Business Irish

Monday 22 September 2014

Farmers strike tourism gold in Connemara's Glengowla hills

Tom Prendeville

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

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Finders Keepers: Visitors pan for gold at Glengowla Mines in the West of Ireland.

Farming is a tough business at the best of times, especially in places like Connemara where the land tends to be rocky and boggy.

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Oughterard-based farmers Keith Geoghegan and his father Paddy also had another nuisance to contend with; a huge hole in a field that led into the bowels of the earth.

However, one day it dawned on the Geoghegans that the hole, an old abandoned 19th-Century silver and lead mine, could be the makings of the family farm.

Despite a cash shortage, they set about restoring the mine and advertising it as a tourist attraction. The inspired idea paid off handsomely, and Glengowla Mines and Museum is now a thriving tourist business, attracting hordes of visitors to a district, which in the past saw few passers-by.

Keith Geoghegan takes up the intriguing story of mining for tourism gold in the Connemara hills.

"We have a small museum attached which displays all the old mining equipment we found when we converted the mine to a tourist attraction. Visitors can also try their hand at gold panning.

"We get a good few thousand visitors every year. Indeed, if it wasn't for the mine we would not be here at all; we'd be going to Galway and elsewhere for work. We still farm sheep and cattle so it makes a small farm, which otherwise would not be sustainable, viable.

"We employ four guides and a part-time guide. The mine attraction also provides employment for me and my father and my wife."

During the famine, a local farmer found silver and lead minerals while he was out digging the land to plant potatoes. However, word soon spread and when the local landlord found out, he decided to get into the mining business.

"In 1850 a man called Captain Paul sank the first shaft. The mine, which was operating until 1865, is about 40 metres deep and extends out for about 200 feet. The principal mineral extracted was silver and lead - and when you are down there you can see how Connemara marble, with all its amazing wavy contours, was formed," says Keith.

"It is a wonderful experience being down the mine, the visitors love it. The air is damp and very cool, so it gives great relief to people who suffer from hay fever and asthma. Over the years we've had a lot of famous visitors, one day even Roy Keane dropped by for a look."

The mine is noted for its rare and beautiful octahedral crystals of fluoride and quartz. Pitch pine timbers, believed to have been brought back to the west of Ireland in the emigrant coffin ships, were used to construct the shafts and are still intact in Glengowla Mine today.

Visitors to Glengowla can also enjoy the experience of mucking out on a working sheep farm and enjoy watching traditional skills such a turf cutting.

Walkers can avail of scenic trails on the old long abandoned Connemara railway line which runs through the farm and opens out into some of the country's most spectacular scenery. And for those less inclined to exert themselves, there is a gift and tea shop on the farm with outdoor seating to enjoy the weather.

Success attracts success, and earlier this year Glengowla Mine attracted the interest of a consortium of film producers who were keen to shoot a western on location in Ireland. When they saw the mine and surrounding Geoghegan farmstead they made a deal there and then.

Currently a team of 20 set-builders are putting the finishing touches to Wild West gold-rush era Dawson City. The horse opera follows the fortunes of three Irish emigrant brothers: a drinker, a bare-knuckle boxer and a worker.

With shooting scheduled to begin on August 13, the film could be the making of the Glengowla district as a tourist attraction.

"The mine has been great to all of us. I love it and my heart and soul is in the business," swears Keith.

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