It’s a window into an industry that once thrived on the foot and face of Muckish Mountain. A reflection of times when its imposing shadow oversaw, up to the mid 1950’s, the quarrying of sand that went into the manufacturing of glass. The recently produced DVD, ‘Glass Mountain – The Story of Muckish Sand’, offers a compelling account of the growth and, alas, demise of this unique Donegal enterprise.
Presented by well known personality, Aussie Bryson, it tells a story that has, perhaps, filtered in and out of local history without being afforded the importance it merits. Here now, thanks to the representatives of Muckish Development, and those involved in its production, we have a fitting testimony to this industry and what it entailed.
The first time he had ever heard of Muckish sand, the presenter relates at the outset, was in a geography and history lesson at school when his teacher told the class of how it had been used to make glass and was shipped all over the world.
“We were very much intriqued by this,” declares Aussie. Muckish Mountain, we are told by the DVD’s narrator, Ed Humm, “cuts an iconic
vista” in the landscape and at its base, mill wheel making had once been an enterprise that had provided some local employment, “laboriously crafted by hand” before being split from its parent rock.
But it was the white sand that made the area famous around the world. Dr. Brian Lacey, Director of the Donegal Archaeological Survey, suggests that Roman traders may even have found their way there to acquire the relatively rare sand
to be used in glass making initiatives in the building of the Empire. What is certain is that at the turn of the 19th century, clear glass was much in demand by the higher echelons of society, donating as it did status, and the Muckish area boasted some of the best raw material to manufacture it.
The DVD reveals that a small quantity of the powdered sand was shipped to Belfast to make glass of the highest quality, the quarrying carried out by local man, William Brennan at a cost of two guineas a ton.
However, lack of technology and heavy machinery plus the expense of shipping the sand resulted in the precious material being disused for lengthy periods.
The Letterkenny to Burtonport rail link (aka ‘That Old Sinner”) opened up the area in terms of transporting goods to a wider market while the First World War left the sand quarrying industry of Central Europe paralysed and with it the production of glass.
Meanwhile, the valuable sand deposits at Muckish were, as the narrator points out, “begging to be extracted” but the pace of industrialisation in the east had not crossed the island of Ireland and fishing, farming and an emerging tourism trade continued to be the staple diet of Donegal as the images depicted on the DVD portray. Those images bring viewers a gallery of local faces from the era – two young girls carrying the milk home, a pipe smoking woman eyeing the camera in the company of a row of little children outside her front door, and weather beaten men harvesting the fields and transporting the turf for the home fires.
Here, too, images of, and from, the train that once steamed through the local landscape. And there also, nostalgic glimpses of much quieter street scapes in Dunfanaghy and Creeslough.
This DVD does not alone record the story of Muckish sand but also provides a commentary of the times and consequently represents an invaluable social history.
Here was an area rich in low cost labour with many men ready to answer the call to work. Here, in addition, tonnes of what was described as the second best optical sand in the world worth millions by today’s standards to those willing to take the risk.
The Second World War again forced the closure of much of Europe’s sand mine industry and in 1940 a State Mining Lease was granted to Irish Minerals Ltd. under the guiding hand of Laurence O’Toole to get the industry up and running.
A large number of local men were subsequently employed – among them the quartet of Danny Ward, Tom Doherty, Brian Boyle and Willie Kelly, each of whom detail aspects of their own working lives at Glass Mountain. Lorry driver, Willie Kelly, reflects on his daily task of picking up the workers at various points, starting with Charlie Moore at Cashel, to transport them to the foot of Muckish.
Those men who scaled the mountain set off at half past seven in the morning (each of them carrying a piece of timber to help light the fire for cooking up the tea) taking half an hour to get to the production line and being permitted a five
minute rest before the working day began. There’d be two breaks during that day, at twelve noon and again at 4.p.m., before they’d complete their day’s work at 7.p.m.
On those days when the weather turned bad, they were forced to sit in the hut but no work meant no money. In 1949 the employees at Muckish were cited as an example when the issue of ‘wet time’ was raised in the Dail with a proposal that it be extended to cover quarry workers but it was rejected. Oil drums and gelignite were also transported manually up the mountain and Danny Ward recalls an incident when the men were having their lunch in the tin hut and someone inadvertently pressed the plunger setting off the explosives.
He remembers the stones and rocks hitting the roof and bending the sheets of tin.” They were very careful about blasting after that.”
But by 1954 full scale production of glass in mainland Europe was back on track and the crushers at Muckish ground to a halt with the once busy back road that snaked its way to it silenced.
The wooden chute that carried the sand down the mountain was left to rot and while most of the larger machinery has long since been removed, some of it still remains, bolted to the rockface, these “rusting icons a reminder of what once was”, as the narrator concludes.
Attempts were made to revive the industry including efforts by one local developer in the sixties but, sadly, the sands of time had run out for the white gold of silica from Glass Mountain.
This image laden DVD, complete with stills and film footage from the archives, along with some spectacular aerial shots, provides a documentary that is steeped in chronicle and character and is a tribute to those who toiled not just in its subject but in the making of it.
Written and directed by Eamonn McFadden, it also features the haunting music of Liam Deery and Trad Mhor, a soundtrack to an era when Muckish and its surrounds might truly have been designated silica valley.