Colman Cassidy, Sunday Press June 6th 1989
The McDevitt sisters, from Donegal are “breaking in a brand new broken heart”, courtesy of Connie Francis, on the car radio, when I hit the brakes. The first sighting of Croagh Patrick on the road General Humbert took in 1798 from Killala to Castlebar, is something to savour, this pristine blue morning.
Watercolourists shun all contact with the real world, sometimes for weeks, when the light is like this. It’s the ‘Gay Byrne Hour’ on the radio. The programme is coming from Bad Bob’s backstage bar at the Olympia theatre in Dublin.
Gaybo is hosting a country and western singing competition. He purrs at his guests, the McDevitt sisters: Collette’s a teacher and Una is doing her finals in accountancy. The prize is a trip to Nashville and a recording contract. There’s no FM button on the car radio to zap to Raidió na Gaeltachta.
The song has interrupted my musings at the incongruous sight of anglers tripping over each other at Pontoon Bridge to fish for trout and salmon in Lough Conn and Lough Cullen. Further south, on Lough Mask and Lough Corrib not a line is cast as the rod licence war cranks into high gear for the dying days of the election.
Croagh Patrick, overlooking the island-studded Clew Bay, just out of eyeshot, is the most seductive mountain in Ireland – and not just for artists. It’s nearly five years since Tara Prospecting discovered there was gold in its quartz-filled contours.
Tara, now owned by the Finnish company Outokumpu, did little about it, until 1987 when it formed a joint venture with Burmin Exploration – whose managing director is Tuam-born, Des Burke, once one of their own geologists. Burke is a former Cistercian monk. His tonsured head still bore the giveaway marks of an enclosed religious order when he first joined Tara. That was as a fledgling prospector, in the mid-Sixties. Twenty years later, with the fate of Tara in the balance, and a full head of hair, he was fed up and hungry for action.
He knew the UCD lecturer/entrepreneur, John Teeling, who acted as a business consultant to the Navan mining company. Teeling introduced him to Donal Kinsella. Teeling and Kinsella, the Dunleer, County Louth hotelier and former Dublin Gas director, were of course, the dynamic duo that wreaked havoc on Irish business susceptibilities in the 1970s, with their controversial asset-stripping tactics.
In any event, Kinsella and Burke roped in banker Michael Murphy, the former AIIB head and noted Fianna Fáil financial strategist, along with Alan Chambers of the Dublin car firm, Murphy Chambers, as fellow directors, and headed west.
With them they took Pappy O’Rourke, one of the prospectors who was around when Tara first encountered Croagh Patrick’s interesting possibilities. O’Rourke is a Clareman with a formidable reputation for being able to spot “something queer” in rocks.
It turned out that pilgrims to the Reek, Ireland’s holy mountain, where Patrick is said to have spent the 40 days of Lent in the year 441, have been treading on gold for centuries. Soon after publication of Burmin’s 1987 annual report, last year a spokesman for the Geological Survey division of the Department of Energy told this reporter: “It’s quite exciting that there are signs of gold near Croagh Patrick on a scale not even to be found in the Sperrins.” The Sperrins find in County Tyrone, was the catalyst that sparked off the current round of gold fever in Ireland. Around Killary Harbour to the south, a Glencar-Andaman consortium has discovered what are thought to be major gold reserves. And between that find and Croagh Patrick, Feltrim Mining, headed by Conor Haughey, the Taoiseach’s son, is also feverishly searching for gold.
The perceived amount of gold from Burmin’s explorations is roughly 250,000 ounces, worth over $100 million at current prices. To recover it, however, means it has to be extracted from some half a million tons of ore. And that, say the environmentalists, means the company has to use cyanide, or other lethally toxic substances.
Mining Awareness, the group which started the anti-mining campaign in Mayo, did its homework well. The Fianna Fáil senator, and chairman of the county council, Martin Joe O’Toole, from Louisburgh, is a near neighbour of one of its leading lights, the American-born Lesley O’Dowd.
An operation such as Croagh Patrick, they are advised by world experts, would involve the mining and quarrying of hundreds of thousands of tons of rock. This crushed rock in the form of slurry, is subjected to a series of treatments to recover the gold. Usually, it is concentrated first by gravitation or flotation techniques. Cyanide has been almost universally used to extract gold from this concentrated mass for 90 years. It can dissolve large quantities and gives a greater gold recovery rate than other chemicals.
Gold mines are normally found in desert-type environments, the Mining Awareness people point out, and the technology has evolved to suit these conditions. Cyanide is therefore a potentially enormous environmental threat because of the high rainfall around Croagh Patrick, in particular the risk of spillages and consequent threat to human and animal health, fisheries and wildlife. The silting of streams would be another threat with major consequences for water supplies and fish spawning.
Diesel spillage and the silting of a stream caused water pollution in the village of Lecanvey, at the foot of Croagh Patrick, this time last year. And reclamation, say the experts, would be difficult, if not impossible, in a landscape covered by peat and thin layers of topsoil.
