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The Silvermines District, County Tipperary, Ireland.


The giant base metal and barite deposits of Silvermines, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland, have received considerable attention from geologists in recent years. Detailed study has resulted in an extensive scientific literature and has contributed enormously to our understanding of this class of deposits, sedimentary-exhalative, to which some of the larger orebodies belong. However, in spite of this copious technical literature, there is no recent, detailed descriptive mineralogy of interest to specimen mineralogists and collectors. This may be partly because the deposits did not acquire a reputation as a prolific source of fine specimens until the astonishing discovery of a huge vug in 1978 in the large zinc-lead mine operated by Mogul of Ireland Ltd.: Mogul mine. This was in spite of a history of intermittent mining since the Middle Ages, and the development of extensive oxidized zones in some of the early workings.

The village of Silvermines is located 9 km south-southeast of the town of Nenagh and 36 km north of Tipperary town, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland. The mine workings extend for approximately 4 km from west to east, the eastern-most workings (Ballygown South) being immediately south of the village. They lie at the northern foot of the Silvermines Mountains, which rise in the south to about 500 meters. To the north of the mines is flat agricultural land.


Russell (1990) and Cowman (1988 and 1992) have described the history of Silvermines in detail and the following account is derived from these sources. The earliest record of mining in the district is from 1289, when a group of Italian miners began digging, presumably for argentiferous galena. The locals were hostile toward the foreigners, and the miners suffered assaults and intimidation. This culminated in a brawl in 1303 in which, according to an account quoted by Russell (1990), a priest "was beaten and got his head broken." The indignant clergyman retaliated by excommunicating the miners, who then refused to go underground for fear of perdition.

Activity resumed early in the 17th century. By 1640, after considerable investment, the mines were employing over 500 men and, apparently, were prospering. The lead and silver found ready local markets and, in 1640, the King received [pounds]800 as his share of the profits. This prosperity was cut cruelly short in 1642 by a massacre in which 14 people, mainly women and children, perished when one of the local landowning families attacked the mine. Outraged by this, John Kennedy, the elder brother of the culprit, ordered the arrest of his errant sibling who subsequently escaped justice by committing suicide.

The following years were turbulent and bloody. When peace eventually broke out, litigation caused further delays. Thus it was not until the 18th century that operations could recommence, at first for lead and silver, and later also for copper. These seem to have met with mixed success and by 1800 the mines were idle again.

Early 19th-century attempts to reopen the mines failed and, in 1850, the General Mining Company of Ireland took over the property. In spite of financial problems, scandals and litigation, this company managed to raise some thousands of tons of lead, zinc and copper and was. helped by the high silver content (up to 80 ounces/ton) of the ores. A large vein of pyrite was exploited for sulphuric acid manufacture at the Knockanroe mine, and nearby a bed of "calamine" (hemimorphite and smithsonite) was discovered and worked for a while at the Ballygown South mine. Difficulties in processing the calamine ore, together with competition from abroad, forced the closure of the mines in 1874.

There were several reinvestigations of the old workings in the first half of the 20th century but there was no significant revival of activity until 1948, when a group of entrepreneurs and prospectors set up the Irish Exploration Company Ltd. In 1949 this became the Silvermines Lead and Zinc Company Ltd., with a capital of [pounds]350,000. They began by exploiting the calamine deposit and by reprocessing old dumps. From the beginning they were beset by technical difficulties, followed by a collapse in metal prices. The company struggled from crisis to crisis, sinking ever deeper into debt, and was soon facing bankruptcy. Then it discovered one of the biggest barite deposits in the world.

Lacking the resources to develop the enormous Ballynoe barite deposit it had found, the company struck a deal with the Magnet Cove Barium Corporation (subsequently Dresser Industries), and as a result Magcobar (Ireland) Ltd. was born. Opencast mining began in April 1963, and by 1988 had produced some 5.5 million tonnes of barite. Underground production continued until 1995.

