I T was 30 years ago this month that the first whispers of the discovery of gold on the slopes of Croagh Patrick were being heard in financial circles. That discovery, and the subsequent community campaign against the very idea of excavating the Reek in search of gold, was to capture news headlines for the best part of three years, with victory finally going to the local community.
For decades, local legend had it that there was gold in the mountain. The Owenwee River at Belclare was said to have got its name (Abhainn Bui - the Yellow River) from the minute traces of gold washed down from the mountain slopes.
Tara Prospecting was the first of several mining companies then working in the west Mayo area, to discover the Reek gold. Tara then formed a joint venture with Tipperary-based Burmin Exploration, headed by Tuam-native Desmond Burke and leading banker, Michael Murphy. And when Burmin announced that the seams of gold across twelve quartz veins in the mountain could yield up to 300,000 troy ounces of gold, it set the financial world alight. That much gold, on the market, would be worth a phenomenal $120,000,000.
But for all of that, there had to be a downside. As 1987 ran into 1988, it emerged that the extraction of such a wealth of gold would require the excavation of over half a million tonnes of ore from the slopes of the mountain. That would then have to be crushed to near-slurry before the finished gold could be extracted.
Opposition to the damage to the Reek quickly emerged, with the Mayo Environmental Group, headed by the late Paddy Hopkins, and with schoolteacher Seán O’Malley as secretary, showing the lead. The initial horror at the planned scale of operation was compounded by the revelation from Burmin that it was intended to use cyanide to burst open the mountain and fragment its rocks. Cyanide had only been used up to then in desert locations, far away from human habitation. The hazards of using cyanide on Croagh Patrick was too much for even the most complacent to contemplate. Farming, fishing and tourism would be threatened with extinction. Cyanide runoff would poison the waterways, contaminate the sea, and wipe out all wildlife across a huge area.
The level of protest created by the Mayo Environmental Group was unprecedented, and the backlash of public opinion meant Burmin Exploration was on the defensive from the start. Support came from all over Ireland and beyond. The urbane Paddy Hopkins was the ideal spokesman for the protest; calm, articulate, unfailingly polite, utterly reasonable. Seán O’Malley cogently argued that any supposed benefits by way of job creation would be more than wiped out by the tourism, environmental and farming losses.
When world famous environmentalist, David Bellamy, came to Westport in April of ‘89 to argue passionately against the development, the tide was already turning. Bellamy berated the ‘rank vandalism’ of the politicians’ passive stance in allowing prospecting licences in the first place.
But by then, the politicians had got the message. The Minister of the day, Bobby Molloy, signed the order banning gold mining on the Reek. Burmin was forced to withdraw, but not without protesting that it had spent €2 million on exploration on the slopes of Croagh Patrick. The road they had developed on the Lecanvey side of the mountain for the diggers and excavators was filled in and greened over.
And all that remains today, if one looks closely enough, is the minor scarring on the mountain where, were it not for community activism, the rugged beauty of the Reek would have been reduced to rubble.