RRCPC Newsletter
Volume 40 Number 2 Article 6
September 2003

Mines a' Guinness

(Sam & Ro go NAMHO)

Not a major club outing, but Sam Lieberman and Ro Magdan joined a bunch of old beardy duffers for their conference based in the land of dark beer and MINES. You might all know of the standard caving areas of Clare and Fermanagh, but there's a wealth of mining heritage in Ireland, particularly over the past 400 years or so. The conference started on the Friday night, we missed the first few introductory talks by the time the ferry had delivered us, but caught an excellent video that gave us a taste of things to come over the next week.

Most of the conference was based at Avondale House, a modest stately pile where Charles Stewart Parnell lived, in the Wicklow hills. No bar on site (!) but given that the events were heavily biased towards field and underground trips there was no problem in finding watering holes along the way. Registration was dealt with efficiently and an excellent range of trips were on offer from easy pottering up adits, to technical abseiling.

Saturday saw Ro learning about the Wicklow gold rush in 1790's whilst I joined fifteen other people in a barbed wire compound... no we hadn't been arrested, this was the top of Farmers shaft, only opened up the week before! The 200ft shaft, part of the East Avoca mine complex, was originally a pumping shaft, possibly over 1000ft deep originally, it led to the 850ft level driven in the 1950's when the mine was reworked. It took forever to get everyone down, particularly past the section where crumbly deads lurked alarmingly in a tight section of the shaft. Then another short rope led to a series of wooden ladders going up and down. Up, led to a chamber and pit where some of the old wooden pumping rods were still visible jammed in a collapse in the shaft. Down took you to the main 850' level, 3m square and festooned with straws up to 5ft long, all the more interesting once you know the level was last worked in 1962! That's over 1 inch growth rate per year. Also of interest were pure copper deposits on the railway lines caused by electrochemical deposition from the water passing through.

I'd forgotten where I was going in the afternoon and so ended up joining Ro in the lectures which varied from fascinating and well delivered talk on mining tokens to 'Errrrr, errrrr', yawn + an animated discussion about railway gauges. I was discovering that these mining types get excited about the oddest things.

Pissup: - like the rest of the event, extremely well organised with a coach to take us to and from the pub. The food was excellent, the band was poor, and I ate too many puddings and couldn't move, let alone drink much Guinness. I was also a bit lost with the many and varied discussions as to the finer points of Cornish engine house construction, like I said, they're an odd lot these mine enthusiasts.

Sunday morning Ro and I were doing the dutiful visiting parent business plus a surprise visit from other parent - guaranteed to get stress levels through the roof. So it was a welcome relief to disappear of to look at some more mines.

Glendasan lead mines, near the tourist honey pot of Glendlough, had the dubious privilege of appearing in that odd film last year where dragons take over the world. Didn't see any though (thought they lived in Wales?) However there were a couple of adits to look down, one was quite short but had an entertaining 'walk the plank' game over a deep pool, the other had a 'log rolling' event on the way in and only recently been extended past a fall, so there was actually some pushing work to be done, didn't find anything significant though.

Monday's trip was to the Tara mine, the largest active zinc mine in Europe. We'd been far too late to book a space on the trip, but the introductory video on the Friday included footage of the incredible remote controlled armoured diggers they use for working the active mining face.

Tuesday we were at the village of Silvermines, near Nenagh in Co. Tipperary. After a quick group photo for the local paper we set off for the Shallee mine, the mine had a long history with older adits being truncated by 1950's open cast workings. After a brief drenching downpour on the way up the hill we arrived at two large sheds full to the roof with racks and racks of core samples, tens of thousands of them all left to the ravages of local youth and years of neglect. The mines themselves were a treat, with huge pillar workings leading to a network of tunnels with numerous skylights, then after the obligatory Cornish engine house and discussion as to the size of the boiler and placement of the bob wall shaft fixing bolts it was off to the local hostelry for beer and top nosh soup. The afternoon saw a quick circuit of the Ballygown mine with Waelz zinc oxide furnace (oooohhhhh!), a 7m diameter 40 long rotary kiln that apparently used to get choked with iron nodules growing on the inside. The solution was to fit a giant shotgun to the end and blast the lumps off occasionally!!

Wednesday - the real keenies set off for the Allihies area in Cork - an extensive spread of copper mines that apparently was not done justice by a long drive and quick day trip. We retreated to the parental abode where DIY was the order of the day.

Thursday - Bunmahon Co. Waterford, we arrived a bit late and couldn't find anyone so using the time honoured technique I drove madly round obscure back roads until I spotted, Yes!, a ruined Cornish engine house... 3 miles away up the coast on the other side of the village. We hadn't missed much and went down to the beach to see where the refined ore got sent away for processing in Wales. Then on to look at the Engine house and a plan to reconvene after lunch to look at the mine workings proper. The pub was shut (obviously the organisation was wearing a bit thin by the end of the week) so Ro and I went to the cafe for grub. Meanwhile the keenies gave up on food and went straight for the mine. By the time I got there they'd all buggered off. I set off down a steep gully in the cliff face and on reaching beach level got pointed at a 4m exposed climb up a rib of rock at the top of which was the entrance adit. The swines had left the rope they'd rigged at the top, so I had to try the climb, free. The crack that everyone else had gone up was a bit crumbly for my liking, however the end of the buttress was well pounded by the sea and much more climbable, a quick mantelshelf manoeuvre, a teeter along the slippery ridge and I was in. The mine was quite complex with junctions and loops all over. The most amazing thing though, were the walls that were covered in many places with bright blue copper compound deposits, blue flowstone and blue straws, it was all a bit weird, one section had a bright yellow pool of water too boot. Great stuff. It turned out that several folk hadn't thought about how they were going to get down, so I found myself in charge of the NAMHO Italian hitch learning class before hand-lining down the rope myself.

Ro and I treated ourselves to a night out in Kilkenny on the way back and stopped in on Dunmore cave - a real oddity in the middle of the gently rolling fields north of Kilkenny. The cave consists of a large collapse doline with a short section of BIG passage running either way. The cave must have been huge before the glaciers (and the Vikings and the government agency responsible for installing concrete steps) filled it with crap. Still, the tour guides were well versed in the schpiel and the place wasn't full of screaming kids.

All in all an interesting week, every trip was accompanied with a sheaf of notes including surveys, geological maps, history etc., the level of organisation was impressive and puts the current BCRA efforts to shame.

Everything underground in Ireland is owned by the Government but the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland have been granted an open permit for the purposes of exploring and conserving the mining heritage of Ireland. Their website can be found at: http://www.mhti.ie

Sam Lieberman

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