Hidden Gems Competition - Highly Commended

Martin Mooney  describes the remarkable landscape of Conlig's lead mines

Half way between Newtownards and Bangor, in Co Down, the Conlig lead mines are one of Northern Ireland’s least known, but to me, most symbolic landscapes.

Though it enjoys country park status nowadays, it’s still not a pretty, picture-postcard landscape: spoil heaps, derelict wheel-houses (in childhood, these were ruined castles, ivied and romantic) and chimney stacks like broken columns in a Victorian graveyard. As a child, not understanding these ruined structures made them all the more attractive. As an adult, I read Derek Mahon’s poem A Disused Shed in Co Wexford,  and recognise its ‘places where a thought might grow’—

…mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft.

As children we were warned about roaming here. Open pits gaped beneath bracken ready to swallow unwary kids. But the lure of the place – a place of adventure and escape, of mystery and, though we wouldn’t have used the word, beauty – was too strong. We spent sunburnt summer holidays exploring here, like prospectors ourselves. Nobody died.

We watched and envied the scramblers. For decades, their motorbikes have torn through the landscape with their whiney engine-roar—if you close your eyes you could be in a factory. Environmentally, their presence is a disaster, but for me they’re inescapably part of the meaning of the place.

Speaking of environmental disasters, the area was also used as a dump, a scrap-heap. It’s a scrap-heap landscape, in some ways. But it’s also an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) for its geological and mineralogical interest. From the spoil heaps you can pick up nuggets of galena (a striking greenish lead ore) and specimens of other minerals. The Ulster Museum has many samples from the lead mines in its collections.

The place is historically fascinating too: a photograph from the 1930s shows the swastika flying over the workings, where a group of German ‘entrepreneurs’ were attempting to recover lead from the spoil – a recurring delusion, and on at least one occasion a profitable con!

The geology is visible in the landscape – outcrops of Silurian greywhacke and shale, like nearby Cowrie’s Craig, with its imprint of a horseshoe said to be either that of King William’s mount on its way to the Boyne (by a roundabout route, obviously) or that of the devil himself, wearing horseshoes to disguise the print of his cloven hooves.

The woods of Clandeboye are nearby, with Helen’s Tower visible on the skyline. Compared with that sentimental romanticism, however, I prefer the harsh appeal, the rugged sense of abandonment of the mine workings themselves, haunted by a language of shaft and adit and pithead not often encountered in Ireland.

There is no clean division between the rural and the industrial here. The mines’ heyday lies far in the past. High hopes and harsh realities intersect, human time and geological time overlap. The place is as loaded with meaning as the ground beneath with ore.

By Martin Mooney