In 1962, the board of the Silvermines Lead and Zinc Company Ltd. came to an agreement with two Canadian companies - Draper Dobie & Company Ltd. and Consolidated Mogul Mines Ltd. - who were given over 2 million shares in options in the company, the exercise of which cleared the company's debts. Mogul embarked on an exploration program and soon discovered 10 million tonnes of ore grading at about 11% lead and zinc.

Mogul of Ireland Ltd. was set up in 1964 and mining, at what became known as Mogul mine, commenced in 1968. Until its closure in July 1982, the mine produced 1.75 million tonnes of lead and zinc concentrates from about 12 million tonnes of ore. Following closure the property was acquired by Ennex International. Extensive drilling by Ennex has so far failed to locate additional economic orebodies, and it is unlikely that there will be a resumption of mining in the foreseeable future. The property has recently been sold for use as a waste disposal site.

The Silvermines Lead and Zinc Company Ltd. is now known as Silvermines Group plc., and is a successful investment company with diverse interests in property, engineering, electronics and other areas but no longer in the mining district from which it took its name.


For a comprehensive and detailed technical description of the geology and ore mineralogy of the deposits the reader is referred to Andrew (1986) and the references therein. The dominant geological feature of the district is the roughly east-west Silvermines Fault Zone. To the south of this lie Silurian graywackes and Devonian sandstones; to the north are Lower Carboniferous dolomite and limestones, often muddy and with shales and cherty horizons.

The mineralization is partly epigenetic, and partly sedimentary-exhalative. The epigenetic mineralization comprises simple veins and breccia zones on both sides of the Silvermines Fault Zone, and cavity and fracture-fill zones north of the fault. The large sedimentary-exhalative deposits are divided into three main zones north of the fault: B and Upper G zones, worked for zinc, lead and silver by the Mogul mine, and the barite or Magcobar zone, which formed the Ballynoe barite deposit worked by Magcobar (Ireland) Ltd. Beneath the southern part of the Upper G zone lies one of the larger, steeply-dipping, epigenetic Zn/Pb deposits - the Lower G zone - also worked by the Mogul mine.

The deposits are related to a system of west-northwest-trending faults, components of the large Silvermines Fault Zone. These acted as conduits for ascending metalliferous brines (at ca. 220 [degrees] C) which formed the epigenetic deposits as they rose. In places the solutions debouched onto the sea floor and, being of greater density than the surrounding seawater, accumulated in hollows and depressions where sulfides and barite were precipitated to form the large sedimentary-exhalative orebodies. The epigenetic deposits may therefore be seen as the feeder zones for the stratigraphically higher, bedded deposits, some of which have been lost by erosion, leaving the three surviving examples described here.

The remains of several of the vents, where the fluids spilled onto the seafloor, have been identified and the positions of others inferred. These have attracted intense study, in view of their similarity to present-day examples of deep ocean hydrothermal vents or "black smokers." A particularly well-preserved example was found in the southeast corner of the Magcobar opencast (Boyce et al., 1983).

The large sedimentary-exhalative deposits lay beneath the water table and largely escaped supergene oxidation. Some of the epigenetic deposits, on the other hand, have undergone extensive, near-surface alteration generating residual deposits containing barite, sulfide-bearing muds, "calamine" and gossan (Boland et al., 1992). The calamine deposit at Ballygown South is the best known example.


The large sedimentary-exhalative deposits have furnished most of the ore, and also most of the mineral specimens, in the modern mines. The Magcobar barite zone consisted of up to 15 meters of massive barite (averaging 85% BaS[O.sub.4]), underlain by hematitic and jasperoid bands and overlain by pyritic, dolomite breccias with minor galena and sphalerite (Taylor and Andrew, 1978). Its uppermost meter or so was recrystallized and contained much pyrite/marcasite (Andrew, 1986). The B and Upper G zones, worked at the Mogul mine, consisted of massive pyrite/marcasite up to 30 meters thick with varying amounts of sphalerite, galena and gangue (Taylor and Andrew, 1978; Andrew, 1986).

Numerous rarer sulfides and sulfosalts have been identified, mostly as microscopic intergrowths and inclusions in polished sections. (See Table 1.) The gangue minerals were dolomite, barite, calcite, quartz, clays and chert, the barite being concentrated toward the southern pans of the B zone, near to the Magcobar zone. The host rocks contain much siderite, dolomite and barite.

