Phosphate & Flourspar Mines In The Doolin Area
County Clare, Ireland
During the Second World War, phosphate and flourspar deposits close to Doolin, Co. Clare, were investigated by the Irish Government's mining company, Mianrai Teoranta and underground workings developed to exploit them. The flourspar deposit proved unproductive, but the phosphate deposit, which had previously been privately worked by an opencast quarry, was highly productive and was worked until 1947. The earlier opencast workings had stripped the shale covering from the bed of the Aille River, allowing it to sink into the subjacent Doolin Cave System. The existence of this open cave beneath a surface river flowing on limestone has previously been explained by reference to the heterogeneous nature of karst aquifers but can now be attributed to human activity.
Although the Irish Republic was neutral during the Second World War, it was by no means unaffected by that conflict. Many of its vital imports were disrupted by U-boat activity, mounted as part of the attempted German blockade of the United Kingdom. Bulk mineral supplies were amongst the commodities to be badly affected and this caused the Irish Government to look for alternative sources nearer to home. Such sources would not, under normal peacetime conditions, have been economically viable, but the emergency required that all possible supplies be exploited. In the Doolin area of Co. Clare, two known sources of material were further investigated, the phosphatic shales and a vein of Flourspar in the Carboniferous Limestone. The former proved highly productive for a time, but the latter unfortunately did not.
This paper gives details of the extent of the mine workings and also describes their few visible remains.
Figure 1. Sketch map of the Doolin area showing the location of the mines.
The Doolin Phosphate Mines
No 1 adit: NGR R 0820 9712
No 5 adit: NGR R 0838 9699
Altitude: 25 m.
Service Shaft: NGR R 0810 9691
Altitude: 48 m.
Depth of service shaft: 33 m.
Depth below adit: 10 m.
These mines are situated 500 metres south east of the bridge that spans the Aille River at Roadford. There were three inclines; two were above the river on an old narrow gauge railway embankment which can be traced among the dense undergrowth on the southern side of the river. The third, No 1 incline, was some 60 metres to the west of the main adit mouth, now covered over. No 5 incline is some 150 metres south east of the main adit, just above the riverbank adjacent to a 3 metre tall concrete pillar. The main adit entrance is almost opposite the ruins of the 15th century church. The confusing nomenclature is due to the various excavations being named in the order of their development; Figure 2 shows the relationship between the various parts; Figure 1 shows the location of all the mines in the Doolin area. No underground access is possible today as the entrances are blocked by collapse. Virtually the entire working is flooded; the timbers that remain were seen in the 1980s, only forty years after they were installed, to be in an extremely poor condition. During the development of the mine, the degree of settlement of the roof was under constant observation. By the time the mine was abandoned it had not moved by more than 10 cm. As the roof was an almost smooth flat surface, the engineers considered it generally to be structurally sound.
Figure 2. Plan showing the extent of the Doolin Phosphate Mine.
Adapted from the mine closure plan held by the Geological Survey of Ireland.
The history of the extraction of phosphatic shale in this area dates back to 1924, when Judge Michael Comyns of Lisdoonvarna, a lawyer and amateur geologist, discovered a band of this material at Noughaval, on the eastern edge of the shale outcrop, some 12 km east of Doolin. He first had 50 tons removed for economic assessment and in 1925 a further 100 tons. At about the same time, he received planning permission to develop a quarry in this area. There were three opencast workings at NGR R 205 964, adjacent to the stream which sinks at swallet G8 (Tratman, 1969, Figure 1). This quarry was worked for a few years but was closed prior to 1933 (McCluskey, 1933), due to the increasing costs of removing the overburden above the seam of phosphatic rock and the superior quality of the phosphate being excavated from the Doolin mines. On closure the area was landscaped and given back to agriculture. No evidence of the quarry can be seen today.
