The genesis of this night began during the heat wave of July 2013 when Roisin and I had a fantastic holiday in Co. Fermanagh where we experienced day after day of relentless sunshine and heat so strong that we had to seek shadows to cool down and minimize our exposure to the sun in order to avoid the rapid onset of sunstroke and the shivers. This was a classic heat wave high pressure set-up the likes of which Ireland hadn't experienced since 2005 and we were loving every bit of it even though the air was thick and sleep was difficult to find in the air conditioned hotel room in which we stayed. I would often leave the room at night and walk around the grounds of the Country Manor Hotel in a t-shirt sweating with the effort while listening to bats and the gentle sound of the water that made up Lower Lough Erne lapping gently against the shore. I loved Summer nights like these, even the smell of the grass was awesome conjuring up all those wonderful childhood memories. Then I would stop to take in the stars within the all-night twilight glow checking to make sure the sky was behaving itself then a last look low in the N where Capella was lazily winking through a layer of heat haze to confirm that no Noctilucent Clouds where present then I returned to the hotel room to get some rest in preparation for yet another hot day to come.
The following day was spent exploring castles. Roisin and I love castles so we had marked out on a map all the best locations in the local area within an hour's drive from our hotel and with sun cream, sun glasses, water, and my lucky baseball cap we hit the dusty roads castle hunting. We must have explored five castles that day however one of these stood out from all the others, this one was Monea castle situated on the W side of Lower Lough Erne not far from Derrygonnelly. This castle completely blew us away with its impressive bold structure and its striking two barrel-shaped towers not to mention the fact that it was located in the middle of nowhere surrounded by acres of vast fields where cattle grazed and bumble bees buzzed over the wild grass making the castle feel even more isolated. We explored the grounds, took many images, ventured inside the castle, then lay out under the strong Summer sun for what seemed like hours, in fact, it was difficult to leave at all. I said to Roisin that this place would be awesome to photograph at night with the stars and I vowed that some day I would return here to do just that.
March 2014, after a long period of cloudy wet nights the weather turned dry with high pressure building and with it came the prospect of clear nights and I couldn't help shake the image from my mind of Monea castle, in fact, it had been in my mind for several days however I never told anyone. On the night of the 10th I got a private message on facebook from Paul Martin saying he was up for a photo shoot the following night and that he was thinking of the castles in Fermanagh, I couldn't believe he said that, sometimes I think Paul and I are psychic or he can pick up on what I am thinking or vice versa. During the late morning of the 11th the shoot was confirmed, we would hit the castles in Fermanagh and Monea would be our first target before moving on to others, however time was ticking and there was a lot of miles to cover so I needed to leave in daytime to get there so I quickly got organised. There was a just enough time to walk the dog, heat up a baked potato with salad, fill two flasks for tea and a canister of fresh water, the batteries were charged, fuel put in the car, and at 16.00 I was on my way.
It was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon, the sun was shinning bright and for the first time this year I could really feel it warm my face through the driver's side window. I was loving the drive, I felt so warm and full of energy and excited about what lay ahead, the countryside had been transformed and was now a landscape of cheerful green fields with lambs in the warm afternoon light, this reminded me of those amazing Spring days last year going storm chasing to Fermanagh and beyond, I even had my lucky baseball cap on for the first time this year, I always experience something great when I wear this cap. The radio was playing a selection of great 80s music then I listened to Nick Cave's 'Red Right Hand' as I drove through the wonderful countryside between Cookstown and Omagh. At 17.00 I met up with Paul and since it was still daylight we relocated to his house in Omagh and waited for the sun to set while using the opportunity to get another brew. This was going to be the best night of the weak, the forecast gave clear skies all night with pockets of mist and fog, there would also be a waxing gibbous moon which would be perfect for illuminating the castle for us (no artificial lights needed) while being not too bright so we would get enough stars in the sky to show on our images.
As darkness fell we got ready to leave when Paul noticed that the driver's side tire of my car was almost completely flat, I couldn't believe it as it was a brand new tire, it was almost too low to drive on however with just enough air to get away with for a short journey, as there was no time to change the wheel I followed Paul to the nearest filling station and inflated it with air and it was fine once again, however I wondered if it stay up for long. We took Paul's car then began the drive S from Omagh, made another quick stop at a filling station for the customary Latte and boost bar then back on the road with headlights cutting through the darkness as we left busy town roads then transited onto narrow county roads and soon we where at the castle. When we reached Monea castle on foot we knew instantly that we couldn't have picked a better night. The night sky was absolutely exquisite with not a cloud in sight and the moon was doing its job to utter perfection bathing the ancient stone work in its eerie light while many stars made their appearance in the crisp air. This was up close and personal with the 10mm lens, my goodness this place was an amazing visual sight in the moonlight and was even better than what I remembered, I couldn't believe that I was here at last shooting this glorious sight. This was a 17th century 'plantation castle' of Scottish design, the castle was built in 1618 by the Rector of Devenish - the Reverend Malcolm Hamilton - with a bawn built later in 1622 just before Hamilton was promoted to Archbishop of Cashel in 1623.
