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Stars Shine Bright In Ireland's Dark-Sky Reserve

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, we have just made it through the darkest night of the year - good time to do some lengthy stargazing if, that is, you're in a place without too much light pollution. Well, to mark the winter solstice, we decided to visit one of the darkest places on Earth. The International Dark-Sky Association has awarded gold-tier reserve status to only three places in the world. One is in Namibia, another is in New Zealand. NPR's Ari Shapiro takes us to the only one in the Northern Hemisphere in far southwestern Ireland.

JULIE ORMONDE: Oh, my god. Oh.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: You live here and you're still so impressed with this.

ORMONDE: I know, I always am, always.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it's my first time. I'm impressed, but you're here every night.

ORMONDE: No, I always - it never, ever stops. Could you put off that light there? Great.

SHAPIRO: Julie Ormonde talks about the night sky the way a stage mother talks about her child's performance.

ORMONDE: It's just - I just can't stop admiring it. I just love looking at.

SHAPIRO: We're standing in a parking lot in the middle of the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve. The Kerry Mountains are on one side of us, the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Ormonde moved here from Dublin almost 20 years ago. She was a secretary and mother of four with a passion for astronomy. A few days after she arrived, she sent her son out to get fuel for the fireplace.

ORMONDE: And next fall, he come crashing through the door.

Mom, mom, quick, quick, quick, come out here.

I nearly had a heart attack running out the door, expecting to see a catastrophe somewhere.

SHAPIRO: She followed her son out the door into the pitch black night.

ORMONDE: And he said, mom, mom, look. Look at the stars. And we looked up and it was like this. I have never seen anything like it. It was just a wonderland.

SHAPIRO: Ormonde loves pointing out constellations, but on that night she couldn't find any of them.

ORMONDE: There was simply too many stars.

SHAPIRO: Time passed and she wondered why the community had no astronomy club.

ORMONDE: And like everybody else on the planet you're waiting for somebody else, so then I decided...

SHAPIRO: Oh, I just saw a shooting star.

ORMONDE: You will see them...

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry to interrupt.

ORMONDE: No, you will see them now.

SHAPIRO: Eventually, she started a group, but she still wasn't satisfied. Then she heard about the International Dark-Sky Association in Tuscon, Arizona. John Barentine is a program manager there.

JOHN BARENTINE: It's not just going around and identifying the places that are dark, but rather finding ways to make sure that they stay dark in the future, so that generations from now people will still be able to come to these places and have that experience.

SHAPIRO: Back in Kerry, Ireland, Julie Ormonde started a campaign to get formal recognition for this area. She asked local councils to change their outdoor street lighting. She spoke with neighborhood groups about light pollution from homes because unlike other dark sky reserves, which may be in the middle of nowhere, people actually live and work in this area.

ORMONDE: In the core zone, we have a playground. We have a little school. We have a small, little pub, which is a two-story farmhouse with the tiniest little pub downstairs where you can have a pint.

SHAPIRO: And there's a hostel, which gets a regular stream of astronomers and amateur stargazers. Frieda Straub is the manager. She's French and moved here after living in Paris and New York.

FRIEDA STRAUB: People come from all over the world and they don't sleep at night. Seriously, they do not sleep. I mean, they go to their bed at four in the morning and then they get up at five and it's amazing.

SHAPIRO: It's been one year since the Dark-Sky Association recognized Kerry with gold-tier status. You can tell the community has bought into this program because when you drive through town it's pitch black. All the houses have their lights off. It's easy to assume that these are summer rental homes where people have left for the winter, but locals say no, people are home. They just want to leave the lights off so everyone can see the stars. Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

GREENE: Celebrating the solstice on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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