The super stars of Mayo Star-spotters have embraced the dark side in Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park, a place that ranks among the best in the world for gazing up at our galaxy. Now it's encouraging a new generation to learn the secrets of space from their own homes

With over 15,000 hectares of Atlantic blanket bog and mountainous terrain, Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park, managed by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), is an unspoilt wilderness that supports important habitats for creatures such as Red Grouse, otters and Greenland White-fronted geese.

What's less known, though, is that its mission doesn't stop on our world alone. With over 4,500 stars easily seen by the naked eye in its pure, pitch-black skies, it would take you over 12 years to view them all were you to observe one of them each day. Now, at a time of travelling restrictions, the team at Ballycroy's Dark Sky Park are now bringing the wonders of the universe into homes around the country, enabling families to look up and learn through a dedicated Facebook page of posts.

And there's much to learn. Our galaxy - commonly known as the Milky Way - is a pretty big place. So big in fact that they're still counting its stars. It's conservatively estimated that it contains 100 to 200 billion of them. Our sun is just a small speck in a tiny neighbourhood of the galaxy that we call the solar system.

The Milky Way is so vast that our sun, as massive as it is to us, takes 240 million years to rotate around the galaxy, a feat it's managed only around 20 times in its existence. Not that our galaxy is anything special in the universe - it's reckoned that it's just one of 100 billion galaxies, many of them so big they make ours look positively puny.

Light pollution in our towns and cities means that we see a tiny fraction of what's up there, and at times only a handful of the brightest objects in space can be seen by the naked eye. In recent decades efforts have gained ground around the world to switch off and look up.

Stephen Hanley's photo of the Milky Way with an iridium flare (top right) from a manmade satellite. The image was taken at Brogan Carroll Bothy, Letterkeen, Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park

The International Dark Sky Places (IDSP) Programme was founded in 2001 to encourage communities, parks and protected areas around the planet to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting policies and public education. The brainchild of the Arizona-based International Dark Sky Association, it saw Dark Sky Parks, Reserves and other places springing up, many of them concentrated in North America.

"Mayo is one of the best dark skies in Europe - it's the place to be"

In 2016, Mayo Dark Sky Park at Ballycroy joined the small, but elite, group - and was awarded gold tier status. It means that the National Park is recognised as being among the best in the world for stargazing.

Not that local photographer Brian Wilson needs any persuasion on that score. "County Mayo is one of the best dark skies in Europe - it's the place to be," he believes. He's shared some of his favourite images of the night skies over the county here, along with those of fellow astrophotographers Stephen Hanley and Brian Carey, all of them based in the county.

An amateur photographer from Belmullet in North Mayo, Brian Wilson, an Associate of the Irish Photographic Federation, began specialising in photographing space almost a decade ago. "My images are my interpretation of how the night sky interacts with landscapes, seascapes, sculptures and people of North Mayo. I am fortunate in that the lack of light pollution provides the perfect conditions to photograph all the night-sky wonders."

As well as the Milky Way, he says those sights include clusters of stars known as constellations, other galaxies and natural wonders such as the Northern Lights and rare high altitude noctilucent clouds.

"I've tried to catch the Aurora many, many times, but this was by far the best I've seen"

All of the images have been taken in recent years, the last just before the Covid-19 restrictions came into play. Those restrictions meant a rethink on what to do for the biggest time on the park's calendar - International Dark Sky Week - where it normally joins the world in celebrating celestial wonders. But the park brought space into homes, with a series of YouTube videos from at home and abroad featuring talks about photography, as well as poetry, storytelling and combating light pollution.

In the YouTube video below, the three photographers reveal their tricks of the trade, from shining torches on buildings to make them stand out against the blackness of the night. Originally from Kilconly in County Galway, Brian Carey has been living in Achill for the past few years. He got hooked on astrophotography after a friend passed on a video about it. "I have always had an interest in the outdoors and the natural world around us. As I found out I am very bad at drawing the next best way to capture a landscape is to take photographs," Carey says. Admitting that he has spent “long cold nights under the stars trying to capture the beauty of a clear starry night”, he says the hard work paid off one night when he captured the glory of the Aurora Borealis - better known as the Northern Lights.

An incredible light show, it occurs when electrically-charged particles released from the sun enter our atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen. Countries such as Iceland have for years been attracting tourists eager to catch a glimpse, but the show is as spectacular in Mayo. "I've tried to catch the Aurora many, many times, but this was by far the best I've seen." To the naked eye, he says, "it was a grey haze" that night, but with some equipment, the result is spectacular. The resulting image is here, taken at Minaun Mountain, with the lights of Belmullet in the background.

"It's one of my favourites," Stephen Hanley says of the picture he dubs the 'Bridge of Stars', taken in the National Park, with the light of a torch to illuminate the bridge under a carpet of twinkling stars. Capturing the moment is no easy feat for photographers. "On any given night a photographer might take hundreds of photos of just one object," says Brian Wilson. A photographer's camera lens shutter is left open for 25 seconds, or even longer, to let in as much light as possible. Sometimes it's a case of overlaying image after image to get the right effect. Wilson even has his camera set up to take account of the fact that Earth itself is moving through space at around 1,700km an hour, so the sky is an ever-changing one.

All three often use high-end equipment to get the right results, with lenses that could dent a lot of budgets. But there's much to explore for the casual observer too - with planets such as Venus lighting up our sky and easily visible with the naked eye. If you've got a small telescope or pair of binoculars, you'll see much more.

And there's help with mapping the stars, with a regular series of 'Back Garden Stargazing' tips and guides for all ages on Mayo Dark Sky Park's dedicated page on Facebook.

Brian Wilson's image of our solar system's largest planet - Jupiter - and the Milky Way galaxy over Blacksod Bay

Lights, camera, action: Brian Wilson's image of a lighthouse and the Milky Way

Dun Briste and the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). Photo: Brian Wilson

Stephen Hanley's 'Bridge of Stars' at Wild Nephin Ballycroy National Park

Statue of Mary under the heavens at Minaun mountain, Achill Island. Photo: Brian Carey

Aurora Borealis as seen from Minaun mountain, Achill Island, by Brian Carey

Gráinne Mhaol Castle, Kildavnet Tower, Achill Island. Photo: Brian Carey