Mine Ghost

My name is Thomas – William Thomas. When I’m at the mines they call me Captain Thomas – because I’m in charge! I’m visiting some of my old ‘haunts’, and thought you might join me, to see what a working day was like in ‘ . . . one of the wildest districts in the United Kingdom . . . ‘ – Gortavallig, on Rinn Mhuintir Bháire. I know you call this place The Sheep’s Head now: that amuses me. I’m always trying to pick up on the Irish words – it’s such a poetic language. My grandfather was a natural Cornish speaker, but the language was gone by the time I was born – it’s only used by the Bards nowadays.

That’s my house – above – in the townland of Letter East. That’s where I stayed with my family when I was Captain at Gortavallig. It was rough going when I had to get to the mine – a solid hour’s trek across rough country, and the same back again. As part of the work that we did while developing this mine we built a good ten miles of road, which helped with communications in that untamed north-coast country.

Come with me now on the way that leads down, firstly, to the cove at Bunown in Eskraha townland: there’s a slipway there, and a house where my assistant Superintendent, Mister Bennett, lodges. It was once a coast-guard station. This cove has also been the scene of some tragedies in your own time. There was the writer, James Farrell, who drowned while fishing off the rocks there in 1979. He’s buried beyond by the church of St James in Durrus, looking out forever over Dunmanus Bay. The sea is a dangerous element: I know, because I’ve had to work with it. But it’s your friend, as well as your foe. If it wasn’t for the sea we would have no chance of transporting ore from the remoteness of Gortavallig.

The rocks at Bunown – on a good day! James Gordon Farrell is buried facing the water of Dunmanus Bay at St James’, Durrus

They say that, wherever you are in the world, if there’s a mine – or even a hole in the ground – you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it! That’s because pulling the metal out of the ground – and from the cliffs – and even from under the sea – was our lifeblood in that far western peninsula. But the land was ravaged. This scene (below) is where I grew up and learned my trade: Dolcoath, near Camborne in Cornwall, in its heyday one of the busiest mining areas in the world. My father James was agent there and I enjoyed ‘ . . . a liberal education and had the very great advantage of being taught dialling and the whole routine of the profession by the most eminent miners of the day and worked for several years as a tributer – an admirable practical school . . . ‘

I was pleased to get away from the noise, the grime and the stench of that place when I was called to Ireland with my own family in 1845, firstly to Coosheen on the Mizen – where I revived an ailing venture by successfully rediscovering the copper-bearing lode. After that I came here to the Sheep’s Head where the surveyors, travelling on board small inshore vessels, could see promising ore-bearing strata on the cliff-faces which were being eroded on this coastline. My job was to work those veins – a gargantuan one bearing in mind the uncompromising nature of the landscape and the remoteness of the geography.

Looking back across silver waters as we walk together on the rough pathway to Gortavallig: nature has been tamed by the fields that go down to the coast west of Bunown, whereas the way to the east is across rough, wild country

If you follow this path with me you will have to have good shoes and a steady gait, and the will to clamber upwards and downwards on sometimes steep and rough rock faces. But you will be rewarded by the remarkable vistas and the untamed surroundings. Your only companions will be the choughs: these sleek red-billed birds are a comfort to me as they have always been a symbol of Cornwall, sharing pride of place on that county’s coat-of-arms, together with an image of the Cornish miner! Did you know that the chough is the embodiment of old King Arthur, who is ready to rise again and save our nations in times of trouble?

A chough espied on our walk to Gortavallig, and the Coat-of-Arms of Cornwall which is shared between bird, fisherman and miner

After a vigorous hour’s trekking over the rough terrain we will catch our first glimpse of the mining works at Gortavallig: a row of small stone cottages perched on the cliff-top. This is known today as the Cornish Village, although it wasn’t just Cornish mine-workers who lived here. Good, strong Irishmen came to the place and earned their keep, and everyone here had to pay rent for the single-roomed lodgings. If there had been windows on the seaward side of these dwellings they would have enjoyed magnificent views, but we were more concerned at keeping out the extremes of the weather, and the few small windows only faced inland. There was plenty of ocean to be seen while you were working your hearts out to extract the minerals!

