The earliest phase, dating from the turn of the nineteenth century was when the manager of the Avoca mines, Thomas Weaver was commissioned by the Government to undertake a survey of gold in County Wicklow.
Not long after the 1798 Rebellion he discovered a rich vein of lead ore in the Glendasan valley. To develop this Weaver established the Glendalough Mining Company in partnership with local investors. Weaver was responsible for the day-to-day management of the mines. The Mining Company of Ireland took over operation of the Glendasan mines in 1825 when they bought Weaver’s shares. The price of lead on the open market was always a factor in the running of the mines. Price fluctuations meant that wages also varied over time, the typical boom and bust of mining in general. The Mining Company of Ireland operated their own smelt mill at Ballycorus near Dublin.
When times were good the Mining Company prospered and invested in buildings, equipment and machinery. A road to the Luganure ore body was constructed in 1826 and a railway track for wagons 126 feet into the mine itself was also laid. Floors for separating the ore were built on the site and the Hero mine was opened to a distance of 30 feet. The Fox Rock mine was opened in 1828. Over the next 10 years, machines for pumping water out of the mines were installed so that lead could still be extracted. There was also a crushing mill installed and a new water wheel replaced horse power. The Ruplagh mine and a new pump house opened in 1835. The 1850s saw a big improvement in lead prices and a new wave of investment followed with old workings being re-opened, a new crushing mill erected and machinery brought in. A new forge was built in the 1870s which saw further advances in machinery and cut the cost of labour. This meant that 2 or 3 boys could now do the work of 9 men.
With the general rise in population came a demand for housing and the Mining Company of Ireland built houses for their work force, believing that both the miners and the company would benefit. Built in the mid 1850s, a row of houses close to the mining works is reputed to have once housed eight musicians. Hence the name… Fiddlers’ Row.
In 1864, The Mining Company of Ireland built a school to provide for the children of their workforce. The National School system was established in Ireland in 1831. The ‘Mining School’ operated along side the National Schools and the private Church of Ireland school in the Glendalough area.
A very important aspect of mining exploration is the use of timbers to support the tunnels. The shafts and tunnels needed to be propped up as the miners worked their way into the mountain. In the 1850s and 60s The Mining Company of Ireland planted approximately one million trees in the Glendalough Valley for use as timber props in the mines. This was also a commercial venture for the Company as some of the timber was sold on the open market, adding to the company profits.
By the 1850s, 200 men were working above and below ground and 120 tons of lead ore was produced each month. As well as working below ground the miners were involved in building the Roman Catholic parish church at Laragh. Despite being in the middle of the Famine years the money to build the church was raised and after four years it was opened on St. Kevin’s feast day, the 3rd June 1851. The other major religious denomination – Church of Ireland – was not neglected as some miners contributed to the building costs of St. John’s Church in Laragh in 1843.
As Fr. Mathew, the temperance priest, toured the country in the 1840s preaching the virtues of abstaining from alcohol, the miners also came under his gaze. Some were criticised for their over indulgence. While he was responsible for many people giving up drink, it was still a problem among certain miners. In the 1870s the local Royal Irish Constabulary force was not able to cope with drunk miners who got into brawls on pay day and extra forces had to be called in from Roundwood.
It’s probably no surprise that the men drank and played hard as their working day down the mines was anything but easy. The average life expectancy for a miner, at this time, was 42 years. The work was dangerous and the risk of tunnels collapsing was always present. This is exactly what happened in 1825 when two miners were trapped by a rock fall. The accident was not discovered until the next shift change occurred and the men were finally rescued after 33 hours.
St. Kevin’s Lead and Zinc Mine
For over a hundred years there was no mining in the Glendasan valley until the St. Kevin’s Lead and Zinc Mine was set up by J.B. Wynne, along with other investors in 1948, the third phase. A work force of 80 operated it for 9 years. They were divided into two main groups with 55 men employed underground, and 25 men employed in the processing plant and on compressors.
A lot of men started working in the Processing Plant at the age of 16. Each shift had four men to operate the Plant. The Shift Supervisor oversaw three others – a man collecting the processed lead from the Jig Tables (Fig GG4); a man feeding the raw material to the Crusher and a third man dumping the rock into the Crusher House. A Fitter, a Helper and a man for bagging the lead also worked above ground. Many men started work in the Processing Plant and then discovered that the men underground had much better wages – so they approached their Supervisor to get a job down the Mine.
When these young men first went underground they worked filling wagons and shovelling ore. They then moved on to helping a Driller. Opportunities to drill a few shallow holes and charge these with explosives followed. Eventually, after a couple of years, they could become Drillers themselves. The miners worked in pairs – a Driller and a Helper – in three, eight-hour shifts per day. There were about four pairs working each shift. Day shift started at 8 a.m. and they drilled 30 holes – each five feet deep – into the face of the rock that would be blasted at lunchtime. After lunch they started filling wagons with the broken rock – usually about 30 wagons of rock from one blast – approximately fifteen tons. In the centre of the rock face was a vein of lead two to three inches wide and that was the important area. The remainder was waste.
There were also a number of men filling wagons with ore and extending the rail, air and water pipelines. A Blacksmith sharpened drills and tools. Pit ponies worked in the tunnels carting the ore from the mine to the Processing Plant and three men followed the ponies. The compressors and generators ran continuously and there was a man on each shift looking after this machinery to ensure air pressure was adequate at all times.
The two main tunnels in the 1950s were the Fox Rock and the Moll Doyle driven from the floor of the Glendasan valley. Fox Rock was three quarters of a mile long and the Moll Doyle was less than half a mile long. Work in the tunnels was difficult because of flooding and poor ventilation. As a result, many miners developed lung and chest problems.
The beginning of the end – tragic death of Jim Mernagh
Lack of money continued to be a problem for St. Kevin’s Lead and Zinc Mine. While sufficient ore was found, the company did not have the technology to process it. A Canadian mining company leased the mines from the Wynnes in 1956.
Given that mining is a hazardous activity, it is remarkable that there were only three recorded fatalities over the 150-year lifetime of the Glendalough Mines. George Reid was killed in 1864 and Thomas Devlin in 1875. The exact cause of their deaths is unknown. Over 80 years passed until the final fatality occurred on the 22nd of January 1957. Two miners were drilling into the rock when tragedy occurred. Their drill somehow struck a piece of dynamite and an explosion hurled the pair to the ground. Jim Mernagh, a married man with two young children was killed instantly. His co-worker Robbie Carter was seriously injured.
The Canadian Mining Company, which had taken over the mines in 1956, was not successful in locating the expected amount of lead and this, along with the fatal accident in January 1957, was the main reason the mines finally closed in the June of that year.