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


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.

The works at Knockmahon penetrated 400m beneath ground level and the same distance out under the sea. Flooding was a constant threat. But then a new and richer lode was discovered at Tankardstown.

The church’s morality might have closed the taverns and got shot of the women, but it never had very much effect on the brutality of the mining trade. Men had to form teams and bid for seams to work; if the seam was poor they ended up owing the company for tools and services.

Worse, though wages were high they were paid in tokens, redeemable for goods only at a company store. Tensions exploded in a bitter strike, followed by a lockout, in 1860. The dispute seems to have only strengthened the management’s grip on a weakened workforce, but fickle international markets were already looking towards cheaper sources of copper abroad. By 1879 the mines had closed, and Bunmahon’s population shrank again to the low hundreds. Entire mining families followed the money to Montana and Utah.

Skeletal memories
The ruins of the mining infrastructure still stand like skeletal memories overlooking the sea at Tankardstown, and can be visited year-round. To make much sense of them, however, you need to go to the visitors’ centre first – or at least go online.

The centre features an irresistible seismometer, which registers volcanoes, earthquakes and even nuclear tests around the globe as they happen. The accompanying exhibit reminds us that an Irishman, Robert Mallett, conducted foundational experiments in seismology at Killiney beach, in Co Dublin, in 1849.

Perhaps the most spectacular items are two laser-generated short films that have also just become available online, at coppercoastgeopark.com/news. One takes you on a helpful tour of the ruins at Tankardstown. The other takes you on a fly-through right into the mine’s subterranean structures. The vivid blues created by secondary copper mineralisation have an almost hallucinogenic intensity, and are said to be more vivid and extensive than anywhere else in the world.

This film is a rather long-term teaser, because real-world underground gallery tours will not be available for years: significant funds are still needed to make these tunnels safely accessible. But they promise to be worth waiting for.

Copper Coast Geopark is heavily involved in the Heritage in Schools programme, with a professional geologist, Tina Keating, leading educational tours in the area, teaching children about all the ways in which rocks shape our lives, including the plants and animals associated with particular formations.

In his presentation at the opening of the visitors’ centre, Patrick McKeever summed up the mission of the geopark movement with no small ambition. “It is about reconnecting human society at all levels to the planet we all call home, and to celebrate how our planet and its 4,600-million-year history has shaped every aspect of our lives and our societies.”

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