Monday 16 September 2019

Disquiet on the Western front: the battle over Connemara gold dig

As Canadian industrial mining firms eye potential exploration interests beneath swathes of Connemara, local groups are rising up to protect their home, writes Lorna Siggins

Opposition: Terri Conroy, chairperson Protect Connemara, with committee member and Ellen Nee in Ballyconneely, Co Galway. Picture by Ray Ryan
Opposition: Terri Conroy, chairperson Protect Connemara, with committee member and Ellen Nee in Ballyconneely, Co Galway. Picture by Ray Ryan

Lorna Siggins

Time was when late August's earlier sunsets marked an exodus of visitors from Connemara who had been lured west by a seascape and landscape formed by tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions and the vast Atlantic's fetch.

Terri Conroy was once one of those seasonal visitors, travelling with her Irish-born parents from Stockton in north-east England to her father's home place in Bunowen near Ballyconneely. In 1994, the mother of two realised her dream of returning permanently to the west of Ireland.

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"So on the one hand, I had this romantic view, having grown up in a city dependent on shipbuilding, steel and the petrochemical industry, and on the other hand I knew I had to make a living," she says.

A former teacher, Conroy is now training to be a herbalist. However, over the past two months, much of her time has been spent familiarising herself with her region's rich geology, as she and some of her neighbours campaign against a Canadian company's application for a prospecting license in her area.

Toronto-based MOAG Copper Gold Resources applied in early June to test for gold, silver and a steel-strengthening mineral named molybdenum in townlands within the Ballynahinch barony, including protected habitats at Murvey, the Connemara Bog Complex and Dogs Bay near Roundstone.

MOAG has previously explored for minerals at Mace near Carna, Co Galway, and Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton has pointed out that a prospecting license was held for this area between 2006 and 2018.

MOAG chair Bradley Jones tells Review that discussions with landowners in the area had been "ongoing" since 2014, and says that interest in the "vast" molybdenum deposit at Mace is "significant".

At a public meeting in early July in Ballyconneely, Terri Conroy was elected to chair a campaign group named Protect Connemara. Three of its representatives have already travelled to Brussels at the invitation of Independent MEP Luke 'Ming' Flanagan, while artist Alannah Robbins has initiated an online petition.

A separate group, Keep Mining out of Joyce Country, which is spearheaded by Maam resident Niall Joyce, has also recently been formed in response to an application by another Canadian company, BTU Metals Corp, for prospecting in the Maam valley and Cornamona area.

The Vancouver company says its exploration is still at an early stage, and its chief executive Paul Wood says company policy is to be "fully respectful of the community, landowners and the environment". He says it has invested in the area, hired local contractors and hopes to "continue to do so".

However, the local campaign groups believe mining is too specialised to offer local employment, and their supporters question the cost to the environment. They concur with An Taisce, which says that any decision to grant a prospecting license is "de facto acceptance by the State of the suitability of the area for mining extraction".

Links have been made with environmentalists opposed to another Canadian company's exploration for gold in the Sperrin mountains in Co Tyrone. Four of five Galway West TDs have expressed opposition to prospecting licenses in sensitive Connemara habitats - as have newly elected Green Party councillors - while Government chief whip and junior minister Sean Kyne says he cannot get involved as he formerly held the natural resources brief.

However, Kyne points out that during his time in natural resources, 40-year-old legislation was updated to reflect environmental requirements. Both he and his constituency colleagues Eamon Ó Cuív (FF) and Hildegarde Naughton have pointed out that these applications are for prospecting only, and have expressed doubt that full exploration licenses could be granted in protected habitats.

The comments have not reassured the two campaigns, which point out that a decision will be taken by Mr Bruton's junior minister, Sean Canney, who holds a natural resources brief that incorporates both development and regulation. Ireland has some 40 companies active in mining, and this island is a leading European producer of zinc, zinc concentrate and lead metal.

The campaign groups also note that Ireland holds a "top ten" ranking among mining companies for "investment and policy attractiveness" in an annual survey published by a Canadian public policy "think tank", the Fraser Institute.

Earlier this year, Mr Canney led a delegation which included staff from his department's exploration and mining division to the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention and Trade show. The event is regarded as one of the world's largest, and Irish ministers have attended in the past to head up inward investment bids.

One mining expert, who did not wish to be quoted, pointed out that inward investment is key, given the financial risks of exploration and the high cost of meeting environmental standards.

"That's why the 'legacy mines' of Silvermines and Tynagh, which gave the activity a bad name, would never be able to operate under the current regulatory regime," the expert says. "And the Fraser Institute's survey can be read two ways - it shows that Ireland is on a par with the Canadian provinces, Sweden and Finland in having a strong regulatory and environmental regime..."

Irish exploration company Petrel Resources managing director David Horgan concurs. He also points out that prospecting is largely "desk top" and non-invasive. Though his main focus is on offshore resources, Horgan observes that society depends heavily on minerals for everything from smartphones and computers to medical devices.

"EU and national legislation has a series of checks and balances in relation to protecting the environment, and that's why countries like Finland can manage to balance mining and sustainability," Horgan says.

The Irish west coast has had its share of action in mining before, with gold found but never exploited around Lough Kilbride, and a row over plans to extract gold on Mayo's Croagh Patrick 30 years ago. Mining took place in the 18th and 19th centuries for silver, lead and copper in areas between Oughterard, Maam and Cornamona.

As archaeologist Michael Gibbons explains, marble discoveries brought much wealth to Connemara over many centuries, with 5,000-year-old marble axe-heads discovered by Sir William Wilde, Oscar Wilde's father, near Lough Corrib.

Glengowla lead and silver mine just beyond Oughterard opened during the Great Famine years, and it has been restored by the Geoghegan family as a visitor centre. It was the film set for An Klondike, a TG4 drama inspired by the 1890s Yukon gold rush. However, Glengowla manager Keith Geoghegan wouldn't like to see any Klondike atmosphere return "for real".

"Connemara is rich in geology, but it is too beautiful and too small for industrial-scale mining now," he says.

Trish Walsh, chair of the State's fourth UNESCO "geopark", known as the Joyce Country and the Western Lakes Geo Enterprise, says there is an inherent contradiction in politicians stating that a prospecting license does not guarantee an exploration license.

"We know that gold can be found in the Dalriadian deposits extending across north Connemara and up to south Mayo, and we also know that gold is very difficult to extract as rock has to be crushed and chemicals like cyanide have to be used," Walsh points out.

She says it begs the question as to "what value we put on our landscape" - and on sustainable tourism, where there is a significant role for a "geopark" that celebrates the geological beauty of Joyce Country and the western lakes.

"Geoparks do not turn landscape into museum pieces," Walsh emphasises.

"One of the stipulations is that local communities thrive and develop, and are sustainable long term, while also recognising there is a far greater value on the landscape itself than in any minerals buried within it..."

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