An unusual discovery was made in the 4611 room of the B zone. Here a deposit of rich silver mineralization was found. It occupied a lens of coarse buff or grayish white, massive barite within which the silver ores were concentrated in a northwest-trending zone described as 4 to 8 feet (1.2 to 2.5 meters) thick, 22 feet (6.8 meters) wide and 35 feet (10.8 meters) long (Taylor, 1984). The mineralization consisted of patches, grains and intergrowths of argentite/acanthite, proustite, xanthoconite, smithite, miargyrite, argyrodite, unidentified bismuth sulfosalts (Gasparrini, 1978), jordanite, pyrargyrite and gersdorffite (Taylor, 1984). This is the only known example of this style of mineralization in Ireland, and is thought to be related to a nearby small feeder (Taylor, 1984).

The Lower G zone, also exploited at the Mogul mine, was a steeply dipping epigenetic deposit in which sphalerite and galena were the dominant sulfides with increasing pyrite and marcasite toward the upper parts. Chalcopyrite, arsenopyrite and numerous Pb, Cu and Ag sulfosalts occurred in minor amounts with dolomite, calcite, quartz and barite as gangue (Andrew, 1986).

The relatively compact nature of the vein material, together with the fact that much of the mining of the oxidized zones took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the advent of mineral collecting in Ireland, may explain why Silvermines acquired only a modest reputation as a source of fine specimens prior to the modern discoveries. Geology and mineralogy began to blossom in Ireland in the 19th century, but fine Silvermines specimens from this period are few and far between. This is disappointing, as acicular cerussite is said to have been "particularly abundant" (Weaver, 1819) and, following the discovery of the calamine deposit at Ballygown South, well-crystallized hemimorphite must also have been common.

It was not until the modern phase of mining that the district achieved recognition, and this was due largely to a single, but spectacular, discovery in Mogul mine in 1978. In October of that year, during pillar recovery in the Upper G zone (the 3-W-2 pillar), an enormous rug was encountered. According to the mine geologist, it measured "approx. 3 meters long, 1 meter high and 2 meters wide with the long axis orientated down dip (approx. 25 [degrees]). The vug occurred in pyritic (10-20%) dolomitized debris flow breccias in the immediate hangingwall of the (at this point) 18-meter-thick massive pyrite of the Upper G orebody" (Andrew, 1988). Smaller vugs ([less than]20 cm) occurred nearby, and crystalline material had also been found in the epigenetic Lower G zone (and also in the northern reaches of the B zone: Taylor and Andrew, 1978) but none of these occurrences was as remarkable as the 3-W-2 vug.

Many fabulous pieces of galena, honey-yellow sphalerite, pyrite and bournonite were recovered from this vug, most of it being acquired by the late Cornish mineral dealer Richard Barstow, although the exact circumstances are obscure. These magnificent pieces now grace museums and collections all over the world.

Magcobar's barite mine, in spite of its size, had a poor reputation for specimen-quality material. This reputation was undeserved and probably deterred many collectors (including, to his great regret, the author) from visiting the site until it was too late. Mining at the bottom of the opencast in the early 1990's encountered a vuggy zone containing magnificent, lustrous pyrite crystals. Sadly there was no Richard Barstow on hand to rescue this treasure, and the miners simply disregarded the find and carried on mining (Jack Hicky, personal communication).

Four substantial deposits of partly oxidized, residual material are known to occur in the district. These have been prospected by Ennex International (Boland et al., 1992) and found to consist of troughs overlying epigenetic sulfide zones and filled with black sulfide-bearing (pyrite, galena, sphalerite) muds, residual barite, ochreous "calamine" (mostly hemimorphite) muds and gossan. The best known and most extensively mined of these is the Ballygown South deposit. Iron oxides, hemimorphite, smithsonite, cerussite and anglesite are the principal secondary minerals (in descending order of abundance). Recently, very minor hydro-hetaerolite and coronadite have also been identified (Ryback and Moreton, 1993).
Table 1. Minerals identified from the Silvermines district (from
Taylor and Andrew, 1978; Andrew, 1986; Gasparrini, 1978; Taylor,
1984; Weaver, 1819; Boland et al., 1992; Ryback and Moreton, 1993;
Kinahan, 1886; Giesecke, 1832; Russell, 1907; Rhoden, 1959a and
1959b; Zakrzewski, 1989).

