Halley’s Comet is one of the most famous of its kind and has zoomed past the night skies for millennia. The first recorded instance of its passing came in 239 BC, when Chinese astronomers recorded it in the Shih Chi and Wen Hsien Thung Khao chronicles. But others push the date back further, claiming the first observation happened in 466 BC, making it visible to the ancient Greeks.
After 239 BC, Halley’s returned in 164 and 87 BC.
It would make a similar journey every 75 years thereafter.
Given its guaranteed presence across the ages, Halley’s has taken on an almost mythical aura, with many people throughout history attributing various events to its appearance.
It was, for example, said to have inspired Genghis Khan in his invasion of Europe.
And years later, its return in 1456 overlapped with the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the Balkans which brought Islam to Eastern Europe.
In recent years, scientists have also claimed that Halley’s Comet could be credited with Ireland’s conversion to Christianity, explored during the Smithsonian Channel’s documentary, ‘Sacred Sites: Ireland’.
Ireland’s conversion from Druidism is thought to have taken place in the 5th century AD.
A man by the name of Patrick travelled to the island from Roman Britain as a missionary to convert the Pagan population — or so the story goes.
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Researchers have long questioned the legitimacy of this, and whether it is simply fiction to outline Ireland’s Christian history.
Dr Patrick McCafferty, a Celtic Scholar, said: “The reality wasn’t like that, Saint Patrick did not travel all over Ireland, he was confined mainly to the northern part of Ireland.
“Also, we know that other people were teaching at the same time, and we also know that even by a century after his death, paganism still survived in Ireland.”
Researchers have since looked into the Earth’s ice stores in a bid to determine how Ireland converted, with scientists coming across an “extraordinary” link between Halley’s Comet and the event.
Around the year 540 AD a giant dust cloud appeared in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Delving into ancient ice stores from the times, researchers have managed to align the dates from the dust cloud with other historical events that were happening at the time, like Ireland’s Christian conversion.
Analysing air bubbles trapped in one of the ice columns, they found that the two events did appear to be linked.
Dr Dallas Abbott, a geophysicist, studies samples from the large ice sheet that covers Greenland, and explained: “The Greenland ice core samples tell us there was extraterrestrial dust coming into the Earth’s atmosphere from 533 until 539, 540 AD.
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“Back then, they described the stars as dancing, and that’s basically due to their being a lot of dust.”
She argues that the dust came from the trail of Halley’s Comet which raced past the Earth in 530 AD.
Dr Abbot also discovered that Halley’s left an unusually long celestial trail full of debris in its wake.
She said: “Some places in the cometary dust trail were bigger than the comet.
“One of those hit the Earth near the equator and that produced most of the profound darkness between 536 and 537 AD.”
The evidence appeared to be backed up with events from history, with one medieval historian describing “a comet so vast that the entire sky seemed to be on fire”.
Meanwhile, the Romans had observed a bizarre change in the landscape, a pale Sun that had lost its heat and vigour.
And ancient Irish annals detailed food troubles and shortages, something which would have resulted in social unrest.
Dr McCafferty said: “We have a famine, we had the plague, and we also have references to the stars falling and comets in the sky from the 530s into 540s.
“Now, together, I suspect that these were enough to convince people that the religion they used to believe in wasn’t working anymore and that they needed to leave for something new.
“And in a sense, Christianity would have brought this message that these are symbols of the world ending, and now was the time to switch religion.
“To change from Druidism to Christianity.”