December 9th, 2012


The late great Sir Patrick Moore

When I was in my late teens, I was very active in the Irish Astronomical Association, which despite its name was largely a Northern Ireland body based in Belfast and Armagh (it had split from the all-Ireland Irish Astronomical Society in the mid-1970s). Most of the years of my involvement featured a ceremonial visit from Patrick Moore, who had been the founding director of the Armagh Planetarium fifteen years before; most of the older members of the IAA had worked with him in the mid-1960s, or in other capacities later, and Moore genuinely seemed to enjoy coming back and speaking to the public.

I had of course read all of the books by him available in the Belfast library system, including the Scott Saunders Space Adventures series and Bureaucrats and how to annoy them, written under the pseudonym of "R.T. Fishall", and I suppose this was my first real encounter with a genuine celebrity. He was true to his public persona of being a bit eccentric and grouchy, but the fact that I usually saw him in the company of his old friends no doubt made him both more comfortable and also more able to play up to an awestruck youthful audience (ie me). He was sardonic about the situation in Northern Ireland, from which he had departed before the Troubles started: "When I went to the golf club, they asked me if I was a Catholic or a Protestant. I said, 'I'm a Druid. Good-bye!'"

Towards the end of my involvement with the IAA (quite possibly the last time I saw him, probably in early 1986), I mentioned to him that I had got a place at Clare College, Cambridge, and this caught his interest; he too had been awarded a place at Clare in 1939 but joined the RAF instead. (Famous drop-outs from Clare include Richard Stilgoe, Thomas Merton and Siegfried Sassoon, but Patrick Moore was the only one I know of who turned them down.) I must also credit him, I think, for my enduring love of the music of Sibelius, who composed the theme for The Sky at Night as part of the incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande, a play by Belgium's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you want to remember him for five minutes, have a listen.