The Northern Lights are one of nature’s most spectacular shows. On the nights they appear, they light up the skies with dancing, colorful waves. It’s hardly surprising that they’ve fascinated and mystified people for centuries.
People travel thousands of miles to catch a glimpse of this spectacle, but such long journeys aren’t always necessary.
A friend of mine recently moved to County Donegal and phoned to tell me all about the resplendent display of the Northern Lights that she saw.
She arrived there in September and, one dark, cold night, saw the skies light up with waves of green and red.
Obviously, this doesn’t happen every night, and you need to be in the right place at the right time to experience the Northern Lights in Ireland.
Ideally, that’s somewhere far from civilization and the light pollution is minimal. Fortunately, Ireland has many such places and throws its own brand of magic into the mix, making it an ideal destination for viewing the Northern Lights.
What Causes the Northern Lights in Ireland?
Throughout history, people have wondered about the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, and made up stories to explain the phenomenon, but it’s only recently that scientists have discovered the true cause.
Like all stars, the sun is unstable. It experiences geomagnetic storms that can produce powerful solar flares.
When the disturbances on the sun are strong enough, they pull on the Earth’s magnetic field, causing it to tighten. It then releases it again, causing it to snap back like a rubber band, creating powerful ripples known as Alfvén waves.
At the same time, solar storms release “huge clouds of electrically charged particles,” some of which hitch a ride on the Alfvén waves and, like surfers hitting the beach, they slam into the Earth’s atmosphere.
As they enter, they collide with the oxygen and nitrogen particles in Earth’s atmosphere. This impact heats the particles in a process known as excitation.
As those same particles decay back into their original state, they start producing the lights we know as the Aurora Borealis.
Why Are The Northern Lights Different Colors?
The color of the light depends on the gas the particles are reacting with.
Oxygen particles produce both green and red light, depending on how high up they are in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Green is the most common color primarily because our eyes are more sensitive to it. When a green light is visible, there’s also red light, but we can’t always see it.
Purple light is less common because its produced by nitrogen particles that are harder to excite than oxygen. A particularly violent solar storm that propels particles into the Earth’s atmosphere at a faster rate can produce a purple or lilac light as the nitrogen atoms start to decay.
Will You See the Northern Lights in Ireland?
The more solar activity there is, the greater your chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Ireland.
As David Moore of Astronomy Ireland explains, these lights are “usually only visible in high latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere” but may be pushed to a place like Ireland by very strong solar activity.
For avid star gazers, then, the sun’s increasing instability is good news. As the sun becomes less stable, storms and solar flares become more frequent and violent, increasing the chances of a bigger, brighter display of the Northern Lights.
What’s the Best Time to See the Northern Lights in Ireland?
Theoretically, the Northern Lights “are rarely visible outside 70 degrees north and south latitudes,” and yet Ireland, which lies between 50º and 60º north of the Equator, is blessed with sightings for around four months of the year.
This is due to the way the Earth tilts and means your best chances of seeing the Northern Lights in Ireland is between either September and October or March and April.
If you’re there between November and February, you might be lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse, but the cloudy weather conditions will make it difficult.
Ireland’s climate is notoriously wet, which means plenty of cloud cover throughout the year. You can’t see the Northern Lights under such conditions, so it’s well worth checking the weather forecast before you head out. Ideally, you want a clear, crisp night with minimal cloud cover.
The moon may also affect the quality of your sighting, with some saying that a full moon detracts from the experience because of the light pollution it produces. A strong Aurora display will remain visible, however, and could even be enhanced by the added splendor of a full moon.
Where Can You See the Northern Lights in Ireland?
The best places to see the Northern Lights in Ireland are those that are far enough away from cities and other residential areas that they experience minimal light pollution.
As the eastern and southern sections of Ireland are the most populated, the west and north coast offer better chances of seeing the display.
The best locations include remote headlands, beaches, and national parks.
Top 10 Places to See the Northern Lights in Ireland
#1 Malin Head, Co Donegal
The closer you are to the North Pole, the more vibrant the display, which is why many astrologers and star-gazers head to the northerly county of Donegal. From there, you can reach the most northerly point of the whole island – Malin Head in Inishowen.
Malin Head is a remote destination that enjoys minimal light pollution and is renowned for its dramatic landscapes and unspoiled beauty.
The easiest way to get to Malin Head is to drive, but you could get the bus from Donegal.
#2 Fanad Peninsula, Co Donegal
This headland is a little further south than Malin Head but enjoys the same uninterrupted northerly views. From here, you can see the Inishowen peninsula, where Malin Head is situated.
The Fanad Lighthouse provides the perfect backdrop for viewing the Aurora Borealis, and if you’re lucky, you could even book a room there.
Ideally, you need a car to navigate this remote section of Ireland, although you could get a bus from Letterkenny to Ballylar and then catch a second bus out to the lighthouse.
#3 Dunree Head, Co Donegal
Situated between the peninsulas of Fanad and Inishowen, Dunree Head juts out into Lough Swilly and offers uninterrupted views to the north.
The light pollution here is minimal, and your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are pretty high if the conditions are good.
A regular bus service runs between Londonderry and the museum at Fort Dunree, but only during the day, so you’d need to find accommodation nearby if you wanted to spend the night stargazing.
#4 Davagh Forest International Dark Sky Park
The OM Dark Sky Park and Observatory in Davagh Forest is an accredited International Dark Sky Park, offering “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment.”
