Photographing the most amazing display of northern lights in twenty years

Photographing the most amazing display of northern lights in twenty years

The display of aurora borealis (northern lights) over Ireland on Friday night was the best one seen from these parts in twenty years.
Although aurora is not a rare phenomenon at our latitude (around 53 degree north of the equator), the displays we see are most often confined to the lower part of the northern sky, near the horizon.
On Friday night, many of us witnessed OVERHEAD aurora, something I had not seen since the great displays of 2003 and 2004.
Spectacular aurora borealis over Newgrange
I have been interested in astronomy for over four decades. I first glimpsed the glories of the night sky in the early 1980s, and have been forever mesmerised by the stars and celestial wonders since then.
I grew up in a house that had no clear view of the northern horizon. All I could see to the north from my bedroom were the houses across the road and bright street lights. However, when I moved to where I live now (in the late 1990s with my wife Ann) we had much better views of the northern skies. It was then that I first saw the aurora borealis.
For the past 25 years, I have been studying, visiting and photographing ancient Irish monuments and sacred landscapes. I quite often visit places like Newgrange, Tara, Fourknocks and Loughcrew at sunset, and twilight, and at night. I have become known over the years for the mystical and even otherworldly quality of my photography, as I often use remote lighting to illuminate stones, mounds and other ruins.
Aurora borealis over Newgrange
On numerous occasions during the past couple of decades, I have captured the northern lights over Newgrange, and at other places like Hill of Slane, Mellifont Abbey and Drogheda. Many of my efforts to capture the awesome display of the multi-hued light of the aurora have been made at Newgrange, with varying levels of success.
A photograph of green-coloured aurora borealis over Newgrange was featured on the cover of my 2012 book Newgrange: Monument to Immortality. Since then, I have been able to photograph over a dozen apparitions of the aurora at Newgrange.
Aurora by its nature is often difficult to see and capture on camera from Ireland. At higher latitudes, aurora occurs more regularly. The lights are caused by the excitement of ions in the upper parts of earth’s atmosphere, and the energy emitted by the sun is generally funnelled by the earth’s magnetic field towards its polar regions.
However, when a major eruption (flare) occurs on the sun, and if the eruption is aimed towards earth, we can get significant aurora at lower latitudes.
During the past week, a giant cluster of sunspots (AR3664) has crossed the face of the sun, emitting strong flares as it did so. Some of these were earth-aimed.
On Friday, the internet and social media were buzzing about the possibility of a major aurora event, possibly as early as Friday night, but maybe later than that, on Saturday.
Before the sun went down on Friday, I could see on the popular website that the Kp index (think of it as a real-time measurement of solar radiation as it interacts with the earth’s high atmosphere) was 8.67. That was the highest figure I had seen in a long time, and aurora was almost guaranteed, so long as the figure stayed at that level.
Aurora borealis over the Neolithic cairn of Dowth
Because it is May, and we have reached summer here in Ireland, the days are long, and with the sun setting at around 9.15pm or so, it would not get dark enough to see aurora until after 11pm.
Undeterred, I prepared my camera gear, checking that my camera batteries were charged and that the SD/Compact Flash cards in the cameras were empty, and therefore potentially ready to capture a lot of photographs.
I told my wife Ann that I would be going out to photograph the aurora (if it happened) and asked if she would like to come along. She said she would be delighted to accompany me.
Soon, we were in the van and heading to Newgrange, the 5,200 megalithic monument which is the best-known of the extraordinary Brú na Bóinne complex. Newgrange is just a ten-minute drive from where we live.
I am privileged to have been alone on the public road at Newgrange on many, many occasions over the years, photographing the monument at sunset, at twilight and under the stars. On Friday, as we arrived we noticed a lot of photographers were already there, which is highly unusual. However, we soon found a spot to park and within minutes, despite the bright twilight, I could see green curtains of auroral light high over the monument. We positioned ourselves close to the hedge which borders the field in which Newgrange is situated and I soon began capturing lots of photographs.
Stunning aurora over Newgrange
It is difficult to get excited about astronomical events that are probably only going to last one night in Ireland. Quite often our weather interferes. I have missed many aurora displays, space station Passovers and eclipses because of cloud cover. Friday night was different because it was almost completely clear as twilight deepened.
Not long after we arrived, it became clear that this was going to be an extraordinary event. The aurora was not confined to the northern horizon as usual. In fact, the brightest beams of colour could be seen high overhead – in fact, somewhat south of the zenith. I had not seen overhead aurora since the last great display of 2004, twenty years earlier.
Ann and I were so captivated by the colour and beauty of the display, I found it difficult to concentrate on the fact that I was there to capture photographs of the northern lights. For long moments, I stood in awe, oohing and aahing at the beautiful, ostentatious and extraordinary sight that was unfurling high in the sky.
The brightest part of the aurora was above, and from the radiant point (which I think is known in scientific terminology as the ‘corona’)  long arms of bright aurora were stretching all the way down to the eastern and western horizons.
Ann said she could see pink in the overhead aurora. My photographs soon confirmed that to be the case. There were magnificent greens, blues, purples and pinks during the two hours we were observing. A few times I found myself catching my breath, such was the magnificence and awe of what I was witnessing.
The 2004 aurora had occurred before I had purchased my first digital SLR camera, so back then I had to make do with a compact Nikon Coolpix camera. I managed to capture some really nice photos, but I no longer know where the original files are and have only some very low-resolution versions of those photos.
On Friday night, I finally achieved a long-held desire to witness overhead aurora from Ireland again, and to capture some high-quality photographs. What better place to do so than at Brú na Bóinne, and the great monuments of Newgrange and Dowth, where Neolithic astronomer farmers had carefully watched the sky over five thousand years ago?
The best of my photos from Friday’s phenomenal heavenly spectacle are now available to purchase as limited edition prints on the Mythical Ireland website.
Aurora and setting moon at Dowth
On Saturday morning, because the aurora photographs went viral, the Mythical Ireland Facebook page surpassed 80,000 followers. To celebrate this fact, I am offering a 25% discount on all limited edition prints for the first 80 buyers. Use this discount code at checkout to get your 25% off:
In the meantime, don’t forget that I will be hosting a series of tours during the coming summer season at various locations, including Fourknocks, Hill of Tara, Dowth, Slane and Loughcrew. Keep an eye on the Mythical Ireland social media channels and of course the tours page of the website ( for more information on upcoming tours.
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Limited Edition Mythical Ireland Prints

Our prints are available on archive quality paper and can be ordered mounted or unmounted. Each print is limited to 100 copies and all prints are 3 for 2 with free postage to Ireland and the UK if you buy 3 for 2 or more. Even better - everything else in your order will also qualify for free postage! For larger prints, please email us.