By day, South Kerry is one of the planet's most beautiful places. By night... it's still one of the planet's most beautiful places!
In January 2014, a tireless and long-running campaign spearheaded by astronomy enthusiast Julie Ormonde secured an extraordinary recognition for the Iveragh peninsula.
The International Dark Sky Association designated the area as the northern hemisphere's first 'Gold Tier' Dark Sky Reserve, and this weekend people of all ages took part in the 'Messier Marathon Weekend,' celebrating the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve.
Just one of four 'Gold-Tier' reserves on earth, the Kerry reserve encompasses a 700-square kilometre covering areas like Cahersiveen, Valentia Island, Portmagee, Ballinskelligs, Dromid, Caherdaniel, Kells, The Glen, and Waterville. As the International Dark Sky Association said, the reserve's location between the Kerry mountains and the Atlantic Ocean provides natural protection against light pollution.
On Friday, organisers of the 'Messier Marathon Weekend' welcomed excited pupils from five schools to Ballinskelligs Community Hall to marvel at a temporary indoor planetarium illustrating the many wonders of skies. Between schools and other members of the public, over 250 people visited the Planetarium over the course of Friday and Saturday.
Organised by Coiste Forbartha in conjunction with Steve Lynott of Kerry Dark Sky Tourism, the weekend featured a host of illuminating contributions by astronomy experts from Ireland, Britain and France, but the highlights were undoubtedly the superbly attended Friday and Saturday night stargazing sessions from Ballinskelligs Beach.
There were over 100 stargazers present on both nights and they were blessed with clear skies as John Flannery and Steve Lynott pointed out various objects and answered the public's questions. While the amateur stargazers were learning the trade, The Messier Marathon also took place as 60 astronomers attempted to spot all 110 planets discovered by Charles Messier. Larry O'Toole proved the weekend's star, spotting 62 of the 110 objects.
"Because Charles Messier was French, the French Embassy got involved and did sterling work promoting the weekend," Coiste Forbartha na Sceilge's Des Cronin said.
"Hundreds from all over took part, so it captured the imagination. I must add that we're delighted to have received backing from KCC, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Fáilte Ireland and the CIT and UCC-affiliated Blackrock Castle Observatory for the events," he added.
The weekend's events - which drew hundreds to both the indoor planetarium and beach-side views of Iveragh's unrivalled night skies - complement the annual 'Skellig Star Party', which brings astronomers from all over the world to South Kerry.
Dessie is hopeful that the Messier Marathon can join the Star Party as an annual celebration, and help Iveragh build on the potential as one of the world's few Dark Sky Reserves.
"It has massive potential for off-season tourism in particular," he said. "Since the area was designated as a reserve in 2014, signage has been placed to increase awareness of its incredible status, measures have been implemented to curb light pollution, and information guides and courses have been made available.
"There are also aspirations for additional facilities, like a mobile observatory. But right now, the focus is on making events like the Messier Marathon and Star Party regular fixtures in Iveragh."