The rocketing demand for gold around the world has triggered a memory of a prospecting venture in which I was once engaged.
The Glenkeen River the other side of Croagh Patrick is no Yukon. Nor did anyone of the dozen or so who waded into the fast-moving water look robust enough to stake a claim.
But you could not help feeling a little of what it might have been like for prospectors of the Californian Gold Rush of 1848 or at the Klondike in Canada, hip-deep in muddy water, agitating their steel pans, flushing out the sand and pebbles and searching the dross for the yellow specks that would kindle their hopes for a new way of life.
Our pans were, for the most part, made of plastic. The river rises in the Sheffry Hills and we chose a docile section between its cascades to search in the way the Forty-Niners did for the evidence the geologists had already gathered about Glenkeen certifying that there’s gold ‘in them thar hills’.
In its currents the river holds the secret of the mountain’s marrow; grains of the precious metal from weathering rock which it has deposited in moss and sand along its banks on its way to the sea.
I was one of a group invited to pan like the old timers did hundreds of years ago and just as geologists still do because it provides them with the surest sign of substantial gold deposits.
It was part of a programme of events organised by the then UCG in connection with National Geology week.
Leading the expedition were geologists attached to Burmin Exploration, and college lecturers who had made some promising discoveries in the area and especially in the foothills of Croagh Patrick.
In the washed-out sand of Glenkeen, tracks of the malleable metal were found through their panning operations . . . a slow monotonous procedure. Every couple of metres were painstakingly combed and the results encouraged the geologists to pan where the river rises in the mountain.
Specks abounded and nuggets, as large as the head of a match, were found.
Specks of yellow element
So there we were with our pans and our spades wading into the water, scraping the moss off the banks of the river and from the rocks, filling the green-ridged plastic pans. We washed the sand from the moss into the pan, rotated it, gradually emptying the water and the bigger deposits of sand until only the silt was left.
That, too, we poured gently away and there, right enough, accentuated by the darkest of the silt were unmistakeable flecks of the treasure of the mythical King Midas over which wars have been fought, the symbol of wealth in all its forms.
There they were, tiny specks of that yellow element like nothing else in the pan. We cheered our discovery and sat on the bank dreaming the dream of the old prospectors. We had communicated with the soul of the ageless mountain, got a glimpse of its glistening heart.
A pinhead size found by one of the geologists still graces my desk, evidence of the treasure inside the mountain. The gold was there, is there.
But before you go out with your shovels and pans be aware that you’ll not strike it rich. Without planning permission, certain to be refused, and serious drilling into the heart of the mountain cast, mining was not practicable.
That was back in the eighties and the Glenkeen River still washes over its gleaming atoms. Burmin Exploration had already caused alarm when promising deposits were discovered at the Reek. It led to organised protests against mining the sacred mountain to which David Bellamy was invited.
And the world famous environmentalist told the cheering throng of objectors that while studying for his doctorate many years earlier he climbed the mountain. “It was then and it still is one of the most beautiful places on earth,” he said. “And only the people of Mayo can save it.
“In a perfect world gold would be left where it is . . . in the vaults of time. But it is not a perfect world and when extracted will end up in solitary confinement in vaults across the world.
“Tourism should in reality be a huge industry in the west. People were sitting on a gold mine, so to speak. Not the gold under Croagh Patrick, but the gold of tourism,” he said.
Castlebar native Seán Rice is an award-winning journalist, working with local papers in the west of Ireland since the 1960s, including The Connaught Telegraph, The Connacht Tribune and this newspaper, for whom he is still a regular contributor.