Graduate aims to have astro-tourists flocking to Mayo

by Tom Shiel

Georgia has stars in her eyes

OUR ancestors had wonderful  night views of the stars unsullied  by artificial light pollution.  The Milky Way and The Big  Dipper, signposting the North  Star, were as familiar to them  as the humps and hollows on  the nearest hill or mountain.  But now, with earth ever developing  and populations expanding,  the awesome night  sky is mostly disappearing.  But there is one tiny corner  of north-west Europe, the  10,000 acre Wilderness Park  in the Wild Nephin range of  Mayo, where the distant stars  and galaxies can be viewed,  clouds permitting, in all their  glorious splendour.  One young woman, Georgia  MacMillan, a a graduate in  Outdoor Education at Galway-  Mayo Institute of Technology  (Mayo Campus) has a dream.  She is working tirelessly to  have Ballycroy and surrounding  area designated as a Darksky  Park, the first in Ireland.  Georgia, who grew up in  London and has a Mayo born  mother, Teresa (Barrett), formerly  from Bangor Erris, feels  the Nephin wilderness zone  has the potential to become  one of the best dark-sky locations  in the world.  Tourism would prosper  from such a designation, she  insists in a dissertation, “Preserving  our Night-Time Skies”,  which she recently completed  as part of her studies for a BA  (Hons) Degree in Outdoor Education  at GMIT.  To lend weight to her opinion,  Georgia points to the fact  that since Galloway Park in  Scotland opened in 2009 as  the first Dark-sky Park in the  United Kingdom there has  been a local surge in tourist  numbers.  “Seventy seven per cent of  local B&B owners reported  increased numbers,” Georgia  commented.  She added: “People who  visit National Parks in daytime  such as families, hikers,  nature lovers also tend to have  a passing interest in the nighttime  sky.”  Numbers of astro-tourists in  Ireland’s south-west have also  increased since the recent designation  of the Kerry Dark-sky  reserve.  A local committee has been  established – the Mayo Dark  Skies Steering Group – with  support from the National  Parks and Wildlife Service and  Mayo County Council.  There are representatives  involved from Ballycroy,  Newport, Mulranny as well as  other locations in the National  Park hinterlands.  The ongoing task is to build  awareness of the impact of  light pollution, not only on  our view of the stars, but also  its effect on wildlife as well as  reducing energy waste with  unncessary cost.  The response both locally  and nationally to the Ballycroy  Dark-sky initiative has been  tremendous.  In this regard, Georgia Mac-  Millan would especially like  to single out Professor Brian  Epsey of Trinity College,  Dublin, who has provided  research sources, light meter  equipment and even travelled  to Ballycroy for the purposes  of setting up a field study.  Members of Galway Astronomy  Club have also lent  the fledgling Ballycroy group  some valuable equipment.  The elimination of local light  pollution which could hinder  star-gazing is one of the immediate  aims of the Dark-sky  team.  “We want to encourage local  people to to think about the  type of lights they are using,”  Georgia explained. “Home  security lights are commonly  known to produce light pollution  in the form of glare. Simple  repositioning of the lights  can help.”  Georgia makes it clear she’s  not an astronmer adding: “But  I have always appreciated the  night skies.  “I would prefer to walk on  a dark street than a bright one  even though I am from the city  (London). I don’t like harsh  lighting. I think it’s a little unnecessary.”  Excessive lighting, she  adds, can also have impacts  for wildlife and human health  (through circadian clock interference).  The young graduate ends  our interview by emphasising  that Dark-sky status for Ballycroy  would not only bring  media attention to the area  for eco-friendly tourism but  would also fit in neatly with  the enviromental goals of the  National Park.  Fittingly, Georgia began her  dark skies thesis with a famous  quote from the 19th/20th century  French physicist, Jean  Perrin: “It is indeed a feeble  light that reaches us from the  starry sky.  “But what would human  thought have achieved if we  could not see the stars?”