Guest Post: An Unforgettable Night Under Mayo's Aurora - Visit North Mayo

This week’s blog post comes courtesy of Georgia MacMillan. Georgia is Mayo Dark Sky Park Development Officer; an employment-based PhD scholarship funded by the Irish Research Council and National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS).

A Night to Remember: Mayo’s Aurora Extravaganza

Something special happened after dark on Friday, 10th May 2024. The green and red of Mayo literally lit up the sky that night and those of us fortunate enough to live under darker skies were treated to a sky full of the most vibrant colours, courtesy of the Aurora Borealis. We have been lucky to experience the Northern Lights in Mayo on many occasions, but never on such scale or intensity.

The Northern lights over Dun Bríste Sea Stack off the north Mayo coastline in Ireland. Image by Brian Wilson (Courtesy of Mayo Dark Sky Park)

Chasing the Aurora

Following texts and alerts from fellow Aurora chasers, we headed up to Letterkeen Trail head at Wild Nephin National Park to enjoy the spectacle. “Half the Park is After Dark” we say and here Wild Nephin National Park becomes Mayo Dark Sky Park by night. This site offers uninterrupted panoramic views of the full sky dome and a clear horizon, free from artificial light. The perfect conditions for viewing Aurora Borealis.

Shortly after 11pm, the elusive lady Aurora arrived, as if by magic, in glorious technicolour and danced the night away to the delight of families and couples who had ventured out for a chance to glimpse one of nature’s most beautiful phenomena.

The Tír Sáile sculpture at the Dún na mBó blowhole on the Mullet Peninsula in Co Mayo. Captured by Brian Wilson (Image courtesy of Mayo Dark Sky Park)
Aurora Borealis at Mayo Dark Sky Park (Image courtesy of Mayo Dark Sky Park)

Understanding the Aurora Borealis

So what is the Aurora Borealis? This celestial spectacle happens when solar storms on the Sun fire out electrically charged particles called ions (at up to a million miles per hour). Most of them are deflected away by the magnetic field protecting the Earth, but some seep through and become trapped in ring shapes around the magnetic poles. When these ions collide with gas molecules in our atmosphere they release energy, resulting in the stunning displays of colour across the night sky known as the Aurora.

Stunning image of Deirbhile’s Twist (Dealbhóireach), Falmore,
Belmullet, Mayo, Ireland. Captured by Monika Regeciova during the recent Aurora Borealis

The Aurora colours vary according to the gas compositions and altitudes stretching hundreds of kilometres above the Earth’s surface. Charged particles striking oxygen atoms produce the familiar green aurora at altitudes of approx. 100-300km, with reds appearing in higher, less dense atmosphere. Blues and purple colours are the result of nitrogen molecules colliding at altitudes of approx. 100km, whereas hydrogen and helium produce crimson pinks but are more difficult to see with the naked eye.

St Patrick’s Church Newport Mayo against the Aurora Borealis. Captured by Brendan O’Donnell of Newport Astronomy Club (Image courtesy of Mayo Dark Sky Park)

The name Aurora Borealis itself also invites curiosity. Aurora comes from the Roman goddess meaning “Dawn” and Borealis is the Greek personification of the North Wind. Thus combined, Aurora Borealis conjures up a mythical image of a dancing goddess in the sky.

Fabulous capture of the Aurora from Bunaveela, Crossmolina, Mayo, Ireland.
Video copyright of Brian Wilson / Mayo Dark Sky Park

A Perfect Location for Stargazing

Given its position on the north west coast of Ireland and at the edge of the Atlantic, county Mayo is perfectly situated to view the beautiful night sky phenomenon of the Northern Lights with a pristine northern horizon stretching from Achill Island, Blacksod Peninsula and Erris, around to the Ceide Coast. Mayo’s gold tier International Dark Sky Park also has some exceptional dark sky sites with northerly horizons. Letterkeen is one of three signature dark sky viewing sites accessible by car and also has several walking options for those wishing to explore the National Park on foot – including an easy 2.5km looped trail.

Twinning with Yosemite National Park

“Two Parks – One Sky” – Did you know that Wild Nephin National Park recently twinned with Yosemite National Park in the USA? This major milestone in our National Park’s history brings collaboration and knowledge exchange opportunities on themes of cultural visitor services, wilderness and dark skies. To mark the occasion two stunning posters were commissioned by renowned astro-artist; Tyler Nordgren. Tyler’s work is not often seen outside of North America and we are delighted to expand our Mayo series for the twinning and dark sky themes.

(Posters by Tyler Nordgren to commemorate the recent twinning of Wild Nephin National Park in Mayo and Yosemite National Park in California)

Looking Forward to More Aurora Displays

Last month’s display of the Aurora has clearly ignited the imagination, and interest in experiencing this breathtaking natural phenomenon has never been higher. We are delighted that county Mayo offers some of the best locations to take it all in when the next opportunity arises. With increasing solar activity set to continue this year, Aurora watchers are calling 2024 the Year of the Aurora. We hope you’ll enjoy the magic of the Mayo Aurora photos accompanying this article and join us in Mayo on our next adventure to experience the Northern Lights under dark skies.

The Aurora Borealis as captured at Belderra Strand on the Mullet Peninsula in north Mayo by Monika Regeciova

Useful Information and Resources

Information on Mayo Dark Sky Park:
Mayo Dark Sky Park
Wild Nephin National Park
Mayo North Tourism

Weather and Aurora Forecast Sources:
Met Éireann
SWPC / NOAA Aurora Forecast
Donegal Weather Channel

PLEASE always be mindful of local residents privacy and property when you are in remote locations at night. Park with care and remember that car headlights can blight the night sky enjoyment for other visitors.

Dark Sky Park Viewing Point under the Aurora Borealis. (Image captured by Mayo Dark Skies)

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