Sky's the limit

Padraig Sands and his daughter Maria Sands.
Padraig Sands and his daughter Maria Sands.

Kevin Hughes

"I TOLD you so and I hope you believed me back then."

South Kerry Astronomy Club Chairperson Julie Ormonde had a smile wider than the Milky Way this week following the announcement that south west Kerry is to become the first 'Gold Tier' designated Dark Sky Reserve in the northern hemisphere.

Julie had indeed predicted it back in August 2012 when The Kerryman interviewed her about the fledging Cahersiveen-based astronomy club and she had highlighted efforts to apply for Dark Sky status.

Eighteen months later that dream is a reality and Julie deserves a huge pat on the back. It follows a three-year campaign, with Julie putting together an extensive 145-page 'business' plan that has now catapulted Kerry to the forefront of the astronomy world.

It's a massive achievement but, as Julie explains, the hard work is only just beginning.

"It's amazing for Kerry but this award is the canvas, now we have to paint it. The most important thing is to build upon the momentum. We need to keep local communities behind it and show them exactly how this can benefit them."

"There is a four-year plan for the reserve and Monday night's announcement was the end of year one - but the beginning of our astrotourism business initiative," Julie said.

The ultimate vision is a string of observatories throughout the Iveragh Peninsula, in areas such as Valentia, The Glen, Ballinskelligs, Derrynane, Foilmore and elsewhere. Eventually, it could also lead to Ireland's a national planetarium, an idea that has been looked at favourably by Fáilte Ireland ever since Julie first approached the tourism body in 2011, while others have also expressed interest.

"These could be backed by national bodies or by private investment but the key thing is to keep jobs on the ground here in Kerry. Observatories need year round staff while a planetarium would have a lot of spin-off employment. That's the goal but, in the meantime, we need the local hospitality businesses to embrace the idea and promote it, even by simply having binoculars that could go out on loan to guests," she said.

Julie is quick to point out that Kerry's nightime sky is accessible to all and that a telescope isn't an essential requirement.

"Many of our key features can be seen by the naked eye here in Kerry. Last week astronomers were raving about a new supernova in galaxy M82 and in Kerry its outline could be seen without any lens. Walk just 10 minutes outside Cahersiveen and you get a great view, you'd have to travel 20 or 30 miles from Dublin to get any view," she said.

In welcoming the Dark Skies designation on Monday, Kerry County Manager Tom Curran said the announcement puts Kerry at the forefront of astro-tourism and he promised that the council will work to reduce light pollution.

"Kerry County Council is committed to replacing all public street lighting with efficient, dark-sky friendly light fixtures progressively throughout the county over the coming years, beginning in 2014," he said.


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