Irish find freedoms in the brave New World

Copper Country's past and people

The immigrant miners from Ireland, particularly those from the Bunmahon area, probably made an easy transition from the mines there to those in the Lake Superior copper district.

Bunmahon was a mining district on the south shore of Ireland, in County Waterford, in the province of Munster. The coast there is comprised of high cliffs containing lodes of lead and copper ores, as well as native copper, which were mined in the 18th century.

In 1824, the Mining Company of Ireland (MCI) was organized in Dublin and the company explored for mineral all across the island, including a range east of Bunmahon, where it opened the Knockmahon Mine. Comparatively speaking the Bunmahon and Knockmahon districts were very new districts in Ireland.

The copper mines of Ross Island, in County Kerry, and Mount Gabriel, in County Cork, date back to the Early Bronze Age (2,000-1,500 BC), and native copper was mined in County Antrim as early as the late Neolithic Period (4,000-2,500 BC). Indeed, Ireland boasts a long period of mining history.

At the MCI mines, women held jobs on the surface cleaning ores, but unlike Cornwall mines, women were not permitted to work underground, according to Sir Robert John Kane’s 1845 book, “The Industrial Resources of Ireland.”

As in the Galena lead district of Illinois, the rock matrix of Bunmahon was primarily granite. And as in the Lake Superior copper district, the County Kerry native copper district was composed primarily of basalt.

When the Irish miners took up housing along Keweenaw Point, they must have suffered something of culture shock, especially those from the Munster province, because with very few exceptions, Bunmahon was possessed of no trees. It was as bald as an egg. Very few trees were in evidence in southern Ireland, and with very few exceptions, the Lake Superior mining district comprised hundreds upon hundreds of miles of unbroken, virgin forest. There, houses were made of logs, rather than stone as back in the Old Country. Hoisting machinery consisted of human-powered windlasses or horse-powered whims, technology the Irish and Cornish had abandoned some 200 years before with the introduction of steam power.

While the Irish and Cornish probably did suffer much from culture shock, both could take some comfort from the sounds of Lake Superior waves crashing against shore, similar to the shores of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly for them, though was that the spray of Lake Superior possessed neither the taste of the smell of a saltwater sea.

Once many of the Irish coming to the Lake Superior district left the solid earth of the Emerald Isle, they considered they would never again see home again. When the gold fields of California opened in 1849-50, many Lake Superior Irish left for western mines, while others remained, and some others returned.

In America, companies formed and acquired the properties investors wanted to mine. In Ireland, when a company formed, in most instances, the company rented mineral lands from their owners.

The Irish miners, as well as the Cornish miners in America, knew how that arrangement turned out. As the price of copper declined in response to an expansion of copper districts in North, Central, and South America, absentee landlords refused to adjust the rents in proportion to the price of copper. Added to it was the potato famine, which brought with it a drastic increase in diseases, as well as a drastic drop in production of workers, because they were not getting the nutrition they needed to work at strenuous labor. Some companies, such as the Knockmahon mine management, brought in food, mostly meal, which it then sold at cost, but the MCI could not continue operating at the losses caused by rent and food. As they shut down, the Irish copper market all but collapsed.

English hatred of the Irish, which reached back to the 1100s, was a large contributor to the fall of Irish copper production. But this time England caught it in the backside, because the collapse of Irish copper production also dried up the supply of the ore to the mills and refineries in Swansea, in Wales. England no longer exported copper to any extent it once did, and with the opening of the Lake Superior copper mines, not only did England lose its copper market in America, it also suffered the humiliation of that copper was now being produced by British subjects who once produced mineral for England’s economy.

One area in which English exports to America increased was skilled and educated emigrants. The Irish and the Cornish miners were ranked first in the world for hard-rock, deep-shaft mining, as well as the most capable foundry men, engineers, designers, fabricators and builders of machinery, as well as masons who could construct a stone building around those large machines. The developing mining districts of the south shore of Lake Superior benefited incredibly by the English hatred of the Irish and anyone who did not subscribe to the Anglican church. And as quickly as the copper and iron districts expanded in the 1840s, they could absorb all the skilled British workers and miners who cared to come looking for a job.

Once in the district, some would stay, others would move on. But in America, they had that freedom. They were not bound to a system that forbade them from leaving except with the consent of some overlord. In America, they were free to work their trades where and as they saw fit.