Displays of aurora borealis (northern lights), which are very familiar to people living in the far north of the world in places like Alaska, northern Canada, Iceland and Scandinavia, are surprisingly common in Ireland.
However, that comes with a caveat. GOOD displays are much more rare. When the K-index rises to Kp=5, we usually get a nice display of green aurora along the northern horizon, best viewed from the north coast of Ireland.
But when the Kp rises to 6 or greater, the northern lights have been known to produce displays that are sometimes even seen overhead here in Ireland.
Predicting when aurora will be visible is not a fine art. Sometimes an indicated Kp of 5 or greater does not produce an expected display. Sometimes, the strongest aurora activity takes place when Ireland is still in daylight, and thus the display is missed completely.
Aurora borealis (northern lights) over Newgrange. You can purchase your own print of the main image in the Mythical Ireland store.
Aurora is caused by the interaction of high-energy particles (usually electrons) with neatural atoms in the earth's upper atmosphere. The particles are emitted by solar flares, and can take a couple of days to reach earth after leaving the sun. Predicting the precise timing of their arrival is often difficult.
And then there's the Irish weather, which is as capricious as can be. One-time-only astronomical phenomena are often obscured by persistent cloud in this part of the world!
On 23rd April 2023, all the indications were that a display was likely. The Kp index was reported to have reached as high as 9, meaning that under clear skies aurora would definitely be seen. However, meteorological reports suggested that most of Ireland would be under cloud.
Undeterred by the weather forecast – from long years of experience, I know that it can be wrong – I grabbed the camera equipment and headed to the great monument of Síd in Broga (Newgrange), and set up in hope of capturing some of these beautiful lights.
By the time I got set up, which was shortly after 10pm, there was still some strong twilight, and the sky was about 90% covered by cloud. However, there were gaps in the cloud directly over Newgrange. I prayed that those gaps would remain, which they did for around an hour and a half.
As it got darker, I could see in some of my photographs that there was indeed a green glow low in the north, but the photographs were not impressive and if cloud increased, there would be nothing to see.
I waited. And waited.
Shortly after 11pm, I caught sight of a cluster of StarLinks satellites moving in unison through Leo. I hadn't seen bright StarLinks before and was thrilled to get a short video of same. See video below.
I had just finished making the video when I turned back towards Newgrange and could see distinct rays or lines in the gaps between the clouds. I clicked the camera shutter button - taking 25-second images to try to capture whatever might be visible.
Northern lights visible between the clouds over Síd in Broga (Newgrange).
I was delighted to see that a nice display was under way. For the next five minutes, I caught several very nice photographs of purple, pink and blue rays extending above the green below.
After capturing these photographs, the clouds closed over, obscuring the sky, and I decided to head home. I was only in the car a few moments when rain drops began to fall on the windscreen.
I was disappointed to have to call it a night (the display went on for hours afterwards, but was only seen in fleeting glimpses by other observers around the country) and headed home, but was delighted to have obtained some very nice photographs of the aurora over Newgrange.