It’s one of just 78 such parks and, due to the lack of light pollution, offers unparalleled views of the night skies and, if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights.
Just don’t head off there too early, as it only gets dark around 8 pm in September and even later in the summer months.
Unfortunately, it’s not particularly easy to get there using public transport. You can get a bus from Ayr to Dalmellington and then hire a taxi to take you the remaining four miles, but self-drive is definitely your best option.
#5 Sliabh Liag, Co Donegal
Further south in County Donegal lie the highest cliffs in Ireland. Towering 600m above the ocean, Siabh Liag gives you a panoramic view across Donegal Bay.
Although the outlook is more northwesterly than in the north of the county, you can still get some dramatic views of the Northern Lights if you pick the right time.
Ideally, you should head towards Bunglass Point, from where you can look north over the cliffs and, hopefully, see the Northern Lights dancing across the ocean towards you.
Two bus routes stop close to Sliabh Liag, and several shuttle buses, but these are only really suitable for daytime trips. The best option is to drive there and book into one of the B&Bs, campsites, or lodges in the area.
#6 Mullet Peninsula, Co Mayo
Located in the northwestern part of County Mayo, the Mullet or Erris Peninsula is further south than County Donegal but still a popular destination for Aurora spotters.
The idyllic town of Belmullet is well-known among locals as a potential Northern Lights gazing spot and looks out over the bays of Blacksod and Broadhaven.
Several buses are servicing the area, making it easy to get there from either Dublin or Belfast.
#7 Downpatrick Head, Co Mayo
Downpatrick Head is the most northern point of County Mayo and, as it also faces north, offers breathtaking views of the Aurora Borealis, especially on a clear spring night.
From this small peninsula, you can enjoy unrivaled views of the Dún Briste and across to the islands of the Stags of Broadhaven.
Again, this destination is easier to reach than those in County Donegal, and you can travel either by bus or train from Dublin direct to Downpatrick Head.
#8 Mullaghmore, Co Sligo
Situated to the south of County Donegal, County Sligo attracts its fair share of Aurora chasers, despite having less impressive northerly views. If you’re struggling to get as far as County Donegal, you could stop off at Mullaghmore and try your luck there.
Mullaghmore is a small north-facing peninsula that offers some good views of the Northern Lights despite some light pollution.
While it’s easiest to drive there, you could get a train to Sligo and then hop on the 982 bus, which will take you into the village. From there, it’s a short walk to Mullahmore Head, where you have the best chance of seeing the lights.
#9 Valentina Island, Co Kerry
As one of Ireland’s most westerly points, Valentina Island enjoys minimal light pollution, making it a good spot for seeing the Northern Lights.
The island is linked to the mainland by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge at Portmagee, and a ferry service runs from Reenard to the main village of Knightstown.
#10 Tory Island, Co Donegal
Situated off the northwest coast of Donegal, Tory Island is “the most remote of Ireland’s inhabited islands.”
That remoteness makes it difficult to get to, but well worth the visit, especially if you’re hoping to see the Northern Lights.
Rugged and unspoiled, Tory Island boasts many potential viewing spots, including the highest point on the island, Balor’s Fort.
To get there, you need to catch a ferry from either Bunbeg or Magheroarty, which takes around 45 minutes.
Tips for Viewing the Northern Lights in Ireland
When planning a trip to Ireland to see the Northern Lights, timing is everything, so it’s worth doing some research.
Do Your Research
The Irish Meteorological Service is the best place to go to get insights into forthcoming weather patterns, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides short-term forecasts of the aurora’s location and intensity.
Once you’ve selected the perfect time and destination, you need to start thinking about equipment. The most important thing to remember about viewing the Northern Lights in Ireland is that it’s likely to be dark and cold.
During the best months for seeing the Northern Lights in Ireland, the temperature can drop to around 9°C (48.2℉), so you need to be prepared. Remember, you’ll be standing or sitting still for much of the time and could easily get a chill.
The secret to staying warm while watching the light display is plenty of layers! Make sure you have a warm base layer, coupled with another lightweight top or sweater. Take a windproof jacket if you’re going to a coastal location like Malin Head which get strong winds throughout the year.
Although a good camera and tripod give you the best chance of capturing the display, a good smartphone will also work.
As you could be outside waiting for the lights to appear for some time, you must stay hydrated, so take along plenty of water. A flask of hot cocoa isn’t a bad idea either!
Are There Guides Available?
In places like Iceland and Greenland, there are numerous guided tours specifically designed for people who, like you, want to experience the Northern Lights for themselves. This isn’t the case in Ireland, and you’ll be on your own out there unless you can find other enthusiasts to join up with.
Many places in Ireland offer exceptional experiences of the Northern Lights. The further north you go, the better your chances, which is why County Donegal is Ireland’s most population destination for viewing the Aurora Borealis.
You need dark skies to get a good view of the Northern Lights, so most of these destinations are pretty remote. Although you can reach many of them using public transport, self-drive is by far the best way to go. It means you can drive yourself out to a remote spot in the middle of the night and get front seats at the greatest show on Earth.
Ireland is a fabulous destination in itself, but knowing you can see the Northern Lights there as well takes it to a whole new level. Don’t you think it’s time you started checking the weather forecast and planning your trip? I promise it will be one you’ll never forget.
"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.