THE MIN­ERS’ WAY IN THE HIGH HILLS

RE­PORTER DAVID MEDCALF HAD THE PLEA­SURE OF WALK­ING A NEW TRAIL ACROSS THE WICK­LOW MOUN­TAINS, WHERE MORE THAN A CEN­TURY AND A HALF OF LEAD MIN­ING HAS LEFT MARKS. HIS GUIDE ON THE DAY WAS CHARLES O’BYRNE

Wicklow People (West Edition) - - INTERVIEW -

THE Min­ers’ Way It is a bold con­cept, but a sim­ple enough idea, cov­er­ing 19 kilo­me­tre and three val­leys - Glen­dasan, Glen­dalough and Glen­malure. All three of these val­leys are stun­ningly beau­ti­ful and all three also boast an in­trigu­ing in­dus­trial her­itage.

Of course Glen­dalough, best known of the trio, is famed for its as­so­ci­a­tion with Saint Kevin and the me­di­ae­val monks who fol­lowed in his holy foot­steps. But this wild up­land area also boasts a min­ing past which has left sav­age scars on the land­scape for those who know where to look.

It turned out that there was lit­tle or no gold in these here hills for the prospec­tors of the 18th and 19th cen­turies. What they found in­stead was lead, a valu­able enough com­mod­ity which at­tracted in­ter­na­tional in­vest­ment.

The re­sult was a se­ries of tun­nels driven into the sides these moun­tains along a ge­o­log­i­cal line where solid gran­ite meets crum­bling schist. Hun­dreds of jobs were cre­ated in the hills as the ore was dug out and given pre­lim­i­nary treat­ment, though it was tough work and even­tu­ally not worth the ef­fort.

The tun­nels- known in the trade as adits- are now flooded with water or clogged with silt and strictly off lim­its, the last of these en­ter­prises hav­ing closed in the 1950s. Piles of light coloured spoil mark the en­trances to the aban­doned adits. Tum­bling stone walls of build­ings long since aban­doned pro­vide re­minders of the mine com­plexes, while rust­ing iron con­trap­tions re­call the

process of crush­ing and pre­par­ing crude metal.

Now the good folk of the Pure Mile in Glen­malure and the Glens of Lead groups have teamed up to open a new trail for hik­ers to ex­plore this his­tor­i­cal ter­ri­tory. The Min­ers’ Way is a stren­u­ous six hour trek through moun­tain­ous coun­try­side, due to be of­fi­cially launched at the end of this week – on Fri­day, June 7.

The Way is marked by di­rec­tion posts car­ry­ing a dis­tinc­tive logo of a miner’s pick. The paths which com­prise the route all ex­isted be­fore they were com­bined in this way to make the trail, though some stretches have been given a spring clean. In places, the Min­ers’ Way posts are shared with some of the walks which ra­di­ate out from Glen­dalough and a sec­tion fur­ther on dou­bles up with the Wick­low Way.

The project has won back­ing from lo­cal and na­tional bod­ies as well as prac­ti­cal sup­port from Coillte and the Na­tional Park ser­vice. Rather than spend what­ever money was raised on path lay­ing, the in­vest­ment has gone into the signs and into the pic­ture boards which ex­plain the mines to walk­ers. And in be­tween the in­dus­trial sites, are kilo­me­tre after kilo­me­tre of open moun­tain and shady wood­land, as the go­ing un­der­foot varies from stone steps and board­walks to for­est roads and heath­ery peat­land.

Your re­porter was priv­i­leged to be given a sneak pre­view of this imag­i­na­tive ini­tia­tive in the com­pany of sea­soned walker Charles O’Byrne from Glen­malure. Lean and qui­etly en­er­getic, the 59 year old was primed and ready for an early morn­ing start from the car park Glen­dasan. High above Laragh on the road to the Wick­low Gap, he checked that all gear was in order, though the day was fine.

‘There’s al­ways a wind up here,’ ob­served from our stand­point high up the val­ley as we stood in an arid, stony wilder­ness. The freshly printed

leaflet which of­fers a map and a run­down of the his­tory also spells it out that fol­low­ers of the Way must dress ap­pro­pri­ately. And it also stresses that there is nowhere along the 19 kilo­me­tres to stock up on food or water – so bring your own sup­plies is the mes­sage.

Our start­ing point is this waste­land of cast off stone and rock be­low the rounded peak of Ca­maderry Moun­tain. This was once a hive of min­ing ac­tiv­ity, not so very long ago, re­cently enough that some of the peo­ple who worked here are still alive. Charles picked his way to the mouth of an old adit where may be found a poignant me­mo­rial to a young man who died be­fore the plug was pulled.

The stone is en­graved in me­mory of James Mer­nagh, who was just 24 years old when he was killed in an ex­plo­sion in 1957, leav­ing a wife and two chil­dren be­hind. The blast in what was called the Fox Rock mine left his young com­rade Robert Carter with ears ring­ing and an as­sort­ment of in­juries.

But Robert sur­vived the dy­na­mite mishap and he has since made it his mis­sion with Glens of Lead to en­sure that James Mer­nagh and all the rest are never for­got­ten.