Doolin Quarry workings 1942
Phosphate bed near crushing area 1941
Following on from his work at Noughaval, Judge Comyns surveyed more of the shale deposit and discovered a richer outcrop of phosphatic material in Toomullin Townland, just east of Doolin. This he also developed as an opencast working, removing the shale mainly from the bed of the Aille river and from the land adjoining. The opencast quarrying took place from outside O'Conners Bar, upstream to approximately Poll an Fhia. Workers on this undertaking (Taddy Tierney and Jack Garrihy, taped interview with the author, 1997) have stated that as the impervious phosphate bed was removed so the river water disappeared into cracks in the newly exposed limestone to flow into the Doolin cave system. Since then the river has only reached the sea at times of higher flow. This matter is discussed more fully below.
As Judge Comyns developed the opencast quarry his men were forced to continually alter the route of the river to facilitate their removal of the underlying phosphatic bed. To allow work to progress, earthen dams were constructed to divert the river. This work was carried out mainly in the level ground, now meadows, found particularly on the east side of the river. These earth dams suffered during winter storms and were in need of constant maintenance.
No.1 Main Adit
Phosphate bed exposed in the Aille River 1941
Judge Comyns' men worked this outcrop until about 1939 when the undertaking was compulsorily taken over by the government mining company, Mianrai Teoranta. It would seem that the Judge was promised a dividend for any mineral removed, a common mining practice, but for some reason the two sides fell out and a lawsuit followed. It is said that the Judge was granted a sum of £50,000 by the court but the same rumours also state that the money was never paid. The truth of this is not known at present, but research continues.
View east, foremost stone building, under construction, believed the loading shed the building just beyond the crushing house. Adjacent were a compressor house and store.
View west; crusher and compressor buildings under construction; Roadford in the far distance: note the crane in the background which is referred to later on in this article.
The development of the underground quarry was commenced in earnest during the emergency in 1941 by Mianrai Teoranta, to replace the country's supplies of fertiliser from North Africa and South America (McCluskey, 1951; Tommy O'Brien and Jack Garrihy, taped interviews with the author, 1999). It was one of the largest mining undertakings in Ireland, employing almost 700 men at its height. The bed of phosphatic rock occurred almost horizontally and had an average thickness of approximately one metre. The hardness of the phosphate was the ultimate reason for the closure of the mine in 1947 as the processing of the mineral was reported to be almost £3 a ton more expensive than for the cheaper imports which, following the end of the emergency, had once more become available (McCluskey, 1951).
View southwest; the phosphatic bed forming the cascade: the far ruin believed to be the gable end of12th century church, (St. Brecan’s), Toomullin.
Bronze zoomorphic brooch.
See below for details.
A Penannular, bronze, zoomorphic brooch was found in March 1941 when the course of the river Aille was being altered to accommodate open cast mining. During excavating a new channel other items were uncovered; a stone, (sandy shale), ring, a copper coin and two boar tusks. All the items were recovered from a bed of yellow clay beneath the surface humus, above the phosphatic deposit, (Raftery J, 1941, p56).
Toomullin Miners outside what appears to be a substantial timber building.
Back row left – right: Micho Russell, Pete Maloney, Paps O’Donoghue, Mick O’Connor, Jacko Shannon, Richard Doherty, John Egan, Michael Egan, Dan Scales, John Shannon, Thomas Williams.
Middle Row: Martin Doherty, Martin Woods, Paddy Davies, John Guerin, Michael Doherty, Packy Kelly, Tommy Shannon, Tommy Killourghy, Matty O’Brien, “Barber" Patrick O’Donoghue, Gus O’Connor.
Front Row: P Flaherty, Gus Murray, Paddy Linnane, Jack Fitzpatrick, Wizzie Driscol, Micky Maloney, Austin Davenport, “Corcus” Patrick O’Loughlin, Poppy Lynch.
(The person in the window is a bit of a mystery)
The mine was worked on a pillar and stall system and extended for about 400 metres from the mouth of No 1 Adit to the now inaccessible 33 metre vertical service shaft. The mine was developed so as to follow the low southerly dip of the beds, draining water toward the service shaft sump for collection. No man riding was allowed in the skip which was installed in the service shaft. Even so, on one evening shift Mr. Byrne was killed when the winching machinery failed. The skip plummeted to the bottom of the shaft. Mr. Byrne died outright, his three colleagues seriously injured. A government inquiry at that time in Dublin blamed the poor state of the equipment and machinery for the accident. The workings cover an area of approximately one-quarter of a square mile.
