The Wicklow Mountains have a rich mining history. Copper was mined in Avoca, and lead was mined in Glenmalure, Glendasan and Glendalough. Within the National Park, spoil heaps and ruined mining villages can be seen at Glendasan (on the Wicklow Gap road) and at the Miners’ Village in Glendalough. Visitors are welcome to stroll around and explore the ruins.
History of the Glendalough and Glendasan Mines (Luganure)
420 million years ago, two tectonic plates collided. The area that is now Co. Wicklow, buckled and twisted, and a large batholith of molten magma was squeezed up. The magma did not break the surface, but cooled slowly underground, to form granite. At the edge of the magma, where it met the overlying rocks, minerals formed – lead, zinc, silver and others.
Over the following 420 million years, the overlying rocks were eroded, exposing the granite that now forms much of the Wicklow Mountains. Where the granite meets the mica-schist, the minerals became the target for a mining industry that operated between 1800 and 1963. The most successful areas of mining in the Wicklow Mountains were in the valleys of Glendalough and Glendasan. The vein of metal ore known as the Luganure Vein ran through Camaderry Mountain which separates both valleys.
In 1798, Thomas Weaver, an engineer working on the development of the Military Road, discovered lead in the hills above Glendasan Valley. By 1809 mining had begun and the first vein to be exploited was Luganure, situated high up on the slopes of Camaderry Mountain. By 1820, the mine had ceased to be profitable, and it was closed and sold.
A few years later, in 1824, the Mining Company of Ireland (M.C.I.), purchased the Luganure Mine and worked it for the next 66 years. During this period profits fluctuated, but as a whole, the mines prospered, extracting 50,000 tonnes of lead and 25,000 ounces of silver, making it the most important lead mine in Ireland at the time. Most of the exploitation took place above the Glendasan Valley where eight tunnels were worked.
Although better known today, the mines in Glendalough were of less importance, as extraction of ore lasted only 25 years (commencing in 1850). In 1859 Glendasan was connected with Glendalough by a series of adits (horizontal tunnels) through the mountain. This made it easier to transport ore to Glendalough and to have it processed there. In 1868, an inclined railway system was installed on the southern side of the Glenealo Valley, though no trace of it remains today. Due to a steady decline in world lead prices (from £20 a ton, pre 1887, to £9 a ton) and the emigration of many of their experienced miners, the M.C.I. put the Luganure Mines up for sale in 1888.
Only two years later, in 1890, Albert and Wyndham Wynn purchased the mining rights for Luganure. The brothers initially used Glendalough as a holiday estate (on account of its grouse shooting). The brothers reworked the existing spoil heaps to extract any remaining ore in order to fund further underground extraction.
Even though the mines were closed, toxic heavy metals leached into surrounding watercourses. Around 1910, due to rising concern over water quality in the Upper Lake, a tailings pond was constructed to capture these toxic sediments. This square pond is still evident between the abandoned mine site and the lakeshore. In 1917, the demand for lead during World War I resulted in mining recommencing. The British Ministry of Munitions gave the Wynns a grant of £2,500. Once the war ended, this support was withdrawn and the mines closed again.
It was not until 1956 when a Canadian mining company leased the mines that underground mining began again using modern methods of drilling and blasting. Extraction continued on the old veins, focusing mainly on the Foxrock and Moll Doyle mines at the base of the Glendasan waterfall. Zinc was now extracted along with the lead. During the 1800’s zinc had been discarded as waste material on the spoil heaps, but by the 1950s technological advances allowed zinc to be processed and used.
During the following years several attempts were made to discover new veins, particularly in the 1960s, but nothing of note was discovered. Mining the Luganure mines became no longer viable. In 1963 the Mining Company met for the last time, ending 163 years of mining in the area.
Dressing the ore
After being removed from the mines, ore was transported to the dressing works in both the Glendasan and Glendalough valleys, here large chunks of rock were crushed, separating the lead from the quartz rock in which it was embedded. Initially the rock was broken manually with lump hammers on the cobbled ground of the picking floor reducing it to a necessary size for the mechanical crusher which would pound and separate the lead and the quartz still further. These machines were powered by water and consisted of large iron rollers that were fed manually. The remains of a crusher dating from the 1913 – 1925 period, can still be seen in the Miners’ Village in Glendalough.
The arrival of ‘stampers’ to Glendasan in 1859 greatly improved productivity. These huge machines, like giant pestles shod with iron, pulverised rock effortlessly greatly reducing the time spent between extraction and the final crushing.
Once crushed, the quartz rock was discarded or used as road metal to surface the roads. The lead ore was washed in a circular structure known as a buddle. Here the heavier lead settled and the waste (gangue) was washed into slime pits. These pits were checked periodically to collect any lead that may have escaped previous collecting methods.
The lead ore was then transported to be smelted. Originally, it was carried twenty miles by horse and cart to Ballycorus in south County Dublin, or it was shipped to either Swansea or Cornwall. Later, with the arrival of the train to Rathdrum in 1863, ore was transported by rail.
Life as a Miner in the 19th Century
Whilst the mines were owned and worked by an Irish work force, the lack of mining experience in Ireland meant that technical and managerial positions were often occupied by more experienced Cornish people. Typically, mining was contracted out to different teams of men known as tributors, who worked in shifts. In the 1950s, a typical miners wage would be £6 a week and bonuses per ton of lead mined were often given.
Relations between the management and the workers were good, resulting with no strikes and few other problems, which affected other mines around the country. One problem, which did exist, however, occurred outside the hours of work. Saturday, payday often saw binge drinking and fist fights. By 1870 this had become such a nuisance that a contingent from the Roundwood constabulary was brought in to patrol the problem areas. One month’s imprisonment was the standard sentence for assault and petty crimes.
As the mines prospered, conditions for the workers improved. New cottages were built in the 1850s to replace the earthen hovels that were reportedly indistinguishable from the surrounding heather. In 1845 a school was established in the Glendalough valley by the M.C.I., however it focused on raising good company employees rather than educated individuals.
A miner’s average life expectancy was 42 years. Lung diseases and lead poisoning were the main causes of death. Due to the fissured nature of the rock, the risk of collapse was always present. Small areas were opened, worked and speedily closed to reduce the threat. Accidents did happen. In 1825 two miners were trapped for 33 hours after an adit in which they were working collapsed. On hearing the news, a team from the Glenmalure mines came to assist the trapped men. In its 163 year history only three fatalities were recorded as a result of accidents.
Concern for the working child was prevalent in the mid-19th century. A report in 1841 listed the Glendalough and Avoca mines as the only two mines in Ireland not to employ children. It appears neither women nor children worked in the mines or in their associated works. The booming tourist trade of the area no doubt allowed for alternative employment.
Getting to the Mines
The mining heritage of the Wicklow Mountains has left its mark both inside and outside the Park. The remains of several mining villages are easily visited including the mines of Glendalough and Glendasan Valleys. Sandy spoil heaps streak the slopes surrounding the ruined villages.
The mining village in the Glendalough Valley is only accessible on foot. Park in the Upper Lake car park and walk along the Miners’ Road that runs alongside the lake for 1.5km.
The mining village in Glendasan is located by the public road that runs between Laragh Village and the Wicklow Gap. There is a small parking area.