In California, recent legislation had forbidden gold mining within 10 miles of human habitation. In the circumstances, some anti-mining people think it faintly ironic that one should be contemplated here where it has been virtually impossible to get planning permission for a house. Burmin was left under no illusion that it would have a fight on its hands.
Chairman Michael Murphy, bemoaned the fact that uncertainties over the granting of planning permission were damaging the company – after the annual general meeting in April. “We’re the only company in Ireland whose worth depends on planning permission,” he said. “All the brokers here seem to believe that we’re up to our armpits in planning problems. They’ve no appreciation of the difficulties of exploration companies.”
Actually, Burmin has had it soft, Sean O’Malley, secretary of the anti-mining Mayo Environmental Group, maintains. O’Malley, who teaches maths and chemistry at the Christian Brothers’ school, in Westport, was a Fine Gael county councillor on the opposite bench to Pádraic Flynn, the present Minister for the Environment on the day the Mayo County Development Plan was adopted. The plan is explicit on matters pertaining to areas of high amenity: “Many of the elements making up the natural and man-made environments of Mayo are of national and international importance and form a most important part of Ireland’s heritage.” Examples given include Croagh Patrick as a place of pilgrimage and cite the wealth of historical and archaeological remains, and areas of botanical and zoological interest.
“The people of Mayo are custodians of this heritage on behalf of the nation,” the plan concludes. Now in government, the Minister has told anti-mining representatives that no natural resource can be the preserve of any small group of people. And neither has any such group of people the right to veto such an operation: “If I am assured by experts that the gold can be extracted without damage to the environment, I would be in favour of the project going ahead.”
The Minister’s stance is particularly interesting in view of the personal sway he holds over the Fianna Fáil lobby in Mayo County Council, quite apart from his Cabinet status. Broadly speaking, the indications prior to the general election were that most of the elected politicians on the local authority would be in favour of giving the Croagh Patrick mining project their blessing. There were a number of ‘don’t knows’ however, in the light of grave reservations made by the environmentally aware.
County Manager Michael O’Malley has let it be known that his planning officials may not attend public rallies – no doubt in the best interests of objectivity. The arrival of environmentalist David Bellamy for a major public meeting at least put paid to any equivocation felt in the town of Westport. If Croagh Patrick and its magnificent scenic hinterland was in any other country, he said, it would undoubtedly have been designated a world heritage site.
Bellamy raged on and on like an Old Testament prophet, castigating the politicians for their lack of foresight. He described as “rank vandalism” their passive stance in allowing the area to be “put up for grabs” for prospecting licences. Even if the company did extract the gold with the least amount of damage, he said, the ecological and environmental cost would be intolerable.
Frank Durcan, auctioneer and former Fine Gael county councillor, has his picture splashed on poles all over Castlebar, Pádraic Flynn’s home town. He’s an Independent now – seeking a seat in Dáil Éireann. The popular Denis Gallagher, Gaeltacht Minister of State, is not a candidate.
Over in Westport, Myles Staunton smells the wind, at the eleventh hour. Durcan’s Westport-based cousin, Pat, is the natural choice for Fine Gael, to run alongside Castlebar’s Enda Kenny, but he’s not going. Staunton studies the entrails of his overambitious north Mayo peat venture, in receivership, and opts to rise from the ashes.
Flynn and Kenny, respectively, will get two seats in west Mayo. He figures he just might beat the Fianna Fáil county council chairman, Senator Martin Joe O’Toole, to the third. At his first public meeting in Westport, Staunton lays it on the line. His venture foundered for lack of capital. But it is only in receivership, not in liquidation. He is confident that it will rise and prosper shortly. In the meantime, the issues are employment and the environment. Croagh Patrick must be saved. He has grasped the nettle and the response is full-blooded.
John O’Toole is a young mechanic in Lecanvey, at the foot of Croagh Patrick, in his twenties, with few complaints. He has prospered from working on Burmin’s equipment as a fitter. He was located here before they arrived, but the exploration company’s entrée to the Reek gave his fledgling business the adrenaline it needed.
Another John O’Toole, a neighbour, no relation, farms 16 acres: “I have five rivers from the mountain going through my land and sure what would I be worried about?” He thinks it’s all right for Westport, but tourism is for the birds. “If the lads around here can get a bit of work, sure wouldn’t it be grand?”
Dick Lyons in Louisburgh says: “Croagh Patrick is a sacred mountain and shouldn’t be touched by anyone.” But what about his neighbour, Martin Joe? “All of Louisburgh will support Martin Joe in the election. That is certain. But after that, we’ll make known exactly how we feel about Croagh Patrick. And we’d better be listened to.”
The senator’s house is redolent with black and white paint and good husbandry. Mrs O’Toole is expertly fielding phone calls. A copy of the Fianna Fáil manifesto, Building on Reality, peeps out warily from under a pile of papers. He’ll be gone all day, she says. He’s over in Achill,
but will be hard to pin down. And Croagh Patrick? “We don’t want any pollution, that’s for sure,” says the senator’s wife.” The Fianna Fáil canvassers have had a difficult time of it last night on the doorsteps, in Westport, on the Croagh Patrick issue.
