Tunnel vision: Women going for gold in Tyrone
Tyrone girl Jenny Lee discovers that her home county is full of gold and talks to two of the members of Europe's first all-female mine rescue team
DIG this - an intrepid team of Tyrone mining women are working below ground amid the county's new gold rush - and these prospectors are also a mine of information on Ireland's golden heritage.
As a young teenager on a school trip I remember panning for gold in the Sperrin mountains. No-one found any on this occasion and I grew up thinking that the story of gold in Tyrone was simply a myth.
Fast-forward a quarter of a century and, with millions of pounds of international investment, the prospect of a gold-mining industry in the north is very real, with two separate developments under way.
In one, Canadian mining company Galantas has secured planning permission to develop Ireland's first underground gold mine at the location of it's previous open-pit mine, near Omagh.
Meanwhile the Curraghinalt mine, in the Sperrin mountains, near Gortin, another firm is exploring what is expected to be the largest deposit of gold to be found in these islands.
According to mining company Dalradian Gold Ltd (DGL), the gold here, at Curragninalt, ranks as one of the top undeveloped deposits worldwide.
The firm has already spent £50 million on the project, with a further £23m exploration and development programme under way to support submission of a planning application during 2016 to mine at Curraghinalt. Work at the site by Dalradian has included drilling, logging and and an underground exploration programme, involving almost a kilometer of tunnel extension, 3km of additional drilling and sampling and an environmental impact assessment.
Digging deeper, I discovered I should have listened harder during my school trip as there is a huge history of gold in Ireland. Metalworking and mining for copper and gold in Ireland dates to the Irish Bronze Age (approximately 2500 BC), and artefacts of prehistoric Irish goldsmithing are exhibited in the national museum in Dublin.
Exploration has taken place in the Gortin area since at least the 1600s. In his Natural History of Ireland, Gerard Boate wrote in 1657 of nuggets found in the Moyola River, north east of Curraghinalt.
Just as you don't immediately think Northern Ireland when you hear the term gold mining, you don't think women when it comes to mine workers – and especially mine rescuers.
A recent Australian survey found that only 9 per cent of full-time workers in the mining industry are women. This is understandable as historically mining required physical strength but with technological advances the skills needed in the mining sector today have changed dramatically. The report also found that most of those women working in mining would actively encourage more women to take up a career in the industry.
Two women who strongly agree with this are DGL employee's Angela Coney and Orla McKenna, who are also members of the first all-female mine rescue team in Europe, alongside Ruth Blackburn, Michelle Calderon and Nikki Commodore.
Safety is paramount and DGL has a total of 21 staff trained in mine rescue requirements. Each rescue team, consisting of five members, is trained to respond in the unlikely event of an emergency situation underground. The team receive training on average once every 12 weeks, practising emergency responses to simulation exercises and first-aid skills. They also have to keep themselves reasonably fit in order to be able to carry 16kg of oxygen equipment on their backs.
For Angela Coney, a native of Carrickmore who works in the human resources team at DGL, joining the mines rescue team was an unforeseen opportunity for her career.
"I thought initially that mining would be male dominated but I've found out that this is not the case. For example, two of our senior managers are women. I am extremely proud to be part of the mine rescue team. I thought that I wouldn't be physically able to do this role but the training and live simulations have shattered all those preconceptions."
Fellow mine rescue team member Orla McKenna is a geologist with DGL and is involved in regional exploration and geo-chemical sampling.
"My time is split between the office and the field, where we remove and test the rock. It depends on weather conditions," says Orla, who didn't envisage working in mining when she began studying general science at university in Dublin. However, she went on to specialise in geology and was delighted to be able to secure employment in Ireland.
"The traditional image of the hard hat and cat lamp will always exist because of the environment we work in, but mining is now mechanicised and women work in mines all over the world. My job suits people who like the outdoors and my advice to others is follow your interests and don't let stereotypes put you off," she says.
Around 3.5 million ounces of gold had been identified by DGL – enough, the firm says, to sustain the local industry for 18 years. They have vowed to turn the region into a mining centre of excellence and have laised with colleges in Omagh about training courses.
Fracking for natural gas in Co Fermanagh has faced vehement opposition from residents and some residents in the Omagh area have expressed concern about the effects of mining on the environment and the agriculture and tourism sectors.
"Communication with the local community has been ongoing from the start," is the response of Anne Monaghan, DGL's head of community relations.
"It's my job to talk to people and engage with people. On an average working day we visit and talk to at least one resident in the area per hour. We also have given 250 local people tunnel tours of our exploration area and have been well received."
Last spring DGL conducted a door-to-door survey in the Gortin and Greencastle areas; they say that out of 608 houses surveyed by questionnaire, 93 per cent of respondents were in favour of or neutral about the project in their area.
The company has recently launched the Dalradian Gold Tyrone Fund which is a grant scheme open to community groups across Tyrone and as part of their conservation measures they have partnered with a local company on a project for freshwater pearl mussel protection.
So why should Northern Ireland welcome gold mining? "This is an opportunity to create a whole new industry for West Tryone and create employment directly and indirectly through construction and local hire," says Dr Monaghan, who suggests that the full employment rate for the mine will be in the region of 150 people.