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Heritage Ireland: Why you need to see the Copper Coast

Archaeologist Neil Jackman transports us to another batch of wonderful Irish historical gems in Sligo, Dublin – and that incredible southerly Copper Coast.

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us to the stunning scenery of the Copper Coast in County Waterford, the remains of a medieval abbey in Sligo and one of Dublin’s most historical and iconic buildings; St Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Copper Coast, Co Waterford

Ireland has a long history of copper mining, and the copper mines at Ross Island in Co Kerry and Mount Gabriel in Co Cork are some of the oldest in north-west Europe, dating back thousands of years to the Early Bronze Age. The rugged coastline that stretches between Tramore and Dungarvan is known as The Copper Coast, due to the extensive copper mining industry that thrived in the nineteenth century.

The focus of the mining industry along the Copper Coast, was centred around Knockmahon from the 1820s to 1850s. By 1840, Knockmahon was regarded as being one of the most important mining districts in the entire British Empire. The nearby village of Bunmahon swelled with large numbers of workers, some of whom were experienced miners from the copper mines of Cornwall.

With the influx of over 2,000 people, over twenty pubs and inns developed to ply their trade in Bunmahon, and proved so successful that a Temperance Hall had to be established to provide alcohol-free entertainment in an attempt to keep the workers sober and reliable.

The mine at Knockmahon was closed down in around 1850 as it had become susceptible to flooding. A new mine was opened to the east of Bunmahon, in Tankardstown. A large, Cornish-style engine house was built here in 1860, to pump water from the bottom of the 256 metre deep mine shaft. A small steam-engine was housed in the winding engine house, and it wound large cables up and down the shaft to raise the copper ore and lower equipment and materials down into the mine. The men accessed the mine by long wooden ladders that were housed in the large shaft head facilities known as ‘Heron’s Shaft’.

The price of copper-ore fluctuated over the next twenty years, but by 1879 the mine at Tankardstown was deemed to be unprofitable and all operations ceased. The thousands of miners left this area, many of them emigrating to Montana to work in the large copper mines of Butte. The steam-engines and machinery were sold for scrap, and the buildings began to fall into disrepair, despite occasional attempts to revive the industry.

In the 1970s, an action film about a Second World War POW Camp The Mackenzie Break was filmed on location here, and in one of the scenes a large truck was pushed into the main shaft, where it burst into flames. It still lies in the shaft today.

The Copper Coast Tourism Group that was established in 1997 applied and were granted permission to join the European Geoparks Network. The area was declared a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2004. It is one of 59 examples of a Geopark in Europe and is considered to be the smallest geopark globally. It was granted EU Geopark status in recognition for its geological diversity and its 19th century mining heritage.

The Copper Coast makes for a beautiful drive, and the site at Tankardstown is a haunting reminder of how this scenic and sleepy coastline once rang with the sound of machinery and the labour of thousands of men and women.

Sligo Abbey, Co Sligo

Sligo Abbey was founded in 1252 for the Dominican Order by Maurice Fitzgerald. They were known as ‘The Black Friars’ due to the black coloured cloaks the monks wore over their white habits. Fitzgerald generously financed the construction of the Abbey and granted the land to the Dominicans. He also granted the friars land on the south bank of the river for agricultural purposes, along with fishing rights, as fish were a major part of the monks’ diet.

This period of Irish history was extremely turbulent, as the resurgent Gaelic tribes sought to drive out the Anglo-Norman colonies. Sligo was burned to the ground by the war-like O’Donnells in 1257, and the unrest led to the Fitzgeralds abandoning Sligo forever by the beginning of the fourteenth century. Throughout all of this upheaval and violence, the abbey remained untouched, and when the powerful Richard de Burgo, Earl of Ulster, took control of Sligo in the fourteenth century, he restored the castle and work continued without hindrance in the abbey.

Sligo Abbey gained in prestige, and it became the burial place of the élite of the region, like the O’Rourke’s, Lords of Breffini.

However in 1414, disaster finally struck when a candle accidentally started a fire that became an inferno. The blaze destroyed the friar’s living quarters and badly damaged the church. Immediate efforts were made to restore the Abbey, and the Pope granted an indulgence to all who would help to restore it. The powerful local magnates, the O’Connors and O’Rourkes, provided most of the financial aid for the restoration. The magnificent east window and the distinctive central tower date to this period of reconstruction and renewal.

