Industrial Revolution in Cork's 'Wild West'

Industrial Revolution in Cork's 'Wild West'
The man engine house at Allhies Copper Mines

Eve Kelliher looks at how copper mining changed the built and natural landscape of Beara

The hills around the west Cork village of Allihies once echoed with the sound of heavy industry — and the whole area was a major international hub for copper-mining, employing men, women and children.

Mining in the Beara Peninsula for much of the 19th century was to change the natural and built landscape as well as the community there — and brought the industrial revolution thundering in to one of the remotest corners of Ireland.

Strolling around the peaceful fishing village, geographer Dr Mary Greene says: “It’s difficult to imagine now but the prospect of work brought thousands of workers from all over Munster and this tiny village became the new ‘wild west’ mining town and brought stories of success, struggles and strikes.”

Engineer Tim Joyce at Man Engine House,Allihies Copper Mines
Engineer Tim Joyce at Man Engine House,Allihies Copper Mines

Mary, fellow geographer Dr Susan Hegarty and engineer Tim Joyce visit the peninsula and gains unique access to the subterranean world of its extensive copper mines as well as exploring the scale of overground industrial activity in the West Cork valley for the Building Ireland series.

At its peak, 1,600 miners dug for copper in the Berehaven Copper Mines.

Geographer Susan Hegarty deep inside the Mountain Mine.
Geographer Susan Hegarty deep inside the Mountain Mine.

The Beara mines boasted the largest copper deposit in Europe at the time and the introduction of steam-engine technology increased productivity.

The iconic steam engine houses, now in ruins, once serviced a labyrinth of mineshafts below.

Tim Joyce says: “Steam power accelerated production.” From the Bronze Age, the area had been a site of copper-mining.

Geographer Mary Greene with Berehaven Copper Mines cost book.
Geographer Mary Greene with Berehaven Copper Mines cost book.

A local landowner, John Lavallin Puxley, established a company in 1812 and over the course of the next century 297,000 tonnes of ore were recorded as passing through the smelter at Swansea from the Allihies mines.

Puxley sourced “mining captains” in Cornwall, and three ruined Cornish engine houses still stand, including the engine house at the most productive of the local mines, the Mountain Mine man engine house.

The local Methodist church, built for the Cornish miners and their families, now houses Allihies Copper Mine Museum.

In the late 19th century, newly developed sources of copper ore were being worked in Africa, the Americas, and Australia.

A resulting fall in the worldwide price of copper led in 1884 to the closure of the mining operations at Allihies.

The area saw large-scale emigration, with many of the miners finding their way to newly-developing mining centres in the US and Canada.

Building Ireland explores this history in its third episode, on Thursday.

Munster also featured in an earlier programme, as it related the epic story of the transatlantic telegraph cable and its landing on Valentia Island in Kerry.

The giant cable was dubbed “the engineering triumph of its age” and created the world’s first transcontinental communications system.

  • Episode 3 of Building Ireland is screened on RTÉ One on Thursday at 8pm

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