Thursday, September 25, 2014
On a sunny afternoon in the early 1960's a Canadian sea-plane touched down on the silvery-grey waters of Loughrea lake, taxied to a jetty and tied off. The children swimming at Long Point were distracted by the unusual sight, but pretty soon were back at doggy-paddling in the lake and playing ball on the shore.
Within hours a couple of bemused geologists working in the make-shift laboratory on the lake's shore, started analyzing the 4 foot long core-samples taken from a farm near the village of Tynagh, a tiny one-pub hamlet, situated between Loughrea and Portumna in the south-east of County Galway. Very quickly they realised they were looking at no ordinary core-samples, these were golden...well not quite golden, lead in fact, and zinc, copper and silver, in traces that hinted at much bigger reserves below ground than previously imagined. They made a call to Toronto, on a windey-up phone in the office, to the CEO of Northgate Exploration....and the rest is history.
All during the 1960's and 1970's Tynagh Mines were the defining industry that was a constant in the lives of communities all over East Galway providing much needed work, wages and opportunity to the mostly rural Galway region, underpinning the economies of Loughrea, Portumna, Balinasloe, Galway City and every village and parish within twenty miles radius..
'The Mine's' as we called them, though there was only a big hole, defined my youth. It was our very own, local Klondyke. Hundreds of people who would otherwise have emigrated, perhaps forever, found work there. And not just work, overtime, a word that had never been heard outside of Dublin heretofore. Very soon the entire area began to benefit, new cars, new houses, more stock on the farms, better roads, singing pubs.
Each day, and night, all day and all night, for twenty years, the big 40 ton truckloads of grey ore on Iggy Madden trucks trundled through the village of Gurtymadden, on through Loughrea, changing gears as they strained up the hill on the Main Street, shaking every building to their 14th century foundations, on out the yellow bog road, shaking-up Craughwell and Oranmore, turning at McDonagh's thatch pub there, blackening the thatch with their diesel exhaust fumes and hauled on, under the battlements of 15th century Oranmore castle, turning left at Moneenageesha, passing along the shores of Lough Atalia, to tip the dry ore into the big silo at the docks in Galway, where the ore was loaded onto cargo ships and out onto Galway Bay, by the Aran islands, down past the Cliffs of Moher, and Skellig Rocks, southing Kinsale, sailing across the Irish sea and the English channel to Rotterdam, where the mounds of grey Irish rock were processed by the ever-hungry, smoke-belching smelting plants in Germany.
Not that we knew it, but for thousands of years, we had been sitting on the richest vein of zinc, lead and silver in Europe. While we starved in our blight-surrounded cottages in 1847, our potential salvation lay just a few hundred feet below us, unseen, unsuspected. Well not quite unknown, some mining had been done there in the 18th century, but British tarriffs on Irish goods made it non-viable and the mine-workings were quickly forgotten. Lord Clanrickarde owned all that land, and most of southeast Galway and he brooked no nonsense from his tenants, evicting them at will and opposing the Land League at every step in The House of Lords. He only visited his vast estate once and declared it awful and tedious. So he employed land agents to milk his tenants dry, and perhaps never heard of the old mine, back at Tynagh. He died, a lonely recluse on a park bench in Hyde Park. No one in Tynagh mourned his passing.
The new Irish State had not heard of Tynagh either. They were too busy fighting each other and making sure the Catholic Church was kept abreast of every penny and pound in the new Ireland. So it came as news to us all when these mad Canadians started buying up the land locally and digging up perfectly good farmland. Fools' gold we thought, while we took their money and dug where they pointed. And while we worked hard while it lasted, we were the victims of our own greed. The mine that should have lasted fifty years was open-cast mined and exhausted within twenty years. Yes it was great while it lasted, but it didn't last long.
The caveat,' beware of Greeks bearing gifts' hold true here especially. Northgate Exploration, a Canadian mining company, and their international shareholders, made multi-millions of pounds, tax free, from this massive hole in the ground in Tynagh, and when they left, all we inherited was an environmental disaster, with little or no lasting benefits to the community. No swimming pools, community centres, industries, social services, university scholarships, endowments, philanthropic enterprises, nothing, just a few nice houses, some better roads, bigger pubs, a rotting jetty on Loughrea Lake, and lots and lots of arsenic and old slag.
The Erris Peninsula and the North Mayo communities are right to demand more from Shell Oil for the massive reserves of natural gas that Shell will siphon, tax free, from the Atlantic off Belmullet. Shell, like Northgate Exploration, have done their homework well. The tax regime in Ireland benefits them hugely, and our politicians are either afraid to make a stand, or possibly, too 'involved' to make one. Some local people in Pulathomas, near Belmullet, protesting with the 'Shell to Sea' group, have been jailed by the Irish State for their temerity in 'asking for more', but this is no Dickensian tale. This is real life for the people on whose turf, or under whose turf, these millions, nae, billions of Euros will be made.
Loughrea is a living example of short-sighted gain, versus long-term sustainability. Northgate Exploration's success and the unseemly rapid pace of their mining, was driven by tax incentives, share price, commodity markets, political expediency, and greed. If anything greed was the vice we all succumbed to, cashing our overtime checks, while the long-term societal benefits of such a rich resource in our backyard were ignored, largely.
Yes the wages were great, while they lasted, in the poor 1960's and 70's. Few people emigrated from Tynagh, Duniry, Killimor, Mullagh, Cappaghtaggle, Kylebrack and Abbey. The pubs were busy and we certainly benefited from an influx of amazing and talented people, who contributed to the county and our communities in many, many ways, even now, but we cannot look back at the Tynagh Mines now and not wonder if we could have done it better.
A bittersweet documentary. Do tune into it.
Thanks. Brian Nolan
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First published by Brian Nolan on 25th September 2014.
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