunt your dreams.)
Dr Karen Weekes – the first Irish woman to row any ocean solo – will give a fascinating talk entitled ‘Rowing the Atlantic: The night skies’, during which she will share some of her photos, videos and stories from her Atlantic Ocean crossing earlier this year, focusing particularly on her night rowing experiences.
Much-loved Irish scientist and broadcaster Éanna Ní Lamhna will also give a talk, ‘Marine Life – Blinded by the Light’, which one suspects will look at how light pollution has affected life in our seas and the delicate balance of our aquatic ecosystems.
The impact of light pollution will also be looked at by Kevin Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation at the University of Exeter and director of the International Dark Sky Association. Gaston has recently conducted studies on the extent, dynamics and environmental impacts of artificial light at night.
Throughout the three days, a planetarium will be set up in Newport NS, with live commentary by the staff of Blackrock Castle Observatory.
Not all events are strictly astronomy-related – the festival will open in Ballycroy with a concert by cellist Patrick Dexter, whose videos of performances outside his tiny cottage outside Newport captured the hearts of the nation during the pandemic’s lockdowns. Meanwhile, the weekend will finish on Sunday at 6.30pm with a lantern walk up to Newport’s iconic St Patrick’s Church for a concert of heavenly harp and clarinet music with duo Dathanna.
Festival director Fiona Hopkins says November is a particularly rewarding time to enjoy the night sky. “The skies are dark from 6pm, the weather can be mild, and there are some beautiful stars, constellations and planets to be seen, including Cassiopeia, double star Albireo and planet Saturn,” she explains. “On a clear night, it really is quite magical.”
If all of this stargazing seems a little intangible, a little ‘other worldly’ or irrelevant to everyday life, perhaps we should ruminate on the words of famously cantankerous astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. “Space isn’t remote at all,” he reminded us. “It’s only an hour’s drive away, if your car could go straight upwards.”