Ireland’s First Copper Mine.  4,500 years of mining history

I have stumbled onto historical mining in a number of places in Ireland in my travels.  Particularly at Allihies and Mizen in West Cork and along the so-called Copper Coast in Waterford.  However, I had no idea of the significance of copper mining in Killarney, and only came across it by chance recently when exploring Killarney National Park’s other delights.

19th Century mining of copper underpinned many fortunes for its British landowners.  In Castletownbere in West Cork,  it was the Puxley’s and Killarney it was the Earls of Kenmare and then the Herberts, who funded their magnificent home at Muckross from their mining wealth.  Ironically the mansion at Muckross was completed in 1843 as the Famine ravaged Ireland.  But the saga of mining in Killarney goes back much further, deep into Neolithic times.

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Muckross House built by the Herbert family with money from their mining fortune

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Muckross House. Built 1843

When we talk of mining history in Australia, we think back to the first gold rushes in NSW and Victoria, which were in 1851, or Australia’s own copper boom, which started in South Australia in the 1840s. Mining effectively ended Australia’s time as a penal colony and led to an explosion of free immigration.  So it took a bit to wrap my mind around the mining heritage of a country that goes back thousands of years.

Mining has taken place at two locations on the Killarney Lakes, Ross Island and on the Muckross Peninsula.  Mining there reflects human occupancy from the end of the Neolithic Period and the early Bronze Age (2500-1800 BCE) through Christian times (8th Century) to industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ross Island is the earliest known site for copper mining in Ireland.  The activity has been dated by the discovery of Beaker pottery by a team from National University of Ireland Galway in 1992.  The so-called Bell Beaker culture is named after the inverted bell-shaped pottery vessels found scattered throughout Western Europe and dated in Ireland from 2500 BCE to 2200 BCE.  This has been confirmed by radiocarbon dating at the site.

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Beaker vessel characterstic of the style of the Bell Beaker culture, fragments of which were used to date the Ross Island mining site.  Photo credit: http://curiousireland.ie/the-beaker-people-2500-bc-1700-bc/

The true Bronze Age in Ireland (that is when copper was alloyed with tin or arsenic to manufacture weaponry and tools) started around 2000 BCE.  Prior to this was the ‘Copper Age’ and copper from Ross Island would have been used for daggers or axe heads or other copper objects and was traded widely.  Chemical fingerprinting and lead isotope analysis shows that Ross Island was the only source of copper until 2200 BCE in Ireland. Not only this, but two-thirds of artefacts from Britain before this time show the same signature.  And Ross Island copper is found to be present in artefacts found in Netherlands and Brittany.  After this time other mines from southern Ireland became more important.

So, Ross Island saw the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age.  Frankly, to me as a mining geologist, to be able to stand on the place where the mining took place that underpinned this highly significant transition in human development in Ireland was, for me, a special experience.

The early miners exploited a rich band of oxidized copper ore within the limestone through shallow cave-like excavations, tunnels and chambers, most of which were damaged by subsequent mining.  Some of the surface ‘caves’ are visible today behind a rusting iron fence though the view is unfortunately heavily obscured by vegetation, which has been allowed to grow unchecked.

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Bronze Age mining excavation Ross Island

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Bronze Age mining Ross Island

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Probable Bronze Age mining excavation with later 18th Century stone walls.

These openings were made in the days well before explosives, by lighting fires against the rock face to open fractures and then pounding the walls with stone hammers.  The broken rock was then hand sorted and the separated ore was converted to metal by smelting in pit furnaces.

The last of the first phase of mining from this site is dated at 1700 BCE.  Mining lay dormant for centuries then, but in the early Christian period was a Golden Age of metalworking in Ireland, when such treasures as the Tara Brooch were produced.  Killarney was one of the centers of metallurgical and artisanal skills.  Excavations at Ross Island have found small pit furnaces that date from 700 AD suggesting that ores from here were used to produce metals for the production of  such objects.

Another thousand years passed before the final chapter in the exploitation of the wealth of Killarney copper played out.

This last phase of mining commenced in the early 18th century.  The first attempts at extracting lead in 1707 and then again to work the mine in 1726 failed.  In 1754 Thomas Herbert commenced mining under an arrangement with the then landowner, the Earl of Kenmare.  Mining was difficult due to flooding from proximity to the lake edge and for the next fifty years was sporadic.

