Monday, July 14, 2014

Martin Feely, the Leprechaun King

This Friday, we had the wonderful opportunity to go on a field trip to the Streamstown quarry where the Connemara Marble company gets its marble from. This geology excursion was headed by Martin Feely, one of our geology professors. I know I've mentioned Martin before, but I'd like to take a moment to just explain a little more about him before I post the pictures from the trip.


Martin Feely is a leprechaun.

Hear me out. He is always happy, always excited, always at 110% energy. He has an affinity for and deep knowledge of rare minerals and metals. He loves tunneling underground. And he looks like this picture pretty much all the time.

I love Professor Feely. His knowledge of geology is vast (being the head of the department at a major research university with serious cred in that field will do that to you) and his teaching ability is exceptional, but mainly I like him because he just likes everybody. He knew all of our names by the end of the first day of class, and that might sound like a little thing, but it feels like it was huge. He's got all these connections all over the country that let us get into cool places, and he used these connections to put together an excellent excursion for us this Friday.


Early on Friday morning, we woke up for a sleepy breakfast (still excellent) and piled into a bus headed for Clifden in north Connemara.

As you head north, across the granite peninsula that is Connemara, the boulders and outcroppings become less common and everything becomes softer. Coniferous groves dot the hills, and the bleak granite landscape becomes green and lush. This "softer" landscape is grown on the green-veined Connemara marble.

Martin showed us a geological map of the region, pointing out the areas where the different types of rocks are. After a 1.5 hours bus ride (we slept), we got off at this quarry up in the foothills, where the ground becomes rocky again as the veins of marble have seeped up out of the ground and the vegetation has fallen away.

While fifteen people tried to use the bathroom at once, we had some time to poke around the outside of the quarry. These big slabs are Connemara marble, known for its distinct jade-green bands.

It was what is called a "soft morning" in Ireland, when the fog rolls down from the hills and covers the bog so you can't see the top of the next ridge, but the air is cool and light, so being outside is "quite pleasant" (according to Martin). It was misting all morning, but it was less of a rain than a soft, cleansing rinse of the entire countryside.

Behind us is the quarry, where big slabs of rock were removed from the hillside with diamond drills and wire, falling away in big sheets and cut into blocks to be polished into decorative marble. The wooden walkways criss-crossed all over the quarry, from the top to the bottom, making descending treacherous in the drizzle that continued all morning.

The cut-away in the cliff face is easier to see here, as is the drill under my left elbow. By this point, the line to the bathroom had dried up, and we went inside.

Inside the workshop were huge piles of rocks and dangerous power tools. We met the two men who worked the quarry and they showed us around. Connemara marble fractures easily and isn't used for building, but it is used for decoration and making trinkets, particularly jewelry. Here, the marble blocks are processed into little jewelry-sized bits and polished so they can be sent off to the jewelry shop in town.

The quarry from above. The last of the big blocks was cut out of the walls a decade ago, and now only drillings for cores take new rock out of the quarry. The huge stacks of marble blocks all around the workshop and taking up all the room inside is more than enough to keep everyone busy.

The drills are a steel cylinder rimmed with industrial diamonds that cut pieces like this out of the quarry. From this cut piece of stone, all the little bits of jewelry can be cut.

Martin knew the men working at the quarry quite well, and has old connections to the family who owns the quarry and produces the Connemara marble. He told us a bit about the history of the marble (600 million years old!) and showed us some of the folding from the magma-caused metamorphosis that caused these sediments to become marble millions of years ago, but mainly he just let us walk around.

The marble-cutting demonstration was one of my favorite parts of this trip. The blades on that circular saw are blunt and almost a centimeter thick, but are sprinkled with industrial diamond--it's more of a rapid erosion than a cutting away.


After a few hours at the quarry, we packed up and got back on the bus for our second stop of the day, Glengowla Mines. This large plot of land is owned by a nice man named Keith, whose family lived on the land as peasants dating back to... well, a very long time ago. In the late 1800s, the landlord went bankrupt and sold a lot of the land back to the peasants, one of whom was Keith's ancestor. Since then, the land has been used as a farm, since the lead and silver mine on the property ran dry in the 1860s. Now, the mine is a tourist attraction, preserved and restored as an example of Industrial-Era mining in Ireland (Industrial Era in Britain, at least). We were supposed to be there to see the mine because of geology and all that, but we ended up seeing a lot more of the grounds, too.