On the surface, alongside the river, can be found a piece of geared machinery that appears to be the remains of a small crane and the ruins of several buildings including the compressor house, the crushing plant, a lorry maintenance garage, the winch house, the drying shed, and the explosives store. All of these date from the era of government control, except the crushing house, which was built by Judge Comyn. Most of the motive power for this plant was supplied by steam traction engines.
View of the western spoil tip, 150 metres east of McGann’s Bar, Roadford Bridge.
View northeast, building believed to be the Mine Managers house.
View south of the crusher house.
View east of the maintenance shed.
The head of the service shaft is at R 0810 9691, Until the mid 1990s it was possible to peer down the 2.5 m2 square timbered shaft, but in about 1995 it was partially backfilled with rubbish and since that time the area has been landscaped and, although the location can be identified, no recognisable remains can now be seen.
Photographed in 1971, in the field north of the No.1 incline were the remains of a crane which is possibly the one that can be seen in the distance on one of the photos above. The makers name which can be seen on the cast iron body appears to read :-
HAWORTH SONS & Co
Two sections of lightweight railway line found on the site of the Mine in 1971. These were set into the ground near the remains of the crane and appeared to have been anchors for the cranes support. On a recent visit to the site (2019) no trace of the crane could be found and the present landowner had no recollection of it.
Doolin Fluorspar Mine
NGR R 0693 9765
Depth: 14.5 m.
Length: 58 m.
Altitude: 30 m.
This mine is situated next to the roadside on the hillside above Doolin village. The mine is totally flooded and has been used as a water source by residents of the adjacent house. No access is possible as the shaft is sealed.
The mine was one of two local prospecting ventures carried out in 1943 by Minerals Exploration & Development Co. Ltd., acting on behalf of Mianrai Teoranta, the official representatives of the government. Two preliminary exploration trenches were dug to uncover a known mineral vein to enable a more accurate assay to be done. Of the two excavations "trench one" was chosen for development. This was adjacent to an earlier shallow fluorspar quarry. "Trench two", 400 metres to the north west was abandoned for the time being. Unfortunately the richness of fluorspar diminished with depth.
A single, timber divided shaft for hauling and access, was sunk vertically to a depth of 14.5 metres. A crosscut was then constructed on a westerly heading for 15 m to where it entered the mineral vein. The main passage is aligned roughly North/South. Opposite the point of entry onto the vein is a short blind 5 metre continuation of the crosscut. To the south the single passage extends 10 metres to its forefield (working, or end, face). To the north the passage runs for 25 metres, again to a mineral forefield. The shaft and crosscut were completed by early 1947 and the major development of the vein took place between August and October of that year. The mine was officially abandoned on 31 October 1947. The poor quality of the mineralisation made the area within the vein somewhat unstable. The miners likened the roof to a sugar loaf, shattered and crystalline and with little inherent strength.
The mine produced little ore; minerals assayed from the vein were: blende (Zinc) 2.5% to 48.5%, galena: a trace to 5.65%, fluorspar: a trace at depth. There were also some beautiful examples of dog-tooth calcite (details from mine closure plan, 1947, held by Geological Survey of Ireland).
Close to "trench two" a trial was made for silver in the 1830's. This venture was also unsuccessful.
Figure 3. Plan and section of the Doolin Flourspar Mine.
Adapted from the mine closure plan held by the Geological Survey of Ireland.
View of modern water pump house, for domestic usage constructed over the shaft. Photo taken 2019.
