Article written by: Professor Michael Burton, Director of Armagh Observatory and Planetarium
The city of Armagh lays claim to a remarkable history that belies its small size. A history stretching from the neolithic era, and the mythology of Emain Macha (the ancient capital of Ulster), through the City’s Christian foundation with Patrick and the two cathedrals named after the famous Saint. Then there is the Observatory founded in the Georgian era, and its offshoot the Planetarium, symbol of the space age. It is of a story underpinned by a theme of wonder about our place in the cosmos.
The Observatory and the Planetarium are the oldest institutions of their kind in the UK and Ireland, still operating under the ethos of their founding legislation, of 1791, for “settling and preserving a public Observatory and Museum in the City of Armagh, forever”. This year, 2018, we celebrate the Planetarium’s 50th anniversary, having been formally opened on May the 1st, 1968 by the Prime Minister, Terence O’Neil. Here we tell a little of the story of the founding of the Planetarium.
Built in troubled times in Northern Ireland, the Planetarium was the vision of the Observatory’s 7th Director, Eric Lindsay. He recognised the need for a facility able to meet the public’s fascination about the planets and the stars, and desire to know more about our understanding of the cosmos, in ways that a research institution like the Observatory simply was unable to provide.
Yet from first vision to opening took a quarter of a century, and is a story of determination in the face of adversity, of continually telling exciting stories of astronomy and eliciting interest in the concept of a Planetarium, and slowly, ever-slowly, raising funds to build it.
Lindsay’s first efforts to build the Planetarium started in 1943, following on from plaques being erected commemorating the stay of US troops in Northern Ireland due the War. He too sought the support of Americans in NI. Much enthusiasm was evidenced, and subscriptions in the City elicited £3,000 in donations, but ultimately stronger claims from Belfast resulted in the project stalling.
The next effort came in 1950, when Lindsay sought to build on the success of getting the two Governments in Ireland to come together to fund the Armagh-Dunsink-Harvard (ADH) telescope in South Africa (an amazing story that needs to be told separately) to then build a planetarium. He established an all-Ireland Board for the project, jointly chaired by the two Archbishops of Armagh, the heads of the leading universities across the island, and even Eamon de Valera as the Chancellor of the National University! Given the subsequent history in these lands, this was quite an achievement of itself. Lindsay was granted funds to embark on a fund raising tour of the US, again seeking the Irish-American connection for their help.
Lindsay details the travails of his efforts in New York and Boston over the next year, living effectively as a pauper with barely sufficient to feed himself, let alone clothe against the harsh winters! But despite being well received, the funding brought in amounted to just $1,500. It seemed that Lindsay’s dream would remain no more than that.
Efforts continued on and off over the next decade, while Lindsay applied most of his energy to furthering the ADH telescope project in South Africa. Through the Armagh Chamber of Commerce some further funds were raised, but the total fell far short of the then £30,000 that had been estimated to cost. This even included representations to the Goto Optical Works company in Tokyo to provide one of their projectors for free. But by 1964 success seemed as far away as it was 20 years earlier. Though when it did it was with a Goto projector.
But then success came quickly. Growth in cultural activities in Northern Ireland had been significant, such as the Ulster Folk Museum and the Ulster Museum, all made possible through Government moral and financial support. Lindsay approached Government once more and made progress by seeking support for a Tourist Development Project. The two councils of Armagh (as there were at the same; city + county) came on board. Agreement was reached to split the project 60-40 between Government and Councils, with the Councils splitting their share 60-40 between City and County.
An announcement was made at a press conference was held on March 4th 1965 and the project was off! Three years later came the formal opening, and a new era in science communication and public outreach was born. Now, 50 years on, we are gathering again to celebrate Lindsay’s great achievement and the successes that followed. And also to discuss where our future lies so that there can be an even bigger celebration for the centenary, another 50 years hence!