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11/10/2014 (The Kiwi/Kerry Connection)

Since February this year I’ve been working on a project which involves the first everWaterville, Kerry, Ireland.

twinning of two international dark sky reserves. These two reserves are the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve (I.D.S.R.) Ireland and the Aoraki Mackenzie I.D.S.R. in New Zealand. At the end of January 2014 I heard that the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, Ireland, was awarded gold tier status by the International Dark Sky Association (I.D.A.)

The I.D.A. is an organisation that draws attention to the hazards of light pollution. It awards bronze, silver and gold tier status designations to dark sky communities, parks and reserves all over the world, gold tier being the highest award. I work for another gold tier status reserve: the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (I.D.S.R.) in New Zealand. I was responsible for coming up with the idea of twinning both dark sky reserves.

Rock art on boulder, Castlecove, IrelandJulie Ormonde, Project Manager of the Kerry I.D.S.R. invited me to officially open the Kerry Dark Sky Office in August this year. It was a privilege and an honour to be asked to do this and I was delighted to accept the invitation.  I was at home in Ireland on holiday for two weeks and my Dad and I drove down to Kerry to meet up with Julie and her team.

They treated us like V.I.P.s while we were there. Julie had arranged free accommodation for us in Waterville. The Bed and Breakfast where we stayed was beautiful and in such a wonderful location, with a stunning view of the Kerry mountains and the Atlantic Sea.

We met Denis O’Conor that evening too. He is the Chairman of the Heritage Iveragh Group. This group was founded in 2009. Its main aims are the exploration and preservation of the heritage, history, folklore, traditions and antiquities of the Iveragh Peninsula. Denis is part of Julie’s team and we had firsthand experience of the amazing work this group does to protect and pass on information about the antiquities in South West Kerry. We were escorted to various heritage sites and rock art in the area.

The following morning Denis guided us out to Caherdaniel where we met up with Inside Staigue Fort, KerryMichael Sheehan. He is also an integral part of Julie’s team as an astrophotographer with a deep interest in the history of the stone forts and archaeological monuments in the area. The whole peninsula is littered with megaliths, stone circles and forts, and rock art. They showed us a great example of some of the rock art at Castlecove. This rock art is found on huge boulders lying in the middle of a farmer’s field. It was really interesting to see, with its concentric circle patterns scattered here and there across the surface of the boulders.

Staigue Fort was the home of a wealthy landowner built in the early centuries before Christianity. This stone fort’s wall is nearly 6 metres high and 4 metres thick and built entirely without mortar. This amazing feat of workmanship was great to see too. The earliest known form of the Irish language is preserved in Ogham inscriptions which can be found on Ogham stones in the area. Denis and Michael showed us one of these too. We also visited Derrynane House, which was the ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, who achieved Catholic Emancipation for Ireland in 1829. Here we were introduced to the head guide, Mary Lyons and she gave us a quick tour of the museum. She attended the opening that evening.

My Dad & I at Derrynane HouseThere was a photo opportunity at 2pm that afternoon at the Kerry Dark Sky Office in Ballinskelligs. A photographer from The Kerryman newspaper was there to take photos for an article they would print the following day. Julie and I were later interviewed by the editor of this newspaper for the article.

Julie and Denis drove us to the only chocolate factory in the reserve and later they brought us to see the Skellig Islands. Their spectacular pinnacles could be seen jutting above the water near Valentia Island in the low lying cloud. Skellig Michael is world famous: known throughout the world of archaeology as the site of a well-preserved monastic outpost of the early Christian period, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The opening that evening was a great success. There were about 50 people who Ogham Stone, Kerryattended both the opening ceremony and the wine reception at the local Community Hall directly afterwards. The speech that I wrote described the background of how the whole idea of twinning both reserves came about and emphasised the need for small communities in the Reserve to work together. It also included a message from Professor John Hearnshaw, on behalf of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve (I.D.S.R) to the Kerry I.D.S.R, which was received very well. At the Community Hall I gave a short presentation to show the wonderful dark skies above Lake Tekapo and Mt. John. This video was made by Maki Yanagamachi, one of our astrophotographers at Earth and Sky.

My Dad showed a keen interest in the origins of the first Transatlantic Telegraph Cable which landed in Valentia Island in the reserve. Denis presented my Dad with a five and a half inch length of this cable, which was laid in the late 1800s, linking Waterville to Canada and a book entitled “A Thread Across The Ocean” on the story of that Transatlantic Cable.  I’m fascinated with the stone forts, the Ogham stones , rock art and the archaeological monuments in the area. So they presented me with a 500 page cultural atlas of the Ring of Kerry, entitled “The Iveragh Peninsula” by John Crowley and John Sheehan.

Martina cutting ribbon of Kerry DSR OfficeEven though the opening was a success, the reserve is badly underfunded. They don’t have any financial support from the government. The national tourism organization, Failte Ireland, spent 12 million euros on a new tourist driving route, called The Wild Atlantic Way, which was launched in February 2014, a month after the Kerry I.D.S.R. received their gold tier status. To date Failte Ireland haven’t given any money to the Kerry I.D.S.R.

There are some positive connections that have built up though, due to the official opening event. A week after the opening, Julie told me that she spoke to the Vice Principal of University College Cork, who attended the opening. He spoke to the Physics Professor of UCC and the Professor in charge of the large radio telescope at Blackrock Castle, where the Cork Observatory is based. All three of them are interested in pursuing the future development of the Reserve. This will be a great advancement regarding students, education etc for the future. Other progress is being made too in the Reserve. Planning permission has been granted to build a small observatory in Geokaun, Valentia.

The newspaper article about the official opening was printed in The Kerryman Newspaper the following day. Here is the link to it:

Julie also informed me that she is very interested in coming over to Lake Tekapo forPeople outside Kerry I.D.S.R. office for opening. the Starlight Festival in October 2015 and could get sponsorship for this trip. It would be great for her and maybe some other members of her team to come over here, see the Reserve, meet everyone and get to see the stars at the top of Mt. John (weather permitting, of course). I’m sure I could get the media website from Tourism New Zealand interested in the event too, along with local newspapers. Having those articles printed in the South Canterbury Herald and also on the media website of Tourism New Zealand earlier this year would definitely generate interest from the media and the I.D.A.

Alien outside Kerry Dark Sky OfficeWe are also working on a photography competition to include both reserves. The theme of this competition would be the following: “Stunning by day, Sensational by Night”. The competition would take submissions from photographers in both Ireland and New Zealand, who would be required to take a photo of the reserve both in the daytime and one at night of the stars. We hope to get a camera company to sponsor this competition and suggest putting the winning photos of both countries in an exhibition at Christchurch airport. The thinking of this is just in the early stages yet but we hope to develop it further in the next few months.

We are also in the process of getting a Twinning of the Reserves sign/plaque made, so it can be displayed in both locations. At the moment we’re waiting for Kerry to finalise a design and this is also in its initial phase. But we hope that will happen shortly.

For me it’s been an amazing experience to be involved in this whole project, something that I’ve done on my own initiative. So all in all, the event was a great success. I got to meet a lot of people connected with the Kerry Dark Sky Reserve and we hope to continue this link between Earth and Sky/Aoraki Mackenzie I.D.S.R. and the Kerry I.D.S.R. in the future.