Mining and Erosion along the Copper Coast
Waterford’s Copper Coast, with its proliferation of promontory forts and reports of severe erosion, is a case study area for the CHERISH project. The area is known as the Copper Coast after the mineral deposits there that were mined extensively from 1824 to 1908.
At least 26 promontory forts survive on cliffs of up to 70m high and research at Irish promontory forts including Drumanagh and Dalkey Island in Co. Dublin and Dunbeg in Co. Kerry suggest their use from the Iron Age to early medieval periods. Ogham stones recorded along the Co. Waterford coast at Knockmahon, Island and Kilgrovan suggest that there were ecclesiastical sites in the surrounding area in the 5th- to 7th-century.
The National Museum of Ireland’s (NMI) topographic files record the finding of a number of objects in the area which indicate a long history of mining. The Reverend Patrick Power (1909) described a circular copper ingot of Romano-British Type found around 6km upstream from the estuary at Bunmahon. A group of finds given to the NMI in 1850 included two paddle-shaped instruments of oak found a depth of 20m. They were ‘apparently of great age’ in the 19th century. The description of their long narrow handles and spoon-shaped blades indicate that they could have been used to gather up broken fire-cracked rock, a product of the mining process. An Irish 17th-century trade token found near Knockmahon Castle could have been lost by merchants or seafarers transporting the natural resources produced by mining activity.
While undertaking aerial surveys and geophysical surveys on the promontory forts on the Copper Coast, the CHERISH team has inevitably come across the evidence of the mining: adits or entrances to underground mines in the cliffs, mine shafts and spoil heaps above the cliffs, along with ore yards and engine houses.
The mineral resources of the Copper Coast may have been important since prehistoric times, although much of that evidence has probably been disturbed by post-medieval mining and erosion. Sixteenth century historical sources record mining near Knockmahon promontory fort and in the mid-18th century, Francis Wyse from Waterford City, took a lease for the mineral rights west of Bunmahon (Cowman, 1983). Above the beach west of Bunmahon Head promontory fort, in Templeyvrick townland, the entrance to underground mines can be seen. Many mines along the coast were worked for up to 400m out to sea.
Beside the Knockmahon promontory fort is a landing place called Stage Cove. It has a modern concrete slipway today but at low tide it is possible to see that the access through the bedrock has been cleared. This would have allowed larger vessels to land and access the ore yard. In 1863, copper ore was being shipped from here to market in Liverpool and Swansea, when weather permitted boats to come close to the shore (Du Noyer, 1865). A UKHO chart dating from 1849 depicts vessels anchored off the ore yard in a sailing view.
Thirteen adits have been recorded into the cliff at Illaunobrick promontory fort or Danes Island in the townland of Ballynarrid. It has been suggested that the mines in the area could have been worked in the Bronze Age. This has been refuted by Historian Des Cowman (1982) using local records and through the identification of a drill hole which suggests that most of the evidence we see today are the result of are Industrial period mines. Mostly inaccessible today, these mines have contributed to the cliff erosion and there is very little trace of the promontory fort embankment defences today with only an impassable ‘goat track’ onto the stack. The 1840 edition of the Ordnance Survey map marks ‘site of entrenchment’ on the landward side of Illaunobrick and Thomas Westropp (1914-16) says it was nearly gone by 1841. Local knowledge records cliff rock falls around Ballynarrid and the neighbouring townland of Ballydowane in the 1970s and 80s.
This abundant heritage of the Copper Coast indicates this was an area with rich mineral, marine and agricultural resources, attracting settlement that traded across the Irish and Celtic Seas perhaps as far back as the Iron Age. The surveys conducted to date allow us to create a baseline record of the site against which future erosion can be measured. It also allows us to cast further light on the varied history of the region from prehistory to the more recent past.
- Cowman, D. (1982) Bronze-Age Copper-Mines at Dane’s Island. Decies 20: 22-7.
Cowman, D. (1983) Thomas (“Bullocks”) Wyse: A Catholic Industrialist during the Penal Laws, I. Decies 24: 8-13.
- Du Noyer, G. (1865) Explanation to Accompany Sheets 167, 168, 178, and 179 of the Maps and Sheet 13 of the Longitundinal Sections of the Geological Survey of Ireland illustrating Parts of the Counties of Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary. Hodges, Smoth and Co., Dublin.
- Power, P. (1909) ‘On an ancient (prehistoric?) copper ingot from Bonmahon’, J Waterford SE Ir Archaeol Soc 12, 86-89.
- Westropp, T 1906, ‘Notes on certain promontory forts in the counties of Waterford and Wexford’, J Roy Soc Antiq Ir 36, 239-58.
- Westropp, T. 1914-16, ‘Fortified headlands and castles on the south coast of Munster: Part II, from Ardmore to Dunmore, Co. Waterford’, Proc Roy Ir Acad C 32, 188-227.
- Westropp, T. (1920) The Promontory Forts and Traditions of the Beare and Bantry, Co. Cork Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 10 (2): 140-159.