Starstruck in Armagh

Clare O'Connor tracked celestial bodies at the Armagh Observatory

The Armagh Observatory is a truly unique institution. Northern Ireland  boasts other listed buildings, world-class libraries, archives and cutting edge research bodies but only the observatory combines the old and the new in such glittering tandem.

The observatory was founded in 1790 by Archbishop Richard Robinson, an ecclesiastical link that remains to this day, with Archbishop Robin Eame’s portrait presiding in the observatory study. The elegant main building and its iconic Troughton Dome were designed by Francis Johnston, also responsible for much of Dublin’s Georgian architecture at the time.

The main building houses a staggering array of scientific instruments, artefacts, writings and records - astronomical clocks from the 18th century that changed the very way we looked at longitude, the beautiful Troughton equatorial telesope, dating from 1795,  a 210-year long meteorological record and perhaps the most important artefact of all, the original manuscipt of Dreyer’s New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars.

John Louis Emil Dreyer was resident astronomer at Armagh from 1882- 1916 and it was under its skies that he compiled the famous tract. Over a century later it remains the standard reference used by astronomers the world over.

The new millennium saw the construction of the observatory’s outdoor ‘Human Orrery’. This orrery is unusual in that it allows people to play the part of the moving planets. Steel tiles represent the Sun, Earth, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn as well as the asteroid Ceres and two comets 1P/Halley and 2P/Encke.

Also on the grounds are a weather station, a stone calender and an Astropark that might look more at home in Port Merrion. This scale model of the Universe illuminates the solar system and the galaxy for even the most scientifically challenged.

The observatory’s reputation as a centre of learning and scholarship continues to grow, with over 25 astronomers in active study and research there today. Mankind's fascination with all things celestial can only be fuelled and enriched by their endeavours.