The Effects Of The Phosphate Mining On The Doolin Cave System
The Doolin Cave System was discovered in 1953, when both the passages upstream of Fisherstreet Pot and downstream of St. Catherine's 1 swallet were explored and found to come very close to each other, though a physical connection was not made until 1955. Prior to this time, opinion had been such that "any upstream passage [from Fisherstreet Pot] would also be barred after a short distance because it would have to cross under the Aille River, where this was running on limestone, and the chances of any passage being passable by an ordinary caver seemed to be unlikely in the extreme." (Shaw and Tratman, 1969, p. 20). Nevertheless, the pot was descended and a survey undertaken which "revealed the then well nigh incredible fact that the open cave passage passed under the Aille River." (ibid, p. 21.) This situation has been used on numerous occasions since to illustrate the heterogeneous nature of karst aquifers and the importance of geological controls on the flow patterns of underground karst streams. Indeed it has even been quoted in influential text books on karst geomorphology and hydrology (Jennings, 1985, p. 58; White, 1988, p. 182).
Figure 4. Outline geology of the Doolin area as mapped after 1950. Adapted from Ollier and Tratman, 1956
However, the realisation that much of the bed of the Aille river has only been bare limestone since the mining work of the 1930s and 1940s puts a very different slant on this matter. Figure 4 shows the outline geology of the Doolin area as mapped by UBSS members in the early 1950s (adapted from Oilier and Tratman, 1956) and indicates that from a point just to the east of Roadford the river bed does appear to be on limestone. A walk along the river confirms this fact. Figure 5, on the other hand, seems to indicate that only a short loop of the river crosses onto the limestone and even then it is running on "drift" rather than on bare rock. This second map is the 1880 edition of the 1:63360 scale map published by the Geological Survey and would thus seem to show the position prior to the mining and quarrying work being undertaken. This conclusion has been confirmed by the study of the original geological survey 1:10560 field sheets of the area, though these seem to differ in some minor details from the published version.
Thus it would seem that the current remarkable situation, of a surface river flowing directly over a vadose cave is a very recent development and is unlikely to prove stable in the long term. Indeed, even by the date of the original explorations, only about ten years after the mining ceased, water had begun to find its way into the cave from the river and contemporary reports indicate that this began to happen very soon after the work had exposed the limestone (Tommy O'Brien and Jack Garrihy, taped interview with the author, 1997). Although there are, as yet, no reports that these inlets are growing in size or any observations that the river is becoming progressively dryer it can only be a matter of time before the entire flow of the river, even in flood conditions, sinks underground. It will be interesting to observe quite how long this takes.
Figure 5. 1880 edition of the Geological Survey map of the Doolin area. The darker colour represents the limestone sequence and the lighter colour represents shale. Stipple indicates the presence of glacial drift.
Reproduced by permission of the Geological Survey of Ireland.
I would like to thank the following for their help in the preparation of this paper, Frank and Kitty Davis, Cheg Chester, Jim Shannon, Matty Shannon, Donal Hines, Sean and Gus O'Conner, Tommy "Cuckoo" O'Brien, Jack Garrihy, Taddy Tierney, Gus Curtin, Mrs Nuala Fitzgerald, John Cooper of the Russel Society, the Pegasus Club Nottingham and last but by no means least the good and ever patient people of Doolin. Editorial thanks must be given to Matthew Parkes for additional information and for obtaining the permission of the Geological Survey of Ireland for the publication of extracts from their maps.
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JENNINGS, J.N. 1985. Karst geomorphology. Oxford. Basil Blackwell Ltd.
McCLUSKEY, J. 1933. Preliminary Report on Rock Phosphate deposits of Co. Clare. Unpublished Report to Geological Survey of Ireland. 11pp.
McCLUSKEY, J.A.G. 1951. The Phosphorites of Co Clare. Geological Survey of Ireland, Mineral resources memoir.
OLLIER, CD. AND TRATMAN, E.K. 1956. The Geomorphology of the caves of North-West Clare, Ireland. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society. 7. 3. 138-158.
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SHAW, T.R. AND TRATMAN, E.K. 1969. Mainly Historical in Tratman, E.K. The Caves of North-west Clare, Ireland. Newton Abbot. David & Charles.
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Originally published: Patrick Cronin 2001.
Additional information and photographs added: Cheg Chester 2019.