A new threat to Sligo Abbey arose in the middle of the sixteenth century, when King Henry VIII began the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but as it was deep within Gaelic controlled lands, the Abbey remained untouched for decades. In 1595, Sir George Bingham, President of Connacht, launched a number of attacks on Sligo Castle which at that time was occupied by the O’Donnells.

Bingham used Sligo Abbey as a barracks for his troops, and had his men pull down and use the beautifully ornate wooden rood-screen to construct a battering ram to attack the castle.

Remarkably, despite the chaos of these tumultuous days, a small group of the friars still remained at the abbey.

By 1608, only one Dominican Friar, Father O’Duane, remained in Sligo. He died later that year.

However, hope returned to the Abbey shortly after, when Father O’Crean, a Sligo Dominican who had been in Spain, returned to form a new community. He was aided by the new elites of society, and nobles like Eleanor Butler, Countess of Desmond, who erected the O’Connor Memorial in the South Wall of the church. However this proved to be a brief period of peace as the seventeenth century quickly became one of the most violent in all of Irish history.

In July 1642, in retaliation for the events of the Rebellion of 1641, Sir Frederick Hamilton, commander of the garrison of Manorhamilton descended on Sligo and burned most of the town, including the abbey, where he butchered the friars who remained there.

By the early eighteenth century, it appears that the friars had finally completely left the Abbey.

Now abandoned, The Abbey, was the property of Lord Palmerston and was frequently used as a convenient source of building materials and stone.

Today Sligo Abbey is under the auspices of the Office of Public Works, and you can enjoy a tour of the site from April to October. The abbey features on our brand new audioguide, The Sligo Heritage Trail, which is available to download completely free of charge here.

St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

A city is often denoted by its cathedral, and Dublin is fortunate to have two cathedrals of incredible architectural and historical importance in Christchurch and St Patrick’s.

St Patrick’s is thought to stand in the vicinity of an early medieval church. It began to grow in 1191, when the first Anglo-Norman archbishop of Dublin, John Cumin, enlarged and rededicated the small parish church into a much larger collegiate establishment, with clergy devoted equally to worship and study. Cumin’s successor, Archbishop Henry of London continued the expansion in the thirteenth century, and began construction on the Gothic-style building as we know it today, and raised St Patrick’s to cathedral status.

The cathedral was enlarged and modified a number of times throughout its history, and beautiful additions, like the recently restored Ladychapel were added. In the late 18th century, the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick was founded by King George III, as an honour for Irish peers.

Though it was to be a relatively short-lived order, the banners of the Knights of St Patrick still hang proudly in the cathedral.

St Patrick’s is packed with a wealth of monuments, statues and plaques that commemorate some of Ireland’s most famous and influential figures. One man forever associated with St Patrick’s is the famous author and satirist Jonathan Swift, who was made dean of St. Patrick’s in 1713.

He would go on to author famous works like Gulliver’s Travels and his scathing satire A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested that the poor children of Dublin could be alleviated from poverty by being fed to the rich in an attempt to pressurise the government to provide more care for the poor.

Swift is commemorated in the western end of the nave, where you can see his death-mask and a selection of his writings. He is buried with his beloved Stella (Esther Johnson) in the nave.

It is certainly easy to lose yourself for hours looking at some of these incredible and poignant memorials and reading the fascinating epitaphs.

By the early 19th century, St Patrick’s was becoming increasingly dilapidated. To halt the decline, a major programme of reconstruction and renovation was carried out in the middle of the nineteenth century, funded by the wealthy brewery heir Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness.

Today the Cathedral is a wonderfully atmospheric and fascinating place to visit, I strongly recommend taking the time to venture inside. For information about guided tours and entry fees please visit stpatrickscathedral.ie.

When you have finished your tour of the cathedral I also recommend a visit to a true hidden gem of Dublin, Marsh’s Library which is located just yards from St Patrick’s. The library has remained unchanged for over three centuries since it was opened in the early eighteenth century by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. With ranks of beautiful dark oak bookcases full of rare publications it’s a really unique place and a must-see for any bibliophile.

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past. They are available from abartaheritage.ie.

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaheritage.ie

Catch up with previous Heritage Ireland guides here>

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