‘Cornish’ cottages close by the mine workings at Gortavallig

Once we have passed by the cottages we find ourselves traversing a sheer cliff edge. Below us the sea roars, but it’s down there that we built two quays, one 73 feet long and 40 feet high, the other 92 feet long and 36 feet high and, at the base of the cliff, a dressing floor 180 feet long and 50 feet wide, while above it we put in a stone dam and sluice so that we could wash the ore. Water was such an important element to us: in Cornwall we used its power to turn wheels and drive machinery such as crushers. We were never short of it here in Ireland.

Hold on to that rope or you might go over the edge!

Now, of course, on an idyllic day of blue sky and sunshine, you couldn’t find a place more picturesque, peaceful and redolent of nature’s beauty, but imagine what it was like in my time when men, women (we called them Bal Maidens in Cornwall) and children laboured long hours to bring out the precious ore and break, dress and prepare it for market: there was always the movement of ropes and machinery as trucks were pushed out of the mine-galleries on the rail-way, and figures constantly toiled up and down the precipitous rough stepways to and from the quays so far below. Although built in as sheltered a position as possible, they were constantly battered by heavy swells and breakers. In fact, they have now disappeared altogether.

Finola braves the cliff edge to get a view of the site of the old quays below, accessed by the rough and steep stone lined path

If we go up to the hillside above the mine workings we can look out over the reservoir, and we can also see the fenced-off openings of shafts. Most of the engineering took place, of course, underground: hard work in restricted spaces. We did our best to ensure safety, but there were accidents.

A lot of people have said that our mine was a ‘failure’, but I wouldn’t necessarily share that view. In May 1847 I presented my first report to the directors of the company:

. . . We have set bounds to the Atlantic waves, for though they lash and foam sometimes over craggy rocks, our works have withstood the furious storms of two severe winters. A complete wilderness and barren cliff, which had been for past ages the undisturbed resort of the Eagle, the Hawk and Wild Sea Bird, has by our labours for the past 16 months been changed into a valley of native industry, giving employment, food, and comfort, to numbers of the hitherto starving, but peacable inhabitants. We have in the course of 16 months, with an average number of 24 miners, whose earnings ranged from 9 shillings to 12 shillings a week, explored 174 fathoms of ground. We have also employed about 26 surface men, at the rate of 10 pence and one shilling a day . . .

In May 1848 the SS William and Thomas collected 88 tons of copper ore from the quay of our mine at Gortavallig. It sold for £269 14s in Swansea. Yes – it was the only shipment that the mine ever exported, but it gave employment and food to families in one of the remotest areas of the West of Ireland during the ‘Great Hunger’. In my time at Rinn Mhuintir Bháire I was able to set up – at my own cost – the Coosheen Fishery Association over on the Mizen, which also helped with food production through those bad years. With my brothers Charles and Henry, and my son John, we helped to bring industry to the remote fastnesses of West Cork and Kerry – including the mine at Dhurode, on the Mizen. I feel satisfaction that our lives have benefited our neighbours here in these far western peninsulas which bear such a similarity to our own native Cornwall . . .  Now you will want to return to civilisation: thank you for your company and mind your step – I think I’ll rest a while here pondering on old times with my pipe and tobacco.

Captain William Thomas possibly in 1843 (left) and right, with one of his daughters in 1852. The latter photograph was taken by Hastings Moore in Ballydehob

From the Skibbereen Eagle, 7 June 1890:

Died, May 22nd at Coosheen, Schull, William Thomas, of Bolleevede, Camborne, Cornwall, aged 82 years, manager of mines in Cork and Kerry for nearly 50 years. He truly believed in Irish men and Irish mines. He wrote and spoke on their behalf to the utmost of his ability . . .

Forbes – An Irish Artist in Cornwall

In yesterday’s gallery talk as part of the West meets West exhibition at Uillinn, Skibbereen, I concentrated on one of the many artists who made their way to Cornwall in the late nineteenth century: Stanhope Alexander Forbes. He deserves a Roaringwater Journal post of his own, as he rather neatly embodies the concept of linking the two westernmost seaboards of Ireland and England, which is an essential element of the West meets West project. Colloquially known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’ of painters who were established in the West of Cornwall, and who have left an impressive legacy of their work in the most remote part of the peninsula, it was probably his longevity that earned him that title (he lived in Newlyn for most of his working life and died there in 1947) rather than a particular comparison of his work with others. There was a large group of talented artists, men and women, who contributed to the reputation of the Newlyn colony.