A few months ago, Keith got a call from a movie producer, asking if he could build a movie set on the property. Here it is, going up. It's got a Wild West kind of feel to it, even though it's set in Klondike. The building on the left is going to be the hospital, and building on the right is the jail. That view over the hills is spectacular, even clouded in fog like it is there.

We found this lovable mutt tied up behind the main shop, under a little roof built next to the sheep pen. He loved being petted and talked to, and was generally the cutest dog I've ever met besides Ringo. He seemed pretty goofy and not particularly smart... imagine our surprise when he was trotted out for the sheepdog demonstration!

His name is Bill, and he is a three-year-old sheepdog. With only vocal commands from Keith, Bill could herd the sheep in one big flock from wherever they were in the field to any specific point in the pen, even exact patches of grass in the middle of the open field. Bill knows his left from his right and can switch between different herding strategies based on Keith's commands. The only command he didn't have a firm grasp of was "lie down", which is the command to stop herding sheep. Bill just wanted to go-go-go-go-go, and stopping was very hard for him. When he would finally lay down and leave the sheep alone, he would often belly-crawl toward them when he though Keith wasn't looking.

Inside the old foreman's cottage, Keith showed us various samples of the rocks from the mined tunnels below. The main treasure to be found down in the mine was galena, which is a metamorphic limestone with large quantities of valuable minerals in it: about 70%-80% lead and 3% silver.

Bill herding the sheep was pretty great, but this was my favorite part of the excursion: going down in the mines. Keith spent a while telling us about the 45-foot drop down through the damp rock and to the darkness below, and all about the methods used to bring ore up the pit, and then directed us to some stairs cleverly hidden under a bush that ALSO led down into the mines.

We used concrete stairs that were dug out later, but the original miners would have used a system of wooden ladders and platforms that went down this pit to the main floor of the mine below.

The view of the shaft pictured above from below. Miners would place their collected ore in a bucket and workers on the surface (often the wives and children) would use the winch to bring it up to the top.

We went down and down and down into these twisting tunnels through the rock. Some of them were pretty small, too--and these were expanded during the restoration. Originally, the miners would have had to crawl on their belly through many of them, and the only lights were candlelight.

The working day of a miner was 12 hours long. Three men would take these iron spikes and drill holes in the rock: one man holding and twisting while the other two beat it with hammers, until the hole was about two feet deep. This took about 4 hours. They would make three holes in a day (12 hours, maybe a little less, or work), and then finally stretch and limber up after all the holes were drilled. The stretching was an important step, because next they would cram the holes full of gunpowder, light the fuses, and run down the tunnel (holding their candles for light!) and try to take cover in an alcove somewhere while the explosives went off and destroyed the rock. Then they would go back, pick up all the ore that had fallen out of the collapsed wall, put it in buckets, and call it a day.

The Glengowla Mines aren't just a restored mine, though. Keith and his family also do demonstrations of other traditional Irish ways of doing things, like the sheepdog trials above and this--cutting the peat. Ireland is covered in large swaths of bog, a muddy mire that has accumulated thousands of years worth of dead plant matter like mosses, leaves, grasses, and fungi. The resulting thick, blocky, mud-and-dead-things mixture is called peat. Ireland's bogs are about 6000 years old, and for all those six thousand years, the Irish have been cutting the peat for fuel.

Using a tool that looks like a flat-tipped spear, you slice into the peat and pull up a rectangular piece.

Then you stack them in a firewood formation to dry, turning the slab of mud into a light stick of compressed plant material that looks and feels a lot like a fire-starter log. They burn clean, hot and for a long time--better than coal, and easier to find than firewood. This field here is covered in dried peat, enough to last one winter.


The bus picked us up out by the bog, and after a quick stop at the Connemara Marble Jewelry and Souvenir Store, owned by the guy that owns the quarry, we headed back to NUIG. Hot showers were had all around, and Sarah and I went to a little bistro on the corner of Shop Street to celebrate our one-year anniversary.

Thanks for reading! Tune in next time for pictures from the Aran Islands. Missing everyone at home. Lots of love from across the Atlantic.

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