Monday, July 21, 2008

Head in the clouds

I have now been here on the Dingle Peninsula in the west of Ireland for over a month, and we have had but one starry night. Mind you, it was cloudy when I went to bed, and cloudy when I got up in the morning, but when I rose in the middle of the night for a glass of water -- there they were, blazing in all their glory against a backdrop of inky darkness. I stepped out into the garden and feasted. Jupiter chasing the Teapot across the southern horizon. Arcturus scraping the top of Mount Eagle. The Milky Way pouring out its riches overhead.

It is hard to imagine that for three-quarters of a century the largest telescope in the world was in Ireland. During the 1840's, William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse and master of Birr Castle in the center of Ireland, constructed an iron-hooped monster more than six feet in diameter, hoisted between massive Gothic walls, with ladders and viewing galleries. Visitors to the castle liked to have their pictures taken (by the earl's wife Mary, a pioneer amateur photographer) standing in the gaping maw of the great tube. Astronomers from as far afield as the United States, Australia and Russia came to Birr to see Lord Rosse's leviathan of the cosmic deeps. One wonders how many of them managed to get a look at the stars -- or went away cursing the Irish weather.

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "how men would believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown. But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile." Every night? Not quite. In Emerson's New England the average cloud cover is about 60 percent. Here in the west of Ireland we are grateful for one cloudless night in ten. Or twenty. Still, our rare glimpses of the heavens have something of the effect Emerson was talking about. I step out into the midnight dark, stand in my bare feet in the dewy grass, and gape. Gawk. Bowled over. Dazzled. A city of God made all the more spectacular by its rarity.