Header Picture – Perranwell Viaduct, Cornwall, painted by Stanhope Forbes in 1933, when he was 76 (The Medici Society Ltd). Above – a photograph of the Newlyn Group, taken in the early 1880s: shown are Frank Bodilly, Fred Millard, Frank Bramley, William Blandford Fletcher, William Breakspeare, Ralph Todd, William Wainwright, Edwin Harris and (seated lower right) Stanhope Forbes

Stanhope Forbes was born in Dublin in 1857. His father, William Forbes, was manager of the Midland Great Western Railway of Ireland. William was also a folklorist and probably passed his interest in traditions and traditional lifestyles on to his son. Stanhope’s uncle, James Staats Forbes (also a railway manager) had a large collection of paintings from the French Barbizon School whose members (including Corot and Rousseau) abandoned formalism to draw directly from nature. Stanhope was familiar with these works and the aspirations of these painters, and it is likely that when he embarked on a career in art he was heavily influenced by their heritage.

Forbes early works: left – A Street in Brittany 1881 (Walker Art Gallery), and right – Beach Scene St Ives (City of Bristol Art Gallery) 1886

Norman Garstin, another Irish artist who joined the Newlyn group and documented some of its history, described the Forbes family as “…essentially of the nineteenth century, full of its movement and restless activity…” Stanhope attended the Royal Academy School in London where he would have had a traditional training in still life and figure painting in the studio. London itself in those post-Industrial Revolution Victorian days was no doubt dirty and noisy, and the air would have been polluted. Forbes and many of his student companions would have longed for clean air and light and yearned to join the then fashionable (but daring and rebellious) en plein air movement where the object was to paint ‘natural’ colours and tones direct from life, albeit with the inherent problems of changing light through the days and seasons, and the practicalities of carrying easels, canvases and equipment to wherever they wanted to paint. As Norman Garstin said: “…your work could not be any good unless you caught a cold doing it…” The young artists were attracted to Brittany, where they discovered an ‘idyllic’ unchanging lifestyle and, latterly, to Cornwall, where they also perceived the ‘rural idyll’ existing closer to home, among the villages, farms and fishing communities.

A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, completed in 1885 (now in the City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery). This spectacular painting – five feet long – is a masterpiece of composition and contains portraits drawn from real life: Newlyn locals were delighted to receive ‘sitting fees’ from the influx of artists

It’s probably true to say that the Newlyn artists romanticised the way of life in rural Cornwall by concentrating on the fishing communities and the beautiful seaboard. There was another reality: the interior of Cornwall’s peninsula was heavily industrialised in the 19th century by the metal mining industry. The artists must have been aware of this reality but ignored any recording of it. There was, at least, some acknowledgement of the hardship and distress of those connected to the sea itself. Frank Bramley’s Hopeless Dawn (beautifully painted although also romanticising in a very Victorian way the aftermath of lost lives at sea), painted in 1888, depicts the widow of a drowned fisherman being comforted by her mother; the lighting and composition of the interior view is remarkable.

Upper picture – the industrial landscape of inland Cornwall: Dolcoath Mine 1883. Lower picture – Frank Bramley’s A Hopeless Dawn, painted in 1888 (Tate Gallery, London)

Stanhope Forbes lived into his ninetieth year. By all accounts he achieved success in his chosen profession, but his personal life saw some tragedies: Elizabeth Armstrong – an equally talented artist who travelled from her native Canada to work in Newlyn – married Stanhope in 1889. She pursued her own career as a painter and etcher until her early death – aged 52 – in 1912. Their son Alec died on the battlefields of France in 1916. All are buried in the beautiful churchyard of Sancreed, in Cornwall.

Blackberry Gatherers, painted by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes in 1912 (Walker Art Gallery)

West meets West – a celebration of three contemporary artists from Cornwall – runs through to 8 July at Uillinn, Skibbereen

I am indebted to Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School by Caroline Fox, published by David & Charles 1993, for much of the biographical information on the artist in this post.

