Northern Sky

Malin Head, County Donegal

Photo of Banba’s Crown, Malin Head by Greg Clarke, licensed under Creative Commons

But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky
— Northern Sky, Nick Drake

The Cree Indians saw them as the spirits of their dead ancestors. The Finns thought they were caused by a fox running so fast across the snow that its tail caused sparks. The Japanese thought a child conceived beneath them would be lucky, while the Icelanders believed that a lucky child would be born when they shone — but only if its mother didn’t look directly at them. The Vikings thought their glow came from the shields of the Valkyries. According the Estonians, they were the paths of horse-drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a wedding.

I am speaking of course of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis (there is an equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aurora Australis, but few human habitations are in that region). We know now that they are caused by electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gases in the earth’s atmosphere. They are normally seen at latitudes much further north than Ireland, but just occasionally, they come flickering our way.

Increased solar activity, particularly coronal mass ejections (CMEs) improve the likelihood of aurora displaying at lower latitudes. However, clouds can cover up this activity, and as any Irish person can tell you, clear skies are rarer than we’d like. Artificial lights compete with the natural glow, so they can only really be seen away from towns.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
— North, Seamus Heaney

Malin Head, at 55.38ºN, is the northmost tip of the island of Ireland; although it’s in the Republic, it’s farther north than anywhere in Northern Ireland. “From Malin Head to Mizen Head”, signifying the full length of the country, is a familiar phrase from anyone who’s heard the sea area forecast. Far up on the Inishowen peninsula, Malin Head is a popular spot for viewing seabirds, particularly for their migrations in spring and autumn.

And on a rare occasion, on a dark clear night when the sun has thrown its brightest sparks out towards earth, you might catch a glimmer of those dancing lights.