Sky’s the limit for Kerry’s astro-tourism

A fusion of diverse attractions — from the ancient to the most modern — could launch a sometimes forgotten part of Ireland as a world centre for a new type of tourism.

The view from Valentia Island, Co Kerry, looking out to the Skelligs. The area was this year designated the first international Dark Sky Place in the northern hemisphere. Picture: Peter Cox

How do you blend a sixth century monastic settlement, Hollywood razzmatazz and self-effacing people who only wish to stare into the cosmos at night?

The answer: just aim for the stars and the sky is the limit.

South-West Kerry is a sometimes forgotten part of the country but it has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, with penitent souls going to Skellig Michael, a cone-shaped rock rising out of the Atlantic, and drawing inspiration from monks who lived there in austerity.

Now a Unesco world heritage site, Skellig Michael made international headlines recently when, because of its sheer wild beauty and isolation, it was chosen as a setting for scenes in the next Star Wars movie.

Earlier this year, there was, arguably, a far more significant happening — the International Dark Sky Association designated the area as Ireland’s first international Dark Sky Place, and the first in the northern hemisphere.

It means that the area is now officially recognised among the best places in the world to view the stars.

The gold standard status covers a 700km reserve that includes most of the Iveragh Peninsula — taking in Kells, Caherciveen, Valentia Island, Waterville, Portmagee, Caherdaniel and Ballinskelligs.

Due to its geographical location, wedged between mountain and sea, the skies there are remarkably free from artificial light pollution, which comes mainly from the reflection of public lighting and, therefore, are ideal for stargazing.

It is designated for particularly clear and bright night skies, with easily visible phenomena such as the aurora, the Milky Way and meteors. The only other two places in the world with the same status are NamibRand Nature Reserve, in Namibia, and Aoraki Mackenzie, in New Zealand.

Dublin-born Julie Ormonde, who has moved to the Kingdom, is chairwoman of the Kerry Dark Sky Group, and she sees endless potential for the development of astro-tourism in the area. A dark sky office was recently opened at the former Ballinskelligs Garda station.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists pass through on the Ring of Kerry and the rise in astro-tourism should encourage visitors to stay longer and also provide an incentive to visit in winter.

The three-day Star Wars shoot on Skellig Michael last month garnered enormous publicity and there should also be a long-term tourism spin-off.

It is unclear if the Dark Sky designation had anything to do with film director JJ Abrams’ decision to use Skellig, but Ms Ormonde believes the fact that Dark Sky designation had been well publicised may have come to their attention.

Her idea is that astro-tourism along with Skellig Michael and the area’s splendid natural environment can all be joined together to create a unique type of tourist attraction. Not forgetting that the area is on the Wild Atlantic Way and that a new greenway is being developed on the disused rail line from Glenbeigh to Reenard.

All of which creates huge potential if properly marketed and co-ordinated, Ms Ormonde believes.

“I think we’ve been stuck in a rut as regards tourism in Ireland,” she maintained. “We’ve had the same agenda for too long and need to change the profile of tourism and work on all these magnificent natural attractions. Our biodiversity and archaeology also have great deal to offer.”

She is also hoping to get Blackrock Castle observatory in Cork, and educational institutions such as UCC and CIT involved in projects and to use the area for research.

A seven-member Japanese TV crew recently visited the Kerry Dark Sky reserve and their hour-long documentary is due to air in October.

“The Japanese series of documentaries is on a ‘first in the world, best in the world’ theme. They were absolutely staggered by what they saw here and the weather and skies were just perfect at the time,” said Ms Ormonde.

A Chinese TV crew has also visited while ITV is planning to come next month.

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