Paul and I where standing on the bawn taking images while hidden within the shadows inside the surrounding stone wall. The most impressive feature of castle Monea are the two W facing cylindrical towers with openings and arrow slits with the striking rectangular attic on top of each tower. The shadowed area between the two towers to the left is the entrance. Notice the arrow slit at the bottom of the right tower?, there is a small room below the base of that tower which can be accessed from the inside with stone steps leading down into the vault, it is quite a creepy place, especially at night. In the last century "a weird woman named Bell McCabe took her residence in a vault beneath one of the towers" until she was evicted by the proprietor, who feared she "might be found dead on the wretched premises,' and that some inquiries might ensue, involving the trouble incident to a coroner's inquest" (quote from Irelandseye.com).
We spent several hours in this area taking many images. At this stage we where standing on the ancient stone wall surrounding the bawn. The wall was very tall and irregular with rocks covering the surface making it difficult to keep one's balance and more than awkward to get the tripods secured, however once we got settled in it was worth the effort for the view was wonderful in that direction and the moon had creeped its way further around on the ecliptic into the SW sky illuminating the towers in all their glory. You really needed to be here to experience this place, the castle looked so imposing surrounded by open fields and flat countryside all the way to the horizon which really accentuated that feeling of isolation and that uncluttered environment really helped with the photography. Honestly, it felt like we where on a movie set or even back in time when the castle was thriving, I was half expecting a knight on horseback to trot passed us, we really did feel that disconnection with the modern world which is why I love shooting at these historic locations. Suddenly a beautiful mag +2.0 meteor shot over the top of the castle towers with a 20 degree long orange-coloured ion train glowing among the stars for several sec's before it vanished, that was a nice treat and easily the best meteor we had observed for months.
Monea castle must have been a truly impressive sight back in its day, it was described by Pynnar as "a strong castle of lime and stone being 54 feet long and 20 feet broad". The bawn, comprising "a wall 9 feet in height and 300 feet in circuit" (Irelandseye.com). We took a break and went back to the car and had a pot noodle each, tea, several snowballs and nuts to give us the energy we needed for the long hours ahead. Once back outside the temperature of the night really began to affect us, it was absolutely freezing with a harsh frost covering everything which we could see glittering in the moonlight, it was dead calm and silent except for the distant call of some night bird on the hunt. There were notable cold spots on the path leading up to the entrance which we both independently noticed where there was a striking drop in temperature, during the 1641 rebellion the castle was attacked by Rory Maguire, who "slew and murthered eight Protestants" here and since he didn't succeed in capturing the castle its logical to assume those deaths happened in the grounds, perhaps the cold spots were associated with those.
This was during the early hours of the morning, we had relocated to the grounds outside the bawn which offered a tremendous view of the W and S side of the castle walls and towers. The castle is three stories high complete with attic and cellar floors so in truth it is really four stories high. The view of the castle seemed to vary drastically at every compass point, in fact, it even looked different with each foot step, the transition from the W towers to the S rectangular walls was amazing. What also was amazing was the sky, it stayed absolutely clear all night long and I mean all night long, there wasn't a single cloud anywhere making this a very rare event indeed, we had chose our night well.
I climbed over the wire fence and got closer to the castle and surrounding wall. Paul was off to the right doing a long star trail. I really wanted to do my own star trail however I had issues with two cable releases which were playing up so I had to let the idea go and instead concentrated on taking still images of the castle, to tell you the truth I was glad to be shooting then moving again as standing still in this frosty field for long periods was not a good idea.
The northern circumpolar stars can be seen on view here, from left to right, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, Ursa Major and Hercules. This would be a nice location to shoot a major geomagnetic storm and even NLCs. I am definitely going back here to try star trails as I suspect the results could be epic.
I was working with three main lenses during this session, the 18mm, 10mm and 50mm, the above was up close to the towers with the 18mm. There is something about this place that draws you in like a magnet, we were meant to begin the night here then leave to find another castle in the local area however we just couldn't leave Monea, there was strong positive energy which kept us there as if it didn't want us to leave and we didn't put up a fight either, we had no reason to leave, nowhere would be better than here, the castle was simply beautiful.
