DAWN breaks over Belfast. A van and a minibus rattle through the city and head down the main road towards Dublin, stopping only at the cross-border road block on the hills above Newry where a British squaddie peers at our luggage. An unfriendly machine-gun pokes from a bunker in the heather. You see this sort of thing on the telly but don’t realise how unnerving it is until the gun is pointing directly at your body. But by mid-afternoon that’s all behind us, and we have reached the Wicklow Mountains and the quiet valley of Glendalough. This is where our adventure begins . . .
This is a retro post for Because They’re There. It’s a letter from the past featuring an expedition to Eire and the contemporary events surrounding it . . .
Like Cornwall, Wales and parts of England, the rocky coasts and wild uplands of Ireland have been exploited for their mineral wealth since Bronze Age times. Scars have been inflicted on the landscape and many miles of tunnels and vast chambers lie hidden in the earth.
The allure of these deep and secret places has brought us across the Irish Sea with a load of caving gear on an expedition to find and explore the ancient workings. We belong to a group called the Cumbria Amenity Trust Mining History Society, and this is our second visit to Eire.
Our itinerary includes the lead mines of Glendalough and the copper mines of Avoca, both of which are situated in the Wicklow Mountains; the copper mines of Brow Head, near Mizen Head, from where Guglielmo Marconi is said to have made the first radio contact with America; and the huge and ancient copper mines at Allihies in the far west of County Cork.
The expedition involves many long hours of driving along winding roads. But we have much to talk about. Buckingham Palace has just announced the engagement of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson (we wish them a long and happy married life); a tabloid newspaper called Today has been launched by entrepreneur Eddy Shah (we expect this will be a huge success); the Sun has alleged that comedian Freddie Starr ate a hamster (my wife knows a better story about him when he was doing a gig in Barrow); and a treaty has been signed to end the 335-year war between Holland and the Scilly Isles (the world is now a safer place, we agree).
I’m not going to say much more. We have seven days of tramping across hills, poking about in old mine-workings, camping in shaded valleys and on sandy beaches, drinking Guinness, travelling quiet byways, meeting wonderful people and soaking up the atmosphere of Europe’s western-most country.
As someone once said: when you are standing on the cliffs at Allihies, and blue waves are crashing on the shingle below, the next parish is New York. I’ll let the picture captions say the rest . . .
Memories of Ireland’s deep secrets, spring 1986
Leaving Glendalough we move a few miles to Avoca. This area has been mined for copper since Bronze Age times, and the mines were still being worked when we last visited in 1983. But the operation has since closed down and things are now being sold off. Avoca was the setting for the TV series Ballykissangel, and apparently the 1966 film Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon was also filmed here. It’s an interesting area with pretty valleys, rolling hills, and the ruins of Cornish engine houses set in bleak industrial landscapes.
We move on along the south coast in the direction of County Cork – but one of the vans breaks down in Waterford.
We head into the west and find a campsite at a village called Schull, in the deep south of County Cork. The next morning we drive to the southernmost tip of Ireland – Brow Head – to explore the old copper mines. The mine entrances are located part-way down sheer cliffs, and gaining access involves abseiling and some dodgy climbing. We presume the miners used ladders and had decent pathways that have since washed away.
We move on to Allihies on the Bearhaven peninsula. This is about as far west as it gets. The copper mines descended more than 1,000ft beneath the sea. It’s like Cornwall only with Guinness and without the holidaymakers. It really is a beautiful part of the world.
FOOTNOTE: This blog post was inspired by Hanna Greenwood’s series of posts about a reconstructed Viking longship called the Sea Stallion from Glendalough. The remains of the original longship (known by archaeologists as Skuldelev 2) were discovered in shallow water near Roskilde, Denmark, in 1962. Tree-ring dating determined that the ship was built around 1042 near Dublin with oak from Glendalough. The reconstruction, Sea Stallion, was built between 2000 and 2004 and sailed from Denmark to Dublin in 2007. It is now used for research. You can see Hanna’s posts on her website, Vandreture.