West Avoca consists mainly of workings at Ballygahan and Ballymurtagh Mines. Modern references for West Avoca began from the end of the 17th century when Adam Kyan came into possession of the Ballymurtagh estate through marriage to Mary Howard, whose family later become the Earls of Wicklow. The Kyan family were descendants of Donal O’Cahan, the last chief of Derry, who died around 1598. The Ballymurtagh mine appears to have been worked in the first part of the 18th Century by a Mr. Whalley but may have lain idle until John Howard-Kyan (Snr.), the grandson of Adam Kyan, decided to work the mine himself. In 1780 John Howard-Kyan established the Hibernian Mine Company (HMC). It would appear that initially the HMC worked mines on both sides of the Avoca River but in June of 1787 John Howard-Kyan entered into a contract with Charles Roe and others from Macclesfield to work all the mines for 41 years. Charles Roe and his partners worked the mines through their company – the Associated Irish Mine Company (AIMC). They also worked Ballymurtagh for a short time but were in fact more concerned with the operations east of the Avoca River and due to a dispute with Kyan they surrendered their lease to Ballymurtagh in 1790. John Howard-Kyan then formed new liaisons with brothers Turner and Col. John Carmac which led to the incorporation of the Hibernian Mine Company by Act of Parliament in 1792.
Intense rivalry between the Irish owned Hibernian Mine Company (in West Avoca) and the English controlled Associated Irish Mine Company (in East Avoca) was to become a dominant theme in their two close-knit histories. No doubt the bad feelings between the two companies, and their ethnically different workforces, reached a peak during the civil unrest in Ireland that led up to the abortive Irish Rebellion of 1798. Prior to the rebellion both mining companies had raised their own private militia and fitted them out with uniforms and arms. However, the HMC’s owners and workforce were strongly suspected of having sympathies with the outlawed Republican group the “United Irishmen” and their allegiance to the Crown was most definitely in question. In fact the mine militia was found to be so infiltrated by the United Irishmen that it was actually disbanded by the government as the rebellion began. Production at the mines was halted temporarily during the 1798 Rebellion when peasant insurgents were defeated by British forces, including members of the Associated Irish Mine Company management who were subsequently rewarded for their “spirited and judicious conduct”. Esmonde Howard-Kyan a brother of John Howard-Kyan (Snr.) was executed for his part in the Rebellion.
In 1798 the partners in the Hibernian Mine Company seem to have fallen out and John Carmac issued legal proceedings against John Howard-Kyan. The cost of the legal proceedings, the high operating costs of the mine and the death of John Howard-Kyan (Snr.), who died penniless in 1801, resulted in Ballymurtagh lying idle from 1798 until 1813. Howard-Kyan’s son, also named John Howard-Kyan (Jnr.), migrated to England where he invented a process for preserving timber in mercury chemicals, a process still known today as “kyanisation”.
In 1813 Henry Hodgson leased the West Avoca Ballymurtagh Mine from the Hibernian Mine Company and formed a new company known as the Wicklow Mine Company. Hodgson was a very resourceful businessman. One new initiative started by Hodgson was the development of the chemical industry at Arklow based upon sulphur from the iron ores. From the Middle Ages down to the end of the 19th century, Sicily was the main source of sulphur to the world. In 1839 the King of Sicily granted the sulphur trade to a French monopoly and placed a high tax on its export. In these circumstances the low-grade sulphur of Avoca suddenly became very valuable. It was reported that the mine roadways were even dug up to extract the sulphur from them. Hodgson made a fortune. When the sulphur market fell he decided to develop his own chemical works at Arklow to process the raw sulphur. His factory was the forerunner of the later Kynocks explosives works and Irish Fertiliser Industries which have given Arklow its legacy of chemical plants.
A constant problem was the provision of transporting ore to Arklow for shipment to the smelter. The roads were poor and the Avoca River was not fully navigable. To resolve this Hodgson developed a mineral tramway to Arklow. The tramway followed the line of the river from Arklow to the Lower Ballygahan Mine; terminating somewhere near the present day location of the 20th Century mine office. This section of line, constructed around 1847, was probably single track and the wagons were pulled by horses. Sometime later a branch line was constructed up the hillside to the west to reach the Upper Ballygahan Mine. This branch line took the form of a double tracked incline. The incline appears to have operated in two sections with a steam engine situated mid-way, for hauling the rope attached to the wagons (Fig. A5).
Only the footwalls of the engine house remain, but there is a fine bridge, ‘The Tramway Arch’, where the upper section of the incline crosses a mine road (Fig. A6).
Hodgson’s tramway was subsequently purchased by the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway Company in 1859, who changed their original planned route to include part of the Avoca tramway in the mainline route from Wexford to Dublin.
Hodgson, a real entrepreneur, also developed the harbour in Arklow through a Poor Law Famine Relief Scheme. This gave him control of the port of Arklow, until the Local Government Act of 1872, and of course he never allowed the East Avoca companies to use the port.
The 19th Century was the golden era of mining at both West and East Avoca. In 1856 it was reported that the Wicklow Mine Company had made a profit of £100,000 since its incorporation and the value of the mine was £400,000 at this time. All of this based upon an initial investment in the mine of £5,000. The profits from this period allowed for the introduction of relatively costly new technologies such as steam engines for pumping and winding. Good examples of steam engine houses can be seen adjacent to twin shafts on the Red Walk at Upper Ballygahan. Mining at West Avoca continued until 1885; although production rapidly declined after 1870. The decline of West Avoca (as well as East Avoca) in the late 19th Century can be mainly attributed to low metal prices and competition from new larger mineral resources in Australia and elsewhere. The mineral resources of Avoca were in no way exhausted by the end of the 19th Century, as evidenced by the large-scale mining that took place in the second half of the 20th Century.
Prior to the 20th Century the main mining method employed at West and East Avoca was underground mining, following the richest parts of the deposit. In fact the mineralisation at Avoca is not a thin vein system but a wide zone of low-grade mineralisation with pockets of richer ore. Modern underground and surface bulk mining methods developed in the 20th Century opened up the potential for a new phase of mining (Fig. A7).
The potential for pyrite and copper ore was explored by the State owned mining company, Mianraí Teoranta, which led to the establishment of large, low-grade ore reserves in 1956. This in turn brought in a Canadian mining company, Mogul International, to mine some three million tonnes of copper and pyrite ore, trading as St. Patrick’s Copper Mines Ltd. This company was forced, by falling ore grades and metal prices, to close in 1962. The actual closure was shrouded in some mystery as it followed the loss of an ore carrier off the Irish coast.
A period of care and maintenance followed until 1969 when a consortium led by Discovery Mines of Canada reopened the mine as Avoca Mines Ltd. By use of trackless mining methods this company mined some 8 million tonnes of ore until it too was forced by falling grades and metal prices to close in 1982 and the underground workings are now flooded. Only the gaunt mine office (Fig. A8) remains as a reminder of this final phase of mining in Avoca.
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