We left the castle grounds and walked for a considerable distance across the open fields thick with frost then attached the 50mm F/1.8 lens for a new perspective. We where standing within eerie pools of moonlit fog with the sound of water rushing along a stream somewhere in the distance.
This is seriously a beautiful castle and in such excellent condition too, I wished I lived close to it for I would be shooting it all the time at night. Note the forming fog in the moonlight in the lower fields to the right of the castle, this fog would soon affect our shoot, in a good way.
Another mug of tea was needed so we went back to the car which was covered with frost and ice, we regained our heat and ate the remainder of our supplies then we got back out for our last images during the freezing pre-dawn hours. This was the N side of the castle facing S, the fields were quickly filling in with fog and spotting a potential photo opportunity we ran across to the W side of the castle and climbed upon the high stone wall.
This was the view looking W from the top of the wall with the castle behind us. This spectacular slow moving bank of fog had been creeping towards us for miles and now it was about to engulf us. The scene looked epic with the naked eye with the fog illuminated by the lowering moon with the stars aloft. Some of the lonely trees in the field became transparent while others vanished from the Earth completely as the fog swallowed everything up in its path and inch by inch it was getting closer to us. The leading edge of the fog bank was extremely sharp and reminded me somewhat of a well defined precip core under a strong thunderstorm. The waning gibbous moon was visible through the fog with its terminator now leaning upwards towards the stars as it sunk lower towards the horizon.
A memory shot, here's Paul on the wall beside me with LCD screen glowing in his face while battling with exposures before the fog reached us.
The fog surrounded us so we turned our backs to it and began shooting the castle which had now taken on a new persona with fog visible all around the structure. Furthermore the moon was now low in the sky behind the more dense section of fog and closer to the horizon and was now being influenced by atmospheric extinction which turned its white light into an orange-red colour in much the same way as the setting sun transforms into warmer colours as it nears the horizon. The warm light on the castle walls is entirely moonlight, however the ambient light had been reduced significantly by the fog and the sky had turned notably darker so I had to use a longer exposure to pick up the stars, this was a 30 sec exposure at ISO 1600.
Remember this is not dawn or twilight, this is still the middle of the night, the time stamp on this image is 04.00 UT. It was hard work standing on this high wall near the edge, there was a steep drop behind us to the grass below which demanded respect because one slip in the wrong direction and it could lead to injury or even death. Add to this the irregular sharp stones on top making for a very uncomfortable atmosphere trying to take images and being conscious of every movement as it was very easy to get carried away by the moment and not think and that is when danger rears its ugly head. I was standing on the rocks in a martial arts style lunging stance with my right leg straight and left bent so my body weight would always be forward instead of back so if I did fall I could control my forward landing much better. However for days afterwards my right calf muscle was killing me, it had swollen and become rock hard from the effort which just goes to show the importance of doing stretching exercises to aid this kind of photography, however I am not complaining as it was all part of the Monea experience.
The stars vanished in the fog and before dawn we began the journey back home. We were both shattered from the long hours spent out in the cold and stopped at a 24hr filling station for a much needed latte and bar of chocolate to elevate the energy levels. I'm pretty sure the lonely shop attendant thought he was going to get robbed when he saw our two haggard forms walking into the shop at that hour of the morning like two zombies. Later we arrived back in Omagh and I dreaded seeing a flat tire, the thought of changing one at this hour of the morning in the freezing cold and overcome with exhaustion was not something I was excited about, however once I saw the car I was delighted, the tire hadn't gone down at all, in fact, it was rock solid, I was so grateful for that.
The drive home from Omagh to Maghera was testing, I had to put down the windows and turn up the radio to keep my senses alert however there was no danger of falling asleep for the scenes through the windscreen were wonderful. On the elevated back roads between Omagh and Cookstown the landscape was like a Winter wonderland all covered in glistening white frost with pools of fog filling the valleys between mountains while above was a gorgeous blend of blue-red toned sky before dawn with the golden orb of planet Venus embedded within that rosy glow. As I passed the Seven Sisters I saw lake steam rising from the water which looked amazing, there was so much going on and I really should have stopped for images however I was tired and in a good flow so I let it pass and enjoyed the visual scene in peace. What a fantastic and atmospheric night, 15 hours on the go and it would be a few more before I would get some sleep. Monea castle you sure made an impression upon us and we will be back again to capture you on camera. Thanks very much for reading.