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Stargazing from the back of a van

THE kids flop out of the blue inflatable dome one-by-one. Their faces are lit up with awe and excitement of what they’ve just witnessed. “That was amazing,” says one. “Is that guy an astronaut?” says another.

 

Martin Conroy in his Exploration Dome at Killaloe. Photograph by John KellyThey’ve just been treated to a 40-minute show in a mobile planetarium at their national school, where they’ve learned about everything from the constellations to why Pluto is no longer a planet.

Eager to talk about the experience, they hang around the entrance and have to be moved on by a teacher so everyone can go back to class. The chatter continues en-route. “I think he was an astronaut,” says a young boy – totally satisfied his assertion is true.

The astronaut? That’s Martin Conroy from Killaloe, who owns and operates Exploration Dome with his wife, Deborah, and travels the country daily with the universe in the back of his van. He’s not a real spaceman, of course, but he does have a vast knowledge of astronomy and it’s clear from his enthusiasm, when talking about his business, that he loves his job.

“I’m buzzing after three shows,” says Martin as we are afforded the privilege of an exclusive tour around the dome following his morning’s work.

“I’ve always had space on my mind. I love walking at night and looking at the stars. If I popped my finger into the sky, where would it stop? I’ve always had these questions on my mind,” he adds.

Martin, who played hurling with Smith O’Brien’s, and Deborah returned to Ireland from Holland in 2005. Initially, they set up an internet business before the recession hit.

“We came back and Deborah worked in security, while I was repairing forklifts. Then I started a business doing broadband installation. We kept going for a couple of years but in the space of two weeks the whole thing just collapsed.”

However, one crash landing was not enough to discourage Martin in his quest to become a successful businessman.

A lifelong interest in space led Martin to the idea of touring schools with an educational dome. In 2009, he contacted Science Dome in England. They supply projector and dome equipment but Martin didn’t have the money.

He approached the PAUL Partnership in Limerick for help and they found him some business courses before he was referred to Clare Local Development Company (CLDC), who helped with the business plan.

“We wanted to start a business and we wanted to find out exactly how to do it. Ann Marie Gleeson at PAUL has been absolutely fantastic and she put us onto CLDC, where we were dealing with Michelle Lynch and Bernie Healy. I’ve nothing but praise for those people.”

CLDC provided 50% of the start-up costs and Martin is also benefiting from the back-to-work allowance, a two-year benefit to help you get your business off the ground.

“The CLDC looked at the business plan and the uniqueness of what we were doing. They wanted something different and they loved it,” says Martin.

“I thought a business plan was just something to make money but it’s a bible, you work with it, you live with it and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve stuck with it and it’s worked a lot for us. Even today we are in contact with them. We are here today because of CLDC and Anne Marie.”

Martin is one of 5,000 people nationally who were helped to set up businesses last year by local development companies such as CLDC. He also received peer support from Derg Business Alliance in Killaloe, whose early morning meetings he regularly attended.

“We’ve worked hard to get to where we are now. Deborah works in the office and she’s continuously calling schools and we’ve got a 70 to 80% success rate.”

The dome, as out of this world as it is, somewhat baffles people when they hear about it for the first time.

“Schools don’t really know what we are about until they see photographs. One school thought we were supplying fish tanks. When people do get a grip of the concept, though, they love it.”

Martin started on the road six months ago and he says – without any pun intended – that “business is flying” and the planetarium is booked out for weeks in advance.

Shows are tailored to the age-range of children and can be adapted for other educational purposes, such as nature and history. The dome itself is inflated by air and is extremely safe. It can be lifted up in seconds in the event of an accident. Up to 60 children per show can fit into the dome comfortably.

Expansion is already on the horizon for the business. Martin is looking at the 3D market and is hoping to purchase another dome and projector in the future.

“The reaction from children is one of pure wonderment,” says Martin.

He tells the story of one lad who was particularly impressed. “He caught my hand and he said, ‘Now I know what I want to do, I want to be an astronaut’. A little girl came up and gave me a hug and said, ‘that was great’. These are the little things that fill you up, I love it.”

Before we leave, Martin has one last treat for us. We sit on the floor and the opening bars of Elton John’s Rocket Man blare out. All around us the sky – the roof of the dome really but you wouldn’t know it – is lit up with scenes of intergalactic exploration, planets orbiting and rockets taking off from the earth. At one stage, the camera zooms down onto the surface of Mars and the darkness and atmosphere of the dome combine to make you feel you are actually there, staring right back at the earth below.

I’m in my 30s; it’s amazing. I can only imagine what it must be like for a child.

Martin might not be a real astronaut but he’s certainly bringing space down to earth with his dome.

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