Glen­dasan, opened in 1807, was fi­nally shut down by the Cana­dian Min­ing Com­pany a few months after the fatal ac­ci­dent, bring­ing an end to lead ex­trac­tion in the three val­leys. It is now a des­o­late spot, where plants strug­gle to gain a foothold, where once scores of men, women and chil­dren used to labour break­ing rocks.

The Way heads down a re­mark­able rock stair­case to find level ground in the calm green of the Glen­dasan val­ley be­low. We peered into the for­est and picked out the long over­grown stones of Fid­dler’s Row, ac­com­mo­da­tion for the min­ers. Then, just as we closed in on the coach parks and sou­venir stalls of Glen­dalough, we took an abrupt turn in­stead into the trees.

Charles paid trib­ute to Coillte, who con­trol much of the land through which the Min­ers’ Way passes, with spe­cial mention of Barry Coad and Jasper Peter­son. Up and over a ridge, we emerged from the for­est to find the Up­per Lake wait­ing, prompt­ing a fur­ther thank you, this one for Na­tional Parks and Wildlife, whose Anne Fitz­patrick and Wes­ley Atkin­son are the model of help­ful en­thu­si­asm. And while Charles was at it, there were words of grat­i­tude too for Bryan Fen­nell of County Wick­low Part­ner­ship.

The road be­side the lake is not a re­li­gious pil­grims’ path but was orig­i­nally laid as a min­ing com­pany track. The scots pines, with their rusty bark, grow­ing along­side, pro­vided the tim­ber con­sid­ered best for prop­ping up the min­ing tun­nels.

The mine above the lake was first ex­ploited in the 1850s and it is an­other bleak but com­pellingly in­trigu­ing spot. The pic­ture board tells how the water and power of the Gle­nealo river was har­nessed to drive the ex­trac­tion of the lead ore. The high­est adit was chris­tened Van Diemen’s Land by min­ers dis­mayed at how far re­moved it was from civil­i­sa­tion.

Two of the val­leys three down, with only one to go, but we were still shy of half way, as we zig-zagged up to Van Diemen’s Land, across the river and off in the gen­eral di­rec­tion of Mul­la­cor Moun­tain, spy­ing the first deer of the day as we did so.

The foot­slog from Gle­nealo to Avon­beg val­ley was any­thing but straight­for­ward as we marched through the fraughan bushes. Along the way we passed the high­est point of our jour­ney, on the sad­dle be­tween Mul­la­cor and Lug­duff, a lofty 600 me­tres above the level of the dis­tant sea. Here was the most open of open air, where we were lucky enough to wit­ness a soar­ing white-tailed ea­gle joust­ing with a kite – soar­ing ri­val birds of prey con­test­ing the glo­ri­ous wide sky.

Even­tu­ally, we came back from heaven to earth, pick­ing our way down the old don­key trail for­merly used by hardy, sure-footed asses bring­ing bas­kets of turf to keep the work­ers in Glen­malure warm. A red squir­rel skit­tered up a pine tree and then, after hours of near wilder­ness came a glimpse of gloss­ily green field and we hit Bal­li­na­fun­shoge, the first mine to be opened in Glen­malure. Lead was first ex­ploited here in the late 18th cen­tury. At one stage, the work­force was large enough to jus­tify open­ing a school for their off­spring. Fi­nally, a tar­mac road brought us to the fin­ish line at the crusher house in Bar­a­vore to con­clude a splen­did six hours of ex­er­cise and ex­hil­a­ra­tion, with the hos­pitable warmth of the Glen­malure Lodge not too far away.

‘In 2017 and 2108 we or­gan­ised a walk as a Her­itage Week event and we had maybe 50 peo­ple each time,’ re­called Charles. A for­mer IT worker, orig­i­nally from Dublin, he moved out from the city to Glen­malure with his wife to forge a new ca­reer as walk guide es­cort­ing hik­ing clubs, for­eign tourists and cor­po­rate par­ties.

He ex­plained how the route plan­ners stressed six ma­jor sites – two in each of the three val­leys – as the Min­ers’ Way evolved. On to the ex­pe­ri­ence of for­mer mine worker Robert Carter was grafted the engi­neer­ing ex­per­tise of Dave Shep­herd and the knowl­edge of lo­cal his­to­rian Carmel O’Toole. Now they have made the once a year walk into a fine pub­lic amenity.

Wick­low County Coun­cil sees the Min­ers’ Way, the new Su­gar­loaf Way and planned Vartry Way as part of a wider vi­sion: ‘The ul­ti­mate plan is that you could step off the DART in Bray and walk all the way to Ti­na­hely – an al­ter­na­tive to the Wick­low Way,’ ex­plained Charles. In the mean­time his Min­ers’ Way of­fers a brac­ing day out for any­one with a stout pair of hik­ing boots.

WE WERE LUCKY TO WIT­NESS A SOAR­ING WHITE-TAILED EA­GLE JOUST­ING WITH A KITE – SOAR­ING RI­VAL BIRDS OF PREY CON­TEST­ING THE GLO­RI­OUS WIDE SKY

Charles O’Byrne on the New Min­ers’ Way walk­ing trail.

‘New Miner’s Way’ walk­ing trail

Charles O’Byrne.

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