Describing the indescribable

Part 1

Part 2

As I think back to the final half hour of this aurora, it feels somewhat surreal. Even now, I can't quite believe I saw what I did. It seems like a dream scene, a world of vivid imagination where the rules of reality don't quite apply and where impossible things do an improbable dance before my very eyes.

I had found a lay by off the road, just big enough to fit my car in and to give me some space to set up my tripod pointing north. At first, the display was similar to that I had seen earlier at Glenarm - light, rays, and light reflections off the surface of the sea.

Just before it all kicked off again, but still with definite structure

My first indication that things were about to happen big style, as the auroral light pillars shot far up into the sky above

But, within moments of me arriving, the whole sky came alive. I was photographing a tree silhouetted on the headland when the pillars returned as before. But this time, rather than 'merely' shooting far up into the night sky, this time they filled my field of vision completely. They soared straight up into the darkness overhead and followed the earth's magnetic field lines to a perspective vanishing point far, far above my head.

This shot was taken vertically upwards and shows the aurora rays disappearing off to a vanishing point directly above me.

I lifted my eyes heavenwards, following these light trails up and up and up as far as I could perceive anything. And still the aurora pillars where there. I looked to my left - there the were, extending right out to the far north-west. I looked to my right, across the blackness of the Irish Sea to the east. And still they were there. Before me, above me, to my left, to my right. Okay, so they were quite behind me, but this was still pretty close to the kind of description given in St Patrick's Breastplate. I was surrounded and immersed, bathed in celestial light the like of which I had never witnessed before.

To let you grasp something of the scale of this shot, it is a panorama made up of four portrait orientated photos taken with my 11 mm ultra wide lens. This lens has a field of view of around 104 degrees. What that means is that the top of this flat image on this screen was more or less directly above my head. If you could imagine this shot wrapped around a dome stretching 180 degrees from side to side and to 90 degrees above, that's how much field of view is captured here. 

In fact you can explore this picture in more detail below. I'd advise zooming in a bit and then exploring around, imagining looking around and up as you view the display (sadly the quality has been compressed out of it somewhat by the site I use to do this, but it will give you something of an idea anyway!)

But it wasn't just the scale of the display that was breathtaking. It was it's speed and dynamism too. We are all used to seeing time lapse videos of the aurora from Iceland and we know that the images have a speeded up quality about them. And when I had seen the rays move before in October 2013, they moved sedately, like some regal celestial sentinels slowly parading across the sky.

But the movement I saw on St Patrick's night is better described as a jig, an Irish dance of wild abandon, indulged in at some Irish pub late into the night, after much Guinness had flowed and while the traditional band lost themselves in one of those traditional Irish reels in the background. The aurora exploded into life. It floated and fluttered above my head. It shimmered and shimmied across the sky. It spun and spiralled throughout my field of view. Wherever I looked the lines of magnetism sparked with electricity, like some power cable set free, writhing with kinetic energy. All around me there were flashes of light too, high up in the sky, like some crazed localised balls of lightning that seemed to spontaneously burst into being, ex nihilo.

And all of this was so visible to the naked eye. Every other aurora photo I've taken I've had to say to people that the camera shows more than the eye could see. But not this time. I was aware that my normal camera settings were hopelessly wrong for what I was seeing, that my shutter speed was far too long to capture the sheer speed of what was going on above my head, and that my 11 mm ultra wide lens was embarrassingly pitiful in the face of something of this scale. But I didn't really care. I made a couple of quick adjustments as I snapped away. But this was not a time to get caught up in the technicalities of photography. This was a time to get lost in the wonder of what I was seeing, to get lost in those precious moments on unsurpassed glory. 

So my head darted all around to take in as much as I could. And I did my very own jig in that little lay-by, whooping and hollering in the sheer delight of it all. In the silence of this aurora, the soundtrack for this sublime show was none other that the cries of sheer delight reaching upwards into the sky along the coast road in Co. Antrim. The only thing I wanted was someone else to share this experience with. And, as if on cue, at around 11.20 pm a guy cycled past me in the darkness of the Antrim Coast road! I called to him in my enthusiasm - he probably wondered what kind of maniac he'd had the misfortune to bump into that evening. But when I pointed out what was going on above him and showed him what I was capturing on my camera, he too showed an interest, if not an enthusiasm. I'm not sure what exactly he thought as he cycled off again into the darkness, but it was great even for a few moments to have someone to share that moment with. 

The display as it began to calm down again.

It appears that something of this glory cannot sustain itself for too long, for within about 20 minutes or so, the movement subsided, the flashes were no more, and the display calmed down to 'merely' a ray-infused fan of green and red reaching far into the night sky above and around. It was clear that things were beginning to settle down again and that this auroral substorm had run its course. I was in no mode to settle down just yet, of course. My heart was still racing with excitement inside my chest. But it was time for me to head home and get some quick initial edits done with my photos, before heading off for some long overdue sleep.

But it was a night that will live long in my memory. I had heard tales of when aurora displays did what I had just seen. I had marvelled as others told me of their experiences. But nothing could quite prepare me for the reality. Or, more properly, surreality. To have the aurora surround me like this is something I thought I would have to go to Iceland to witness. But it looks like, every once in a while, Iceland makes a trip to Ireland. And a more fitting day it could not have picked.

St Patrick's Day 2015: the day the aurora was above and before me, to my right and to my left. And deep inside my heart.

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