Ireland is home to one dark sky reserve and two dark sky parks but they’re not the only places to see incredible stars and light displays in the country
We are extremely proud of our beautiful country but that pride went up a notch when we learned that Ireland is one of the best places in the world to view the night sky.
Kerry and Mayo came second and fourth, respectively, in the top 10 of Europe’s Best Stargazing Spots in a recent study and our dark sky parks and reserve have achieved gold tier status from the International Dark Sky Association.
Staring up at a sky full of stars is an incredible experience but unfortunately, the majority of people who live in towns and cities never get to truly appreciate its rare beauty due to light pollution. There’s a saying that the darkest nights produce the brightest stars but, of course, we need artificial light in our modern world.
Alas, the side effect is that it disrupts the natural environment and also causes skyglow – the reduction of visible stars in the sky, especially dimmer stars, due to the spill and glare of other forms of light ie. street lamps, neon signs, car lights etc.
Thankfully, there are still plenty of locations around the country where you can witness this stunning miracle of natural light for yourself. Here are the best ones:
Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve
For an unforgettable star-gazing experience, it doesn’t get much better than the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve. Thanks to the exceptional lack of light pollution, this location gives you the opportunity to see star constellations as your ancestors would have.
The reserve is a public access area covering most of South Kerry (700 square km including Caherdaniel, Dromid, Waterville, The Glen, Ballinskelligs, Kells/Foilmore, Portmagee, Cahersiveen and Valentia Island) so you are free to stargaze at your leisure without constraint and do not need to hire a guide. However, if you would like a guide, there are star-gazing experiences available, most of which last about 90 minutes. If you’re planning a visit, it’s worth noting that this Dark Sky Reserve is on the Atlantic Seaboard so stargazing weather is not predictable more than about 24 hours in advance. Click here for more information or to book a guided service.
Mayo Dark Sky Park
On a clear night in Mayo, you can see thousands of shining stars, along with other planets, The Milky Way and even meteor showers with the naked eye.
Nestled between the remote Nephin Mountain Range and the wild Atlantic coastline, the Mayo Dark Sky Park extends across an area of 150 square km. Its borders encompass the lands of Wild Nephin National Park and Ballycroy National Park which becomes the Dark Sky Park at night. The site is completely free to access anytime, day or night, and there are three signature viewing sites for you to choose from. The darkest accessible site is the Brogan Carroll Bothy, which is located on the eastern side of the park. This remote and stunning location offers visitors a range of walking loops from the Letterkeen trail head car park. Click here for more information on how to visit.
OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory, Co Tyrone
OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory in Davagh Forest is the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland and you can visit at any time of the night for ‘unrivalled and wondrous views of the night sky;. It’s name, OM (or Aum), was inspired by the sound of the universe. It is also connected to Ogham – the first known language of Ireland.
The Sky Park is home to a 14 inch LX600 Meade telescope which you can see on daily guided tours of the Exhibition or actually use during special star-gazing events or group tours.
If you are planning to visit late in the evening or remain in the forest after dark, it’s recommended that you stay close to the observatory building and car park as the forest can be difficult to navigate at night. Visitors can also make use of the outdoor viewing platform with red ambient lighting for star gazing. Click here to plan your visit.
Irish Sky Garden, Skibbereen, Co Cork
If you’ve never heard of this place before, don’t worry, you’re not alone. It’s quite difficult to describe but essentially, it’s a piece of public art, designed by American artist James Turrell, who is famed for his large-scale experimentations with light and space.
The Sky Garden is set against the natural landscape of the Celtic Liss Ard, or “High Fort,” an ancient structure half reclaimed by nature which lends its own magic to the location. Shaped like a bowl, the structure features a central stone plinth reminiscent of ancient Celtic and Egyptian altars. The altar rises up at an angle, and features two stone footrests on each end to allow the viewer to lie down facing up and out toward the edge of the crater above. All that is visible from this vantage point is the green grass and sky, creating a uniquely serene experience and making you feel like there is nothing on the planet except the ground beneath you and the sky above you. No in-between.
And if it’s beautiful during the day, you can only imagine how incredible it is at night. Liss Ard Estate offers night time tours of the Sky Garden – guests and visitors can enter the sky garden for €10 per person for a 20 minute slot, subject to weather conditions and the time of year. Click here or call 028 40000 to find out more.
Malin Head, Inishowen, Co Donegal
While many of us trek to the far corners or Europe and beyond in the hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, the truth is that we can see it from our very own country, when conditions are right.
As the most northerly point in Ireland, Malin Head in Inishowen is undoubtedly the best place on the island to witness the breath-taking phenomenon of Aurora Borealis. Due to the low light pollution, Dunree and Ballyliffin are also prime locations in which to get the perfect photograph. However, there are other locations in the north of the county, like Fanad Peninsula, that are ideal to watch the skies too. When it comes to Donegal, you’re spoiled for choice!