Ireland is not a big country, only a small percentage of people in Ireland are interested in Astronomy, only a small percentage of those get actively involved. So, the Irish Amateur Astronomical community is small. Yet, it is plagued by a decades old feud. On one side you have the combined entity of Astronomy & Space Ltd (a company) and Astronomy Ireland (a club), and on the other you have everyone else, mostly combined under the banner of the Irish Federation of Astronomical Societies (IFAS). The level of animosity between both camps is astounding. The stories you hear are often shocking and the depth of emotion almost unimaginable. There are a few rare people like myself who straddle(d) the divide, but most are in one camp or the other. There are also many people who are new to the community and who don’t know nor care about the history that started the feud. Many of these get so put off by all the animosity that they just give up altogether and withdraw from the community to enjoy the wonders of the night sky by themselves.

At some point in the distant past both camps were one, they split before my time but there are still many people on both sides harboring huge grudges. Many people are not yet ready to move on. They still want to lay blame. Personally, I feel sorry for the people who are so entrenched. The split and the events around it are all a long way in the past, we need to start looking to the future! However, before I look to the future, I want to explain my story, where I’ve come from, and why I’ve made the decisions I have.

The Early Years – Astronomy Ireland Membership

My first involvement with amateur Astronomy in Ireland was when I joined Astronomy Ireland in the early 90s. I don’t think the company Astronomy & Space Ltd. existed yet back then so I guess things were a little clearer. I had two choices of club to join, Astronomy Ireland and The Irish Astronomical Society. I had brochures from both. One looked professional and well run, had a nice magazine and its chairperson was a regular on national Television. The other looked totally amateur and appeared to have nothing to offer to anyone beyond the greater Dublin area (like me). So, I joined the professional looking one, Astronomy Ireland. At some point the seeds of Astronomy & Space Ltd. were sown and Astronomy Ireland started to develop into BOTH a business AND a club. This didn’t bother me at first. I bought a telescope off them at what I felt was a fair price and I’ve been very happy with it ever since. I still have it. It’s now 12 years old and still my only telescope.

My Relationship With Astronomy Ireland Sours

So, for many years I was a happy Astronomy Ireland member. I regularly got a nice magazine dropped through my door which helped me make the most of my telescope. The fact that I was a member of a club that never held elections, never published accounts and had a strange relationship with a for profit company never really bothered me. That is, until I went to my club (Astronomy Ireland) to get help setting up an Astronomy society in my university (NUI Maynooth). That’s when things started to change for me. It became apparent to me that my club was not interested in me, they wanted my money. When I made it clear that our fledgling society only had a budget of about £100 for its first year and that we couldn’t pay £15 per head (we had sixty members) to Astronomy Ireland all contact just dried up. My emails and calls went unanswered. I realized that I was not a member of a true club but just a subscriber to a magazine. However, it is a very good magazine, so, to this day, I am still a subscriber, and hence, officially at least, a member of Astronomy Ireland. Also, the club I helped to set up in NUI Maynooth (Astro2) managed to struggle on without help from Astronomy Ireland. It’s still going strong today and last year was awarded the title of Best Student Physics Society in the UK & Ireland by the Institute of Physics.

In the past few years I’ve taken more and more of an interest in the strange and mysterious relationship between the charitable organization Astronomy Ireland, and the profit making company Astronomy & Space Ltd.. Both are run by the same person, David Moore. It is almost impossible to tell these two entities apart. And that’s why I have a fundamental problem with them. To this day it’s still not clear to me if my annual fee is paid to join Astronomy Ireland and I get a free subscription to Astronomy & Space magazine (published by Astronomy & Space Ltd.) with it, or if I’m paying for a subscription to Astronomy & Space Magazine and getting a free membership to Astronomy Ireland with it! The confusion gets even greater when you look at the astronomy shop run by Astronomy & Space Ltd.. It is staffed by Astronomy Ireland volunteers and is referred to as “the club shop” in Astronomy Ireland emails. These emails also encourage club members to support their club by buying in the shop. But the shop is run by the company, not the club!

As you can see this all gets very confusing, and I’m not the only person who’s confused. Over the last few years I’ve asked David Moore to explain the relationship between his company and his club to me, and in particular to tell me where my ‘membership money’ goes. How much to each organization etc.? I’ve also asked to see the accounts for the club I am supposedly a member of. All to no avail, I’ve never been provided with any of this information. I’m also not the only person to have asked. I know of many others who’ve tried to get clarification and answers and they’ve all gotten the same response, or rather lack there of.

This strange relationship also results in a conflict of interest. A club needs to do what’s best for its members, a company needs to maximize profits. The two are often incompatible aims and it’s generally the members of the club who seem to loose out. I could give numerous examples but this post is already long enough so I’ll just keep it at one which particularly annoys me. Astronomy & Space Ltd. run a premium rate phone line which gives out information on astronomical events and passes of spacecraft like the International Space Station (ISS) and space shuttles which are visible from Ireland. Astronomy Ireland tell their members to ring this number to get details in emails they send out. They could just as easily include the details in the email or, give people a link to the website which gives details of all shuttle passes, ISS passes etc. for free. Would it be in the members interest to be told about this site? yes! Would it be in the company’s interest for people to be told about this site? no! Who’s interest wins out? The companies!

The Alternative

After Astronomy Ireland’s failure to help the fledgling Astro2 the society struggled on by itself for a few years before being approached by a newly formed organization, IFAS. The annual membership fee was just £5 for the entire club. This contrasts very dramatically with the £15 per head Astronomy Ireland were looking for! The contrasts continue though. IFAS has a constitution and is run democratically and transparently by an elected council. Accounts are presented each year and it is easy to see what happens to all the money paid in by the member clubs and societies. IFAS is a non-profit organization and the constitution explicitly prevents payment of IFAS officers, hence, there is no room for doubt, it’s about Astronomy, not profit.

I’ve been involved with IFAS since Astro2 became a member. I’ve served on the council for a number of years, have been their webmaster for over three, and now edit and produce a monthly podcast for them. I’ve decided that I prefer the way IFAS do business, hence that’s where I direct my efforts. My time and energy are precious so I’m going to dedicate them to the organization that best fits my ideals and beliefs.

The Future

Personally I like democratic and open structures and I have issues with organizations which are not run in a transparent way and where there is a confusing mix of club and company. Hence, I have chosen IFAS over Astronomy Ireland/Astrnomy & Space Ltd.. However, there are loads of people on this island who don’t care how their club is run, they just want someone to organize events for them and put out a good magazine. Astronomy Ireland claim to have about 3,600 members so obviously they are doing something right! People have a choice, and that’s a good thing. Neither organization is going to go away, both are going to play a role in Irish amateur Astronomy as we move forward into the future.

At present the levels of animosity and distrust between the organizations is amazing. The mere mention of Astronomy Ireland or one of its events on the IFAS bulletin boards is enough to spark off yet another thread full of the same old issues begin raised over and over again. In fact, one such thread triggered this post.

The animosity has to end. The two organizations have to learn to live with each other. The chances are that cooperation between both organizations will not be possible for a very long time, if ever, but we at least need to get to a point where both can coexist peacefully. I’d like to see a future where Astronomy Ireland events can be announced on the IFAS boards without starting a riot, and where Astronomy & Space Magazine publishes details of events run by IFAS member clubs. The only way I can see us getting there is slowly, with baby-steps. But I want to see those baby steps starting to happen now!