Digging into the Copper Coast’s past

Waterford’s geopark reveals what lies beneath our landscape, the long history of how it got there and how its minerals moulded our history

Fly-through: one of the Copper Coast films shows the blues of secondary copper mineralisation, said to be the most vivid and extensive in the world. Photograph: Deri Jones/DJA

Fly-through: one of the Copper Coast films shows the blues of secondary copper mineralisation, said to be the most vivid and extensive in the world. Photograph: Deri Jones/DJA

Sat, Dec 21, 2013, 01:00

Everything we do, everywhere we stand and, ultimately, everything we eat is based on rocks, but most of us know very little about them. Very few of us could tell a visitor much about what lies beneath our local landscape, much less the long history of how it got there or how its minerals moulded our history and determined our vegetation.

The Global Geoparks Network aims to change all that. Geology, with its mind-boggling timescales and unfamiliar language, can seem a rather daunting subject, but the network wants to steer it into our cultural mainstream.

“Is a geopark just about geology?” Patrick J McKeever, vice-co-ordinator of this Unesco initiative, asked during his presentation at the opening of Waterford’s Copper Coast Geopark visitors’ centre by the Taoiseach last month. No, he said. “While a geopark must demonstrate geological heritage of international significance, the purpose of a geopark is to . . . celebrate the links between that geological heritage and all other aspects of the area’s natural, cultural and intangible heritages.”

The Copper Coast, he said, is a place where memory is easily legible in the rock formation. That memory extends from the distant formation of the coast itself, through evidence that informs us about climate change across geological time, on through the social history of mining, and helps us interpret the fauna and flora we find in the landscape today.

The visitors’ centre is a handsome exhibition space in a former Church of Ireland church in the coastal village of Bunmahon. It introduces us to the human stories linked to the once very profitable extraction of copper under the sea cliffs – and indeed under the sea itself – nearby. This took place at two sites, Knockmahon and Tankardstown.

These enormous operations, mainly in the mid 19th century, give the lie once again to the widespread misconception that Ireland is poor in minerals. By 1840 Bunmahon was already widely described as the most important mining district in the British Empire.

The population of Bunmahon soared from 200 to 5,000 at the height of the boom. Many experienced miners arrived here from Wales. The area took on some of the notoriety of gold-rush California. For a period its taverns did a roaring trade, and other vices flourished too.

But this was still Ireland, and a local priest, Fr Foley, launched a militant temperance movement among the miners, achieving a “dry” Christmas in 1839. Des Cowman, a local historian, describes the contemporary atmosphere in his book The Making and Breaking of a Mining Community. “A moral police force of six men was established by June 1840 and no miner was allowed to enter a premises, even a grocery, that sold alcohol. Ladies who might distract the men to enter such premises were banished from the community.”

Abstinence was apparently good not only for the soul but also for business: productivity increased enormously.

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