The search is on for gold in the ‘stony grey soil’ of Ireland’s Border counties
A geological survey has revealed the presence of gold from Donegal to Down. Mining companies hope it will yield riches
Grains of gold: a miner with the kind of discovery that could be made in Ireland. Photograph: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
The poet Patrick Kavanagh was geologically correct when he wrote about the “stony grey soil” of Monaghan. But far from being the unpromising ground that burgled his bank of youth, the rocks under his native county contain riches he never envisaged.
In the core shed of Conroy Gold and Natural Resources in Clontibret are thousands of rock samples stored in neat, catalogued crates. The rocks are mostly grey, mineralised arenite rocks which look like sandstones, and argillites that resemble mudstones. But a close inspection reveals that these rocks glisten.
They contain tiny flecks of what looks like gold, but is actually iron pyrite, known as “fool’s gold”. The fool’s gold, though, is indicative of traces of the real thing.
It is said that all the gold mined in the history of the world would just fill an Olympic-size swimming pool, yet the element is found throughout the planet, in seawater and the ground under our feet. However, it is usually in quantities of less than a part per billion, making it uneconomical to mine.
A recent geological survey of the north of Ireland reveals a different picture. The Tellus survey confirms that gold “anomalies” are present in an arc from Donegal to Down.
Tellus found high concentrations of gold in north Donegal, particularly the Inishowen peninsula, in Glencolumbkille, Glentogher and Termon. It also confirmed Conroy’s research of Clontibret, Co Monaghan. A similar survey which found large concentrations of gold in Tyrone has brought €30 million worth of prospecting investment to Northern Ireland.
“The results were more widespread than we expected,” says Koen Verbruggen, director of the Geological Survey of Ireland.In Co Monaghan and across the Border in south Armagh, Conroy has been examining a 50-kilometre strip known as the Orlock bridge fault, which runs from Slieve Glah in the south of Monaghan to Clay Lake in south Armagh.
It has been known since the 1950s that gold exists in Clontibret, but it was thought to be uneconomical to extract. Conroy has been examining the area since the mid-1990s and has identified a site overlooking the village beside the old mine workings as a potential gold mine.
They believe that an opencast mine (in which ore is mined from the surface) could yield more than 600,000 ounces over 11 years. At the current rate of roughly €1,000 an ounce, that amounts to a find worth €600 million.
On the edge of a stream at the back of the old mine, Conroy’s senior geologist Kevin McNulty hacks out a chunk of rock. Sparks fly and there is a distinct smell of burnt matches. These are the sulphite rocks which contain the gold particles. In Clay Lake, across the border in Armagh, one soil sample revealed a concentration of 1,538 parts per billion. “At that concentration, you could just mine the soil,” says Prof Richard Conroy, founder and chairman of Conroy. Formerly a professor of physiology, Conroy became interested in mining while working in the Middle East. His company found zinc at Galmoy, Co Kilkenny, in the 1990s, and also the Pogo gold mine in Alaska.
Conroy, a public limited company, has so far raised €12 million for its gold prospecting in Co Monaghan. A working gold mine is three years away, he says, and with it would come the prospect of a mining industry in Clontibret employing hundreds of people.
“We’ve done the major thing which is finding the resource. From now on it is relatively straightforward,” he says, adding: “I didn’t make a big song and dance about Galmoy. We’re interested in the reality. We’re not interested in a sudden jump in the share price. It is a long-term project.”
There is already a working gold mine in Ireland. Galantas, outside Omagh, has been open since 2008, and gold has been mined in a large trench-like structure. Last year it produced 3,271 ounces (92.7 kilos) of gold, around half of the 6,479 oz (183.6 kg) produced in 2011 because they were mining a lower grade of rock. Galantas now wants to go underground, a process which is proving frustrating for the company, which first applied for planning in July last year.
The company’s profile was boosted when the Queen wore a brooch made with Galantas gold for her diamond jubilee.
Galantas deputy manager Ronan Conway believes gold mining is a viable industry in Ireland if properly supported. “There is a lot of potential for growth, and metal deposits don’t know any political boundaries, but there needs to be a bit more streamlining of the planning process, especially in the North.”
Conroy believes its own licensed area has the potential to yield between 15 and 20 million ounces of gold, which would make Ireland a large player in the international gold market.
Verbruggen says Ireland will not be a major gold producer like South Africa, Canada or Australia, but the potential is there for a network of gold mines across the country within 20 years. ‘“You could have a couple of mines in the south-east, a couple of mines in the Longford-Down area and one or two in Donegal, but there is a long way between then and now.”