First things first. Common question for budding amateurs is what sort of equipment is needed.
Number one piece of equipment is your eyes. That was my main equipment for the first thirty years of astronomy interest. There’s a lot to be said for getting to know your way around the sky with the unaided eye. Also, certain events such as meteor showers are pretty much naked eye phenomena, as is satellite watching (heavens-above.com).
The second piece of equipment is a five quid piece of paper called a planisphere. Nowadays you can replace many, but not all, of its functions with amazing phone and tablet apps like StarWalk. The point is not to have the right gadget, but to understand how the sky moves during the night, and how it changes over the course of the year. There is some abstruse terminology associated with celestial position finding, but basically it’s all about the celestial equivalents of latitude and longitude, combined with the effects of the earths rotational peculiarities. You don’t need to know all (or even any) of the details to enjoy a spectacular night sky. But it adds to your appreciation if you know what’s going on.
Next up, a pair of binoculars. You want the lowest magnification and the largest objective lens size. Regular 10 x 50s are fine. That’s 10x magnification with a 50 mm (5 cm/ 2 in) objective lens. But you would be better with 9 x 70s if you can find them. Magnification counts for nothing – stars are too far away to be anything but points. Objective lens size determines how much light you collect, and therefore what the dimmest stars you can see are. This is true of telescopes too. Don’t splash out too much. I bought an expensive pair of 9 x 70s only to find that they had an annoying internal reflection, visible only in dim light (such as star gazing, duh!), which produced a faint double image of bright objects like planets. The biggest limitation of binoculars as astronomical instruments is the difficulty of steadying them.
If you are into photography, you may be able to do more than you thought with just your current equipment. Have a look at this guy’s photos (and follow the links on the right hand side). Two things to note – long exposure photography needs an (expensive) tracking mount to follow the motion of the sky. Modern DSLRs have infrared filters over the sensor which cut out some of the interesting frequencies from extended objects like nebulae.
Light pollution is your enemy. Unfortunately, the larger towns and cities are not good places to view from. Any artificial lighting threatens to either blind you directly, or can reflect off clouds or haze in the atmosphere, which can severely impact the view. Unfortunately, in Ireland, the sky is rarely as transparent as you might get in a dryer climate, so there is always some haze to reflect city lighting. With haze or broken cloud in a city, you’ll probably only be able to see the very brightest objects in the night sky. Even on a cloudless night, my experience from about six miles south of Dublin city centre is that the dimmest visible stars are up to six times brighter than the dimmest you will see from a dark rural location. If in doubt, look up your location in this light pollution guide (scroll down to the night sky simulator and zoom in on the map). A limiting visual magnitude of 6.0 is an almost perfectly dark location. Anything below 4.5 is dodgy.
This may sound sacrilegous, but unless the moon is specifically the target of your observations, it can be considered as light pollution too. A full moon will wipe out your view of the sky just as effectively as terrestrial pollution. Keep track of the moon’s phase using a plethora of web sites, such as timeanddate.com. It is worth mentioning sunlight too. There’s no sunlight at night, you may say, but it’s not true. At our latitude, there is some sunlight in the sky all night for the months of June and July. From an astronomer’s POV, there is no end to “astronomical twilight” for most of that period, as the sun is never more than 20 degrees below the horizon all night. Fortunately, this mostly affects the view to the north, which is the less interesting part of the sky.
Some people have never seen the night sky from a truly dark location. If you’re one of those, you owe it to yourself to make a point of it. Why not make a plan for the August Perseid meteor shower. It peaks on August 12th which is a Sunday, but you could try one of the other weekend nights too. The moon is reasonably favourable this year too, so if you’ve never watched a meteor shower, this is a good time. (However, if you’re like one of those people who’ve come back to me in the past and said “I saw a few feckin’ shootin’ stars … WAS THAT IT??”, then you don’t have the romantic spirit for amateur astronomy and you should try trainspotting or moth collecting).