Working alchemy on the Copper Coast

 

Waterford is getting international recognition for its beautiful landscape and its rich copper-mining past, writes Catherine Foley

The Copper Coast, a dramatic stretch of Waterford coastline, was recently named as a Unesco global geopark.

This highly-prized accolade, as well as the area's European geopark status, which was granted in 2001, comes in recognition of the area's striking volcanic and geological importance as well as the significant copper-mining activity that took place there in the 19th century.

The narrow 23-km (14-mile) coastal road running from Tramore in the east to Dungarvan in the west runs by coves, caves, cliffs, fault-lines, fjord-like openings and wide sandy beaches. There are one or two tall cliff-top chimneys also, which are the remains of the copper mining chimneys dating back to the mid 1800s. It is still an unspoilt area of great beauty and starkness.

The local communities of Fenor, Dunhill, Annestown, Boatstrand, Bonmahon and Stradbally, having satisfied the EU and Unesco geopark criteria, have now secured €1.7 million in EU funding, and are currently putting the necessary finishing touches in place, including signage, information boards, viewing platforms, up to 25 walks and trails of varying lengths and parking areas in preparation for the ecotourists they hope to attract. Already there are information leaflets, maps and brochures available at the Copper Coast Geopark Information Centre in Bonmahon.

"We haven't done a major marketing offensive yet. We'll do that when we have the infrastructure in place," explains Des Cowman, a local historian and the communities' representative on the European Geopark Network. He's confident that all the necessary support structures to market the Copper Coast will be in place by next summer.

"Nobody knows that we have all this beautiful landscape here," says Karen Töebbe, another resident in the area who became active on the local Copper Coast Tourism Committee.

Although the area has long been recognised by geologists as an important area, it was the communities, under the chairmanship of local resident John Galloway, who came up with the name - the Copper Coast. "It's an extremely good choice," says Dr John Morris, of the Geological Survey of Ireland. "It not only reflects the colour of the rocks but also the 19th-century mining that's in the heart of it."

One of the area's most spectacular attractions is the Tankardstown Engine House, close to Bonmahon, which was the hub of the copper-mining industry in the 19th century. About 1,200 people were employed here at its height, according to Cowman, whose book, The Making and Breaking of a Mining Community, The Copper Coast, Co Waterford, 1825-1875, will be published later this year by the Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland.

"Quakers opened the mines for philanthropic reasons," he explains, while standing at the ruins at Tankardstown on a clifftop near Bonmahon. The views are dramatic. The boiler houses and the pump houses were built as part of the operation, which included pumping water out of the copper mines and winding ore up from the depths, he says.

"The mines did provide good employment over the first 30 years, but by then the businessmen were buying shares in the company and were interested in profit rather than people. That led to a strike and a lockout."

In Bonmahon, a chapel of ease, which was built for the miners as a temperance hall, is still used. "They were a hard-drinking lot . . . mostly local and quite a number from west Cork," says Cowman of the miners. The copper was shipped to Swansea for smelting where "it took 10 tonnes of coal to smelt one tonne of ore," he adds.

"My dream is to get the public down the mine," says Töebbe. "It's an underground world down there. There's copper staining all over the place - blue and green colours. The waterfall is 10m high and four metres wide." But Cowman cautions that going underground is not an official part of the geopark trail.

According to Morris, the entire Copper Coast area is an outdoor museum of geological records. He points to the impact of glaciation on the landscape all along the Copper Coast. In one of the leaflets available at the geopark office in Bonmahon, he writes that Annestown is "probably the best exposed example anywhere along the Copper Coast of where a volcano has literally cooked in its own juices".

An exploration of the area, he says, is "a journey back through an immense period of time: backward to a starting point in the history of planet earth, long before any dinosaur, bird, or mammal, let alone any human being, ever walked upon or flew over the face of the earth". All the geological components that helped create this environment are visible in Ballydwane Cove, he says. The contrasting red sandstone and green volcanic cliffs are clear to see, examples of rock formations that were created over a period of time spanning 100 million years.

Most of the geological interest lies in the buckling distortions that happened over millions of years in the rocks and the cliffs. There is great colour and texture along the coastline too. A geological garden in Bonmahon maps "a spiral through time covering 460 million years", Cowman adds.

The geopark also includes a 30-hectare fen bog at Fenor,

Ice Age sediment that caps the cliffs at Kilfarrasy, and the Pipes of Baidhb in the townland of Knockmahon, which look like organ pipes, and are sometimes referred to as the Giant's Causeway of the Copper Coast.

For further information, see www.copper-coast.com