Londoner Paul McCluskey has a nice restaurant at the foot of Croagh Patrick and is aghast at what’s happening: “They will just ruin the whole environment. It will be the death of the place.” Across the road, Jim Browne, a council worker isn’t sure: “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Westport, so it’s not really my concern. But I think it would be terrible if the Reek was damaged.”
As he speaks a woman walks briskly up a side-road. She has no doubts at all: “They will ruin everything, forever – and for what?” She waves her hands in the air, visibly annoyed.
Another council worker 100 yards further up the road cannot understand what all the fuss is about and is quite cross. “Anything that gives a few jobs around here cannot be bad for the people,” he says. “They should stop all this nonsense.”
Eoin Campbell, the Murrisk publican is an amateur historian, a quiet man who knows his own mind. His pub is the focus for all the overseas camera crews and press that have come. A Finnish television crew that came here wanted to know whether the Irish attached blame to Outokumpo, the company that recently acquired Tara as its wholly-owned subsidiary, and which now owns the exploration rights. Best of all were the English tabloids, hellbent on paddywhackery, he says. “They just want to mix religion and drink.” Another British crew wanted to take over the pub as a studio. He wouldn’t have it.
The postman nearly blew it one day, says Eoin. “Lovely fine day, thank God,” he said as he went out the door. “The nuns will be praying for ye all up on the mountain.” Eoin saw the TV researcher from London reach for his notebook: “He had what he came for, but we confused him. We told him the postman was sending him up and asked if he had the same problems with postmen in England as we had here. His friend, the photographer, said he only ‘knew’ his postman when he came with a summons.” The notebook was put away.
The door flies open and an army of old dears from Crumlin, march in like ageing swallows, demanding, “Is the kettle on?” They’re the advance party of a biannual pilgrimage from the Dublin suburb that takes in Knock, the Reek and somewhere less strenuous, like Salthill. They make themselves at home. Ten minutes later, a latecomer bursts in the door. “It was grand up there with St Patrick,” she says. “He was very disappointed in the rest of youse. Don’t mind them, Pat, I said. They’re getting very old.”
Des Burke, the former monk, cannot understand why religion has so far not become a major part of the anti-mining plank. He knows more than anyone else the potential it has to damage his interests.
“Unless we get the environment thing right,” he says, “it won’t happen.” That’s the realpolitik. So far they have neither decided on the actual site for the mine nor the method for extracting the gold. All they are saying is that they will be accessing from the south side of the mountain, out of sight of the pilgrims.
But Burke is a good PR man: “We haven’t decided on cyanide. Indeed the latest indications, using gravity methods, that is, water only, is that we can achieve very high recovery rates. This would mean no effluent and would therefore be no threat to the environment. Plant costs will be much lower if we can do this.” He has made this point repeatedly at various public meetings. But the anti-mining people aren’t buying.
Another alternative, says Burmin’s senior geologist, Stephen Ahern, is to use a ‘vat-leaching’ enclosed method. This could be another way of extracting the gold by the use of cyanide that would be much less of an environmental threat, he argues. It costs more than conventional open ‘heap-leaching’ to set up and run but recovers more of the gold.
That could be a tempting proposition for Burmin, for a variety of reasons. But realistically, when is the earliest he might expect to get the all clear? They could be operation in June 1989, says Burke, if they get the planning permission, in effect making Sean O’Malley’s point that things could happen very fast indeed.
Burmin has commissioned an environmental impact assessment, EIA, from Bill Dallas, the former Tara consultant. This is now mandatory under EC legislation for identifying all problem areas and assessing the risks. It covers every spectrum of the environment, water, fisheries, dust levels, soil, vegetation, wildlife, etc. It’s due to be completed next month.
The anti-mining group is concerned about the EIA. The Mayo Environmental Group says it should have been the local authority and not Burmin that took the initiative – and it should have commissioned someone who had no previous connection with the principals involved. The Burmin people are full of praise for the work Dallas did at Navan.
Mining Awareness is concerned with the state of the legislation. The manner in which the EC legislation was implemented in Ireland left it up to the local authority to decide whether an EIA was required, it says. It therefore does not inspire confidence in planning decisions of this nature: “EIAs to be credible, must be independent of developers and should allow all interest parties, including the public, to be involved in deciding their scope.”
Des Burke wants this project to succeed. An early planning permission would enable him to recoup his investment quickly and generate revenue for further exploration at the same time, to achieve optimum efficiencies. He admits this: “We’re just finishing off the last stages of the drilling. Then, it’s a matter of filling in the road.” This is the controversial road they cut up the mountain, without planning permission, and which maddened the environmentalists.
“There was a road half way up already,” says Stephen Ahern, the geologist. “All we did was scrape off the path to create access and cut down on travelling across the bog.”
A farmer arrives to seek compensation for the fact that Burmin machinery went through his land without permission and did some damage. He wants £1,000. Burke tells him “no deal”.
The right to access without the landowner’s consent has never been challenged in court, says Mining Awareness. Legal opinion, it says, is that such a challenge could succeed.