Ireland’s Rich Mining Heritage
Did you know that “luck of the Irish” is, in fact, an old mining expression?
According to Irish historian Edward T. O’Donnell, the saying originated during our own California Gold Rush, when the most successful miners were of Irish and Irish-American birth.
In honor of St. Paddy’s Day, let’s take a look at the mining industry on the Emerald Isle.
A Long and Colorful History
Ireland has a long and colorful mining history.
The first records date back to the Bronze Age (circa 2000 B.C.) when southwest Ireland was an important producer of copper and alluvial gold (i.e., gold dust). And the eastern half of the island was mined for iron during the 16th and 17th centuries.
But it wasn’t until the late 18th and 19th centuries—with the onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain—that the Irish metal mining industry really took off.
At that time, almost every Irish county had at least one metal mine. Not only did copper mining boom, but so did lead-silver mining.
Between 1795 and 1830, Ireland even experienced a gold rush in Wicklow County at the (appropriately named) Gold Mines River. Here’s where an estimated 9,000 ounces of alluvial gold were extracted. Fortunes were quickly made and lost during this period of the country’s history.
In addition to the gold dust, the Gold Mines River area also produced one extremely large gold nugget, weighing more than 24 ounces. This monster nugget was presented to King George III, who had it made into a snuffbox.
Coal mining, slate quarrying and pyrite production also became thriving industries in Ireland at the turn of the 19th century.
Hard Times in America
In 1845, tragedy struck Ireland in the form of the Great Potato Famine. It would last for seven years, and resulted in a mass exodus of Irish residents — mostly to North America. More than a million Irish resettled in the United States alone.
However, they quickly discovered that they were subject to overwhelming ridicule and discrimination:
The Irish workers were only employable in the most dangerous jobs, such as building the transcontinental railroad — and mining.
Not only were the jobs extremely dangerous, but miners and their families were forced to live in overcrowded, company-owned housing. They could only buy goods from company-owned shops and be treated by company-owned doctors. Oftentimes, the workers ended up owing their employers at the end of each month.
The End of Irish Coal
Back home, Irish mining concerns were also experiencing hard times. Collapsing metal prices, lack of new discoveries, and foreign competition were severely hampering the industry.
Then in 1940, the passage of the Minerals Development Act heralded an intensive period of mining and exploration that has continued to this day. With one exception–coal mining.
The demand for coal steadily declined during the latter half of the 20th century, superseded by oil and gas. After the miners’ strike of 1984, the industry never recovered. By the 1990’s, all of Ireland’s coal mines were closed.
A Major Zinc-Lead Producer
Today, Ireland is internationally renowned as a major zinc-lead producer. Since the 1980s, numerous significant base metal deposits have been discovered. The output from these mines make Ireland the largest zinc producer in Europe, and the second largest producer of lead.
In addition, the huge demand for construction aggregates supports a thriving quarrying industry in Ireland. Crushed rock, sand and gravel are exploited from more than 400 sites across the island. Limestone is also widely quarried for use in the construction industry, as are gypsum and dolomite.