Shhh: Ireland Has Some of the Best Stargazing in Europe

There are 20 Dark Sky Parks and 14 Dark Sky Reserves in Europe—and the island of Ireland has 3 of them.

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A bothy—or basic shelter—in Mayo Dark Sky Park

Photo by Brian Wilson

With remote, rugged landscapes and a low population density, Ireland has night skies of exceptional quality: On a clear night, you can spot distant constellations, watch meteor showers, count satellites, and even see the International Space Station whizzing past. Comprising the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the island of Ireland is home to two Dark Sky Parks and a Dark Sky Reserve, all accredited by the International Dark Sky Association.

The best time for stargazing in Ireland starts with the Perseid meteor showers in mid-August, with great autumn angles on the Milky Way. Winter brings crisp evenings, with the Pleiades coming into view in November, and in December, darkness can last for up to 16 hours a day. Of course, Ireland is no stranger to passing rain clouds from the Atlantic, but even if the sky is not clear, there is plenty to see and do day and night, with scenic coastal drives, mountain hikes, ancient monuments, and lively pubs.

Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve

Ireland’s first Dark Sky Reserve incorporates a 270-square-mile area of County Kerry in the southwest corner of Ireland. Designated in 2014, the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve is set in an area known for beautiful rugged landscapes and a low population density—just 4,000 people live in the area.

The reserve runs along part of the Wild Atlantic Way and the Ring of Kerry, stretching from Kells Bay on the north side of the Iveragh Peninsula to Caherdaniel on the south, between the mountains and the Atlantic coast. Some of the best places to observe the dark skies and surrounding views are at the 1,000-foot-high Coomanaspig Pass on the Skellig Ring walk near Portmagee, or at the old watchtower on Bray Head on Valentia Island, which looks out to both the Skellig and Blasket islands.

The night sky has always been important to people in Ireland, and many monuments built in this area during Neolithic times lined up with the stars and celestial bodies. A stone circle from the Bronze Age sits in Bonane Heritage Park near Kenmare, just outside the Reserve, composed of 13 large stones thought to be the center of an ancient astronomical calendar, which tracks the solar and lunar cycles as well as moon rises. At sunrise and sunset on the summer solstice, on June 21, the sun directly aligns with the stones in the circle. Ancient inscriptions found on stones in the area, written using the old Ogham alphabet, are also thought to be records of celestial calculations.

How to Get to Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve

To get to the Dark Sky Reserve area, from the town of Killarney, take the N71/72 to Killorglin and then the N70 to Cahirsiveen.

Mayo Dark Sky Park

Mayo Dark Sky Park extends over roughly 60 square miles of Wild Nephin National Park, stretching from the Nephin Mountain Range across blanket bog (peatland) to the Atlantic coast. Because of the area’s low population and rugged lands unsuitable for farming, its skies are some of the world’s darkest: In 2016, the park was awarded rare Gold Tier status from the International Dark Sky Association—the highest designation awarded—meaning that the sights like the aurora, Milky Way, and faint meteors are visible.

Hiking in the park at night can be rugged, but there are three signature dark sky viewing points that are easy to access: the Ballycroy Visitor Centre boardwalk, the 1.2-mile Claggan Mountain Coastal Trail boardwalk loop, or the Robert Lloyd Praeger Center, a stone bothy (shelter) at the Letterkeen trailhead.

The park runs events for International Dark Sky Week every April and hosts the Mayo Dark Sky Festival every November, with talks, walks, workshops, music, and—of course—stargazing. Plans are underway for a planetarium at Ballycroy and an observatory at Letterkeen. Terra Firma runs stargazing safaris between August and April.

Mayo Dark Sky Park development officer Georgia MacMillan, who is currently researching a PhD on dark skies, says that experiencing night skies is beneficial because being constantly exposed to artificial light is not good for us.

“When we have too much light with a blue element, it keeps us alert, suppressing our melatonin,” she says. “We have so many street lights, they create daytime conditions at night, affecting not only humans but wildlife and biodiversity.” MacMillan says keeping this area dark conserves the nocturnal habitats of creatures like pine martens, badgers, and bats and helps migratory birds.

In addition to hosting the Mayo Dark Sky Park, Wild Nephin National Park has bogland, the 16-mile Bangor Trail, an old drovers trail running through the park, plus ruins of stone cottages and herders huts, ghost stories, and legends from Irish mythology, which all make night or daytime visits very interesting.

How to Get to Mayo Dark Sky Park

The nearest towns are Newport, Mulranny, or Bangor Erris off the N59 road, which loops around from the larger town of Westport to Ballina.

Om Dark Sky Park and Observatory

Om Dark Sky Park and Observatory received accreditation in 2020, and it has an observatory and visitor center.

The Dark Sky Park’s 3,700-acre area in Davagh Forest in a rural part of the Sperrin Mountains is away from main towns and cities—the nearest town, Cookstown, is eight miles distant as the crow flies—and so has low levels of light pollution. The Sperrins were designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 2008, and the park is also home to the Beaghmore Stone Circles, with 7 stone circles, 10 rows of stones, and 12 cairns. Much about the stones is a mystery, but like Bonane, they are thought to act as a calendar and align with particular solar and lunar events.

The observatory at Om has a 14-inch Meade telescope. As well as showcasing the amazing night sky views, the visitor center gives information about light pollution and shows the benefits of preserving dark skies for nature, wildlife, and future generations. To spend a little longer under the stars, check out Sperrinview Glamping, where the glamping pods have glass viewing windows.

How to Get to Om Dark Sky Park

Om Dark Sky Park is on Davagh Road, Omagh, and 13 miles from Cookstown in County Tyrone.

Yvonne Gordon is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in Ireland.
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