Observatory Helps to Waken Interest in Brian Boru’s Life and Times

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An image, courtesy Ian Maginess, showing members of the community groups
in the Music Room, No. 9, Vicars’ Hill, Armagh, on 19th March 2014.

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Click on image for larger version.

'The Waking of Brian Boru' is a community project supported by Armagh City and District Council and led by Sally Walmsley (soundmor.net) together with Armagh Public Library, local schools and other organizations, including Armagh County Museum and Armagh Observatory. The aim is to provide a series of musical performance workshops culminating in two free performances in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral on 1st and 2nd May 2014, and to provide people of all ages with an opportunity to engage with the fact of the 1000-year anniversary of Brian Boru’s death at the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday, 23rd April 1014 and his subsequent burial at Armagh.

The Observatory’s contribution, led by Observatory Director Mark Bailey and UK Universe Awareness Project Manager Libby McKearney, has been to introduce the life and times of Brian Boru as dictated by events in the sky, for example the rhythms and cycles of the passing seasons and the motion of the various planets or 'wandering stars' against the background, so-called fixed stars.

Professor Bailey said, "Whereas Brian Boru’s world-view a thousand years ago would have been dominated by the homocentric Aristotelian picture, in which the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all revolved in complex combinations of circular orbits around a fixed Earth beneath an outer sphere of fixed stars, we now understand that the planets revolve in elliptical orbits around the Sun, and that the 'fixed' stars are in fact nothing of the kind. Rather, the stars with which we are familiar are actually suns in their own right, some much bigger and brighter than our Sun and all lying at almost unimaginably large distances from Earth, revolving with orbital periods measured in hundreds of millions of years around the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy, which is just one of hundreds of thousands of millions of galaxies in the known Universe accessible to modern telescopes."

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Click on image for larger version.

Despite these differences in world-view, the appearance of the night sky a thousand years ago would be instantly recognizable to a twenty-first century observer. It would show the same stars and constellations, the same Moon and planets, and the same range of celestial phenomena such as comets, meteor showers and bright fireballs. However, whereas on astronomical timescales a thousand years is like the blink of an eye, the first decade of the eleventh century was a period of unusual celestial activity. Halley’s comet appeared in 989, as too did several other examples of 'frightful' comets and bright fireballs and meteors, and what also appears to have been an unusually bright star or nova. In 999 there was a 'fearful earthquake', and on 28th September 1014 (less than six months after the Battle of Clontarf) there occurred a huge flood or storm surge, possibly caused by a tsunami from the impact of a small asteroid in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is noteworthy too that Brian Boru lived during a period of significant local or regional 'global warming', the so-called 'Medieval Optimum'. During this period temperatures peaked at a level comparable to that observed in Ireland today. In those days there appears to have been a more continental climate, with prevailing Easterly winds in Spring facilitating the Viking excursions westward to Britain and Ireland. The warmer summers also facilitated the colonization of lands much farther away in the North Atlantic, for example Iceland, Greenland and parts of North America.

From an astronomical perspective, it is interesting to note that the date of the Battle of Clontarf, namely 23rd April, represents the latest possible day in the year on which Good Friday can occur. This latest Good Friday occurs with an average frequency less than once every 135 years. The Battle of Clontarf was also associated with an exceptionally close approach of Mars and Jupiter on the sky. These two 'sky gods' passed within an angular distance less than a third the diameter of the Moon on the sky on the morning of Wednesday 21st April 1014, just two days before the battle, rising together shortly before dawn in the morning twilight. Such close conjunctions of these two planets are also very rare, occurring on average about once every 40 years or so. The next noteworthy close approach of these two planets (about a lunar diameter apart) will occur on the night of 17/18 October 2015.

'The Waking of Brian Boru' workshops have helped to explain how our understanding of our celestial heritage has changed over the last one thousand years, and how 'the sky' in its broadest sense has provided people from different cultures, and at all times throughout history, with a unique set of shared experiences. The free concert, in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral on 1st and 2nd May 2014, promises to provide further insight into our shared heritage of Brian Boru’s life and times.

For more information, contact Mark Bailey at the Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG. Tel.: 028-3752-2928; FAX: 028-3752-7174; mebat signarm.ac.uk

Tickets for the two free performances in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral on 1st and 2nd May 2014 are available from the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh, and online at: www.marketplacearmagh.com.

Last Revised: 2014 April 7th