AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY
WE arrived fifteen minutes late bat Malcolm Fitzell's house, but geologists are used to thinking" of time in terms of aeons, so he wasn't too bothered. We immediately set off for our objective, a geological field trip around Wicklow. A little knowledge of the region's rock formations and mineral deposits would add a new dimension to our hill walking expeditions, Malcolm had told us, but it was the gold prospecting we were really interested in if all went well today, our next trip to the mountains would not he on foot, but in our new helicopter. New found wealth was definitely going to change our lives.
It turned out to be coincidentally apt that we were going prospecting at this time, as it was during the autumn of 200 years ago that the original Wicklow gold rush took place. When news of the golf find in the Aughtinavought River, now Goldmines River, got out during September and October of 179, all normal work in the Woodenbridge area ceased as the local people went to dig and sieve the river gravel with all manner of house hold implements.
One contemporary account estimated that these amateur prospectors may have extracted as much as £10,000 worth of ore in the six weeks before the Kildare Militia arrived to take possession of the goldfield in the name of the King, whereupon the great concourse of people busily engaged in endeavouring to procure the treasure immediately desisted from their labour and peaceably retired".
Hard Day's Shovelling
Two centuries on, the gold you are most likely to find in the river is in particles called eyesills. To get some idea of the size of an eyesill, think of a golf ball. You'll get half a dozen eyesills into one of the golf ball's dimples. Easily. In fact, Malcolm assured us, the fruits of a long, hard day spent shovelling, sieving and panning in Goldmines River would not even pay our bus fare home from the Assay Office.
So it was just as well we hadn't booked the helicopter lessons. No wonder those early Wicklow klondikers had left so peacefully they'd practically exhausted the gold deposits. The subsequent government operation was never as successful and, to add to the new mining company's woes, many of the workers abandoned the nine to join the rebels in 1798. Then a detachment of the Rathdrum Cavalry arrived to take all the timbers and boards for use in a temporary barracks in the town.
When the mining operation resumed in 1800 a series of attempts was made to find the source of the river deposits termed the motherlode. The entrance to an old mine now completely overgrown with bushes can still be found along the river bank and although, it was driven deep into the hillside, this mine yielded not one particle of gold.
The river gravel continued to yield gold, but not in sufficient "quantity to cover the entire cost of the operation. When, "production ceased in 1803, a total of £6,907 had been spent to raise £3,675 worth of gold.
Practical Geology Lesson
For the modern day prospector the ratio of expenditure to return will be nothing near as good as that, so it's best just to approach the outing as a practical geology lesson combined with a little exercise. Well, more than a little exercise, actually. The first step is to dig a hole in the river bed, and the deeper the hole is, the better, as the gold particles tend to subside to a layer of clay known as marl.
Most people will have seen young children trying to defend their sand castles against the incoming tide. Well, digging a hole in the bed of a fast flowing stream is a similarly futile exercise, except that the protagonists in this case are adults who should know better. No matter how fast you dig the stream will fill the hole faster, and that tantalising layer of gold bearing marl is always kept just out of reach.
But there are eyesills in the gravel as well, so you can sieve that in place of the marl. A few sieve loads will give you half a pan of fine sand and silt and then the panning proper begins. Suddenly everybody starts taking an interest including passers by. Heads close in around the swirling pan in an effort to discern the small shiny scales that appear as the pans contents are reduced to the heaviest particles.
It's at this point that you, can appreciate the meaning of the tern gold fever. Malcolm Fitzell reckons that, there is an excitement about finding gold that goes beyond the values of the particles possible, due to the pristine ate in which gold
And, although nobody, whom Malcolm brought up to Goldmines River ever went into a gold induced frenzy, history records that the man credited with making the find, a schoolmaster named "Dunaghoo" did eventually become deranged in his obsession with the treasure.
Yet if the intensity of the fever is relative to the quantity of gold you're exposed to, then there's no need to quarantine off Goldmines River at the moment. In a day's prospecting you'll get more colouring your face, as a result of the exertion and the mountain air, than you will in your pan.
So why not be content with that and enjoy the wealth of geological wonders that the rest of Wicklow has to offer? Take the Sugar Loaf. Driving south from Dublin on the Wexford road, you cannot help but be struck by the alpine grace that makes this mountain stand out among the others in the county. What makes it so distinctive is quartzite, a hard resistant stone that retained its ruggedness while the surrounding granite peaks were weathered into more rounded shapes. So don't take it for granite any more.
Then there's the steep sided Glen of the Downs, which is actually a gorge scoured out by a huge lake formed when the glaciers melted. Farther down the N11 above the Avoca Valley you'll find the Mottee Stone, a minibus sized granite boulder perched on the summit of Cronebane Hill which is remarkable for the fact that it was transported 13 kilometres at a height of several hundred feet above ground from the nearest granite formations. And no, this didn't occur the last time the magic mushrooms were in season but thousands of years ago during the Ice Age when this erratic made its glacier borne Journey.
But it's still worth taking pan sieve and shovel and checking out the goldfield. Because after all, they never found the motherlode. . .