 

Irish Poldarks

black hole

Derrycarhoon Mine

Schools are back; fields are being cut; the shutters are going down on the holiday houses around the Cove. And – the good weather has arrived! Hot days and red sunsets: West Cork is the place to spend autumn…

Full Sky

Autumn comes to Rossbrin Cove

It was just such a golden autumnal-feeling day when our friend (and Fastnet Trails mastermind) Eugene McSweeney called us to see if we would like a trip out to the old metal mine north of Ballydehob, in the townland of Derrycarhoon. Of course we would! Local farmer William Swanton led the expedition: William’s family had connections with mining – he told us that his grandmother’s father had been a Captain of the mine.

William

William Swanton at the South Shaft, Derrycarhoon

You will know that we live in the townland of Cappaghglass, and this has a mining history, as does the neighbouring townland of Ballycummisk. Also, there are ancient mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel, not far away, and more mining activity in other parts of the Mizen, Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Allihies19571957 scene at Allihies Mine, Beara Peninsula

hodnett bookWhile many aspects of the 19th century history of the old mine at Derrycarhoon have been well recorded (I am indebted to The Metal Mines of West Cork by Diane Hodnett, The Trevithick Society, 2012), the site itself had for some time been difficult to reach and interpret as it was in a dense forestry plantation established in the 1960s and 70s. Now, however, much of the matured forest has been cleared (albeit leaving a devastated landscape) and it is possible to piece together the layout of the workings. Please remember that the mine is on land managed by Coillte and is subject to Coillte’s policies on access – permission must be sought from the landowner before visiting; also, a guide is essential – there is very rough ground and open and unguarded shafts and trenches.

danger

What is so special about this mine is that it has apparently been exploited firstly in prehistoric times, and then again in historic times – prior to its most recent incarnation in the 19th century. Professor William O’Brien of UCC recognises ‘…the recently-adduced evidence for early medieval operations at this site, which is quite unique in the history of Irish metal mining…’ (A Primitive Mining Complex at Derrycarhoon, County Cork – Journal of Cork Historical and Archaeological Society vol 94). While other mines on the Mizen Peninsula have shown evidence of being worked initially in the Bronze Age and then subsequently in modern times, Derrycarhoon is the only one to date which can confidently claim to have also been in use in between those times.

finola at the shaft

interior

Intrepid Finola inspecting the deep shaft at Derrycarhoon, top, and her photo, below – note the copper staining

We have explored links between West Cork and Cornwall in previous blog posts (here, herehere and here). When it comes to metal mining anywhere in the world there’s usually a Cornishman involved and here is no exception to that rule. The mine agents – whose job it was to prospect and direct operations – were always known as ‘Captains’. A dynasty of Mine Captains was founded by Charles Thomas (1794-1868), a mining agent and share dealer in Camborne, Cornwall – responsible for the very successful development of the Dolcoath Mine in Camborne. Mineral rights here were established in 1588 and copper was being produced in some quantity by 1720. Thomas (who had started work in the seams of Dolcoath at the age of twelve) stepped in as Captain in 1844 after a period of considerable decline in metal production. Charles was a real-life Poldark – insisting that the apparently dwindling seams of copper be followed to the bitter or fruitful end – and his skills saw Dolcoath (known as the Queen of Mines) become the largest, deepest and most productive mine in Cornwall, with its principal shaft eventually reaching a depth of 3,300 feet (1,000 m) below the surface – and incidentally taking the miners between 2 to 3 hours to descend and ascend, significantly reducing their working shifts below ground. Thomas was succeeded at Dolcoath by his son Josiah and then his grandson Arthur, taking the mine well into the twentieth century. (Its successor, the South Crofty Mining Company went into administration in 2013).

Dolcoath 1893

Dolcoath, Cornwall – Queen of Mines – 1893

The point of this digression into Cornish mining history is simply that three more sons of Charles Thomas, Captain of Dolcoath, came to the west of Ireland in the mid nineteenth century and were instrumental in the development of many of the mining activities here, including those on the Mizen. The brothers, Charles, Henry and William arrived by 1841 with their own families – yet more sons – who proceeded to populate, at one period or another, the Captaincies of most of the West Cork activities, including our own Cappaghglass workings and the Derrycarhoon venture.