I must digress for a moment.  In 1793 Thomas Herbert invited a mining consultant Rudolf Raspe to advise on the mines.  Why do I mention this?  Raspe was German and author of The Fabulous Adventures of the Baron von Munchausen (published in 1785). You might have seen the movie or heard of ‘Munchausen Syndrome’ but I grew up with these fantastical stories read to me by my father. Who would have dreamt of a connection between these far-fetched tales and copper mining in the west of Ireland. Anyway the poor fellow didn’t have such a Fabulous ending dying of scarlet fever a few months later and being buried in an unmarked grave near Muckross.

Meanwhile mining on Muckross Peninsula started in 1749 on the Western Mine and by 1754 the company had raised some £30,000 worth of copper ore, which was shipped to Bristol for smelting.  This closed in 1757 and operations commenced on the Eastern Mine opening for short periods in 1785 and again in 1801.  Operations resumed on the Western Mine in 1795 but these failed due apparently to mismanagement.  Little more was heard of this mine and it was considerably less successful than its neighbour.

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Mining spoil at Muckross Mine seen from the lake

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Muckross Peninsula.  18th Century smelter building

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Inside smelter building showing unusual curve flue.  There were at least three smelting furnaces in the structure.

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Muckross Peninsula. Old mine building

But things might have been very different. A dark crystalline mineral was encountered which oxidised to a very bright pink.  It had no copper and so was discarded.  One miner recognised it as the cobalt ore, cobaltite (CoAsS), with its oxidized form, pink erythrite (Co3(AsO4)28H2O).  This man quietly removed twenty tons of this ‘rubbish’ undiscovered.  When the proprietor later realised its value, it was too late.  It had been removed by his helpful employee, or mined as waste and thrown away to expose the copper ore.  Reminds me of the non-recognition of the gold rich Telluride ores in Kalgoorlie in 1893, which for years were used to surface roads, until a way was discovered to extract the gold.  Needless to say, the roads were ripped up.

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Erythrite from Muckross.  Photo credit: Online Mineral Museum

Back to the Ross Mine, which at the beginning of the 19th century had another renaissance. The Ross Island Company obtained a 31 year mining lease from Lord Kenmare in 1804, Work commenced on the Blue Hole on a rich lode of lead and copper. Mining continued until 1810 by which time it had become unprofitable.

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Blue Hole Mine open pit

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Northern pit Blue Hole Mine. Mining completed 1810

The operation was restarted by the Hibernian Mining Company (1825-9).  Both struggled with the perpetual problem of flooding.  One solution suggested was to drain Lough Leane; this did not go down too well as you can imagine, particularly with the local boatmen.  In the end a large coffer dam was built on the shore and water pumped into it from the mine. Part of the dam is still there.  Bigger and bigger pumps were required and ultimately by 1828 they were unable to deal with the water and the mine closed. Most of the Western Mine area is now flooded as the dam walls have been breached

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Eastern coffer dam.

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Part of Western Mines area flooded by breached dam wall on left.

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Ross Island.  A walled off limestone cave with steel door.  My hunch it was used as a magazine.

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Old shaft near Blue Hole mine

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Site of Old Engine House Ross Island Mine

Wandering over the site today does not give a true sense of the scale of mining in the early 19th century.  This map by Thomas Weaver from 1829 shows the fifty or so shafts, underground tunnels and surface buildings from this phase of operations.

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Thomas Weaver map of Ross Island mine workings 1829.  Photo credit NUIG.

But mining grew out of favour and conflicted with the rise of tourism to the area.   No more mine leases were granted after 1829 by the Herberts, who by this time had transitioned from mining entrepreneurs to landowners. The area was carefully landscaped, with the infilling of shafts, flooding of the Blue Hole, the demolition of buildings and the planting of trees. Subsequent forest growth has softened the historic footprint of the mining

Mineral exploration is now prohibited in the National Park so the remarkable 4,500 year history of mining here has come to an end.  Public awareness however of this important site is increasing with the creation of a Mining Trail and explanatory signage at the site.  To me, places like this are as important as Glendalough and Ceidi Fields and their preservation is so important.

I am ashamed to say that after five years in Ireland I only discovered this place by accident.  But find it I did, and I will be back there as soon as I can be.

 

Much of the material for this blog came from the informative website of the National University of Ireland Galway who completed the archaeological study of the historical mining sites in 1992.   http://www.nuigalway.ie/ross_island/.  My thanks and acknowledgement to them.

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