West Cork Mine Captains: Henry Thomas (left) with his niece and William Thomas (right) with his daughter

The modern age of mining commenced at Derrycarhoon in 1846, under the management of Captain Charles Thomas. Charles discovered no less than six old mines during his preliminary explorations, and recognised similarities between them and the shallow workings of medieval tinners which he knew from his childhood home on the moors of Bolenowe, near Camborne, where such workings were extensive and visible. That’s how we know that this mine had been active in those times. But also, as his brother Captain William records in an article dated 1853:

…In the Derrycarhoon Mountain some excavations have been found, which no doubt were made at a very remote period, as they are invariably designated by the country people ‘Danes’ or ‘Danish Works’, but whether these ancient works were carried on or not by the Danes is not easy to determine: it is, however, an historical fact that the Danes visited Ireland many hundreds of years ago…

1843 drawing danish implements

Nineteenth Century Archaeology: Excavated ‘Danish Implements’, 1843 – in fact these finds are likely to be Bronze Age or Iron Age – have a look at  Umha Aois, a Roaringwater Journal post about early metalworking

(Thomas 1853) …One of these singular excavations at Derrycarhoon was a few years ago cleared of water and rubbish; it was found to be 60 feet deep and about 120 feet in length… the lode or vein appears to have been literally pounded away by stone hammers, a great many of which were found in the old works and which were evidently brought from a considerable distance, there being no rock of the same character within some miles…

Hand-held stone maul used at Derrycarhoon in prehistoric times

We found evidence at Derrycarhoon of these stone tools, generally known as ‘cobble stone hammers’ and probably originating on the beaches below us: their presence almost certainly confirms that the earliest workings here were Bronze Age, as confirmed by Timberlake and Craddock in a paper of 2013: …The distribution of known occurrences of this type of cobble stone hammer at or near to mining sites in the British Isles correlates with some (but not all) of the areas of near-surface copper deposits, particularly along the west coast of Britain… Recent fieldwork suggests good survival of tools at mine sites, even where these have become dispersed as a result of redeposition by later mining… Hammer stones, or fragments of hammer stones, are more or less indestructible, surviving any amount of later reworking. In most cases the fragments of these tools never disperse far from source, even when redeposited several times. Experience has shown that if a range of these can be found, then the approximate site(s) of prehistoric mining can usually be identified…

derrycarhoon trumpet

Further intriguing finds were made at Derrycarhoon in the nineteenth century, including a ‘notched pole’, a ladder and a trumpet-like wooden tube 75cm in length. Whether these artefacts were medieval or earlier we do not know but, remarkably, the tube still exists and is kept in the spectacular Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford (why not here in Ireland?). I could only find a poor quality early photograph of this.

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford – where the Derrycarhoon Trumpet (above) is stored

The topography at Derrycarhoon – which is reappearing now that the forestry plantation has been cleared – is very similar to the Bronze Age mining sites on Mount Gabriel: long, shallow trenches interspersed with pits and shafts. However, the superimposition of medieval and modern interventions clouds the issue. William Swanton pointed out to us a drainage adit driven horizontally for some distance through the bedrock. We assume this is probably the work of the Victorian speculators.

three figures

portal

Mine explorers (top) and portal (below)

Captain Charles Thomas evidently raised some 30 to 40 tons of ‘rich grey copper ore’ after the ‘old workings’ had been cleared during the 1850s. Derrycarhoon Mine was listed from 1862 to 1873 under the ownership of Swanton and Company but there is no record of any production at this time nor afterwards, although prospecting trials were made in 1912 by a John McArthur of Glasgow and again in 1965 by the Toronto Mining Company. We found part of a core sample on site, presumably dating from that trial. Then the trees took over…

Landscape of spoil: copper traces in the discarded rubble; baryte – and views west to other Mizen mining sites, Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin

Today, the rough landscape is marked only by green-stained spoil heaps, earthwork undulations and a few recognisable pits and shafts. The litter includes traces of barytes, sometimes a by-product of copper production. If you are not interested in mines or the history of them you will be pretty unimpressed. But, as a microcosm of our own local history, we were fascinated by our exploration of Derrycarhoon and are very grateful to William and his ancestors (were they the Thomases – our own Irish Poldarks?).

Cornish Miners Window