Primary Sulfides

Acanthite/Argentite     [Ag.sub.2]S

Chalcopyrite            CuFe[S.sub.2]

Galena                  PbS

Marcasite               Fe[S.sub.2]

Pyrite                  Fe[S.sub.2]

Pyrrhotite              [Fe.sub.1-x]S

Sphalerite              (Zn,Fe)S

Primary Sulfosalts

Argentotennantite       [(Ag,Cu).sub.10][(Zn,Fe).sub.2]

Argyrodite              [Ag.sub.8]Ge[S.sub.6]

Arsenopyrite            FeAsS

Boulangerite            [Pb.sub.5][Sb.sub.4][S.sub.11]

Bournonite              PbCuSb[S.sub.3]

Freibergite             [(Ag,Cu,Fe).sub.12][(Sb,As).sub.4][S.sub.13]

Gersdorffite            NiAsS

Gudmundite              FeSbS

Jordanite               [Pb.sub.14][(As,Sb).sub.6][S.sub.23]

Lollingite              Fe[As.sub.2]

Miargyrite              AgSb[S.sub.2]

Proustite               [Ag.sub.3]As[S.sub.3]

Pyrargyrite             [Ag.sub.3]Sb[S.sub.3]

Smithite                AgAs[S.sub.2]

Tennantite              [(Cu,Ag,Fe,Zn).sub.12][As.sub.4][S.sub.13]

Tetrahedrite            [(Cu,Fe,Ag,Zn).sub.12][Sb.sub.4][S.sub.13]

Xanthoconite            [Ag.sub.3]As[S.sub.3]

Secondary Metalliferous Minerals

Anglesite               PbS[O.sub.4]

Azurite                 [Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Cerussite               PbC[O.sub.3]

Chalcocite              [Cu.sub.2]S

Coronadite              Pb[([Mn.sup.4+], [Mn.sup.2+]).sub.8]

Covellite               CuS

Erythrite               [Co.sub.3][(As[O.sub.4]).sub.2]
                        [multiplied by]8[H.sub.2]O

Goethite                [Fe.sup.3+]O(OH)

Hematite                [Fe.sub.2][O.sub.3]

Hemimorphite            [Zn.sub.4][Si.sub.2][O.sub.7]
                        [(OH).sub.2][multiplied by][H.sub.2]O

Hydrohetaerolite        [Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Linarite                Pb[Cu.sup.2+](S[O.sub.4])[(OH).sub.2]

Malachite               [Mathematical Expression Omitted]

Pyromorphite            [Pb.sub.5][(P[O.sub.4]).sub.3]C1

Silver                  Ag

Smithsonite             ZnC[O.sub.3]

Gangue Minerals

Ankerite                Ca([Fe.sup.2+],Mg,Mn)(C[O.sub.3])

Barite                  BaS[O.sub.4]

Calcite                 CaC[O.sub.3]

Chlorite Group          [A.sub.4-6][Z.sub.4][O.sub.10][(OH,O).sub.8]

Dolomite                CaMg[(C[O.sub.3]).sub.2]

Illite                  (K,[H.sub.3]O)[(Al,Mg,Fe).sub.2]-

Muscovite (sericitic)   K[Al.sub.2]([Si.sub.3]Al)[O.sub.10]

Quartz                  Si[O.sub.2]

Siderite                FeC[O.sub.3]

Grains of secondary. silver minerals have been detected in this oxidized residuum but specific silver minerals have not been identified (Boland et al., 1992). Native silver has not been reported in recent years but was noted by Kinahan (1886) in some of the old mines and also by Giesecke (1832), although no details are given. In view of the highly argentiferous nature of the ores, the presence of native silver in the oxidized deposits is not unlikely.

All the mineral species known to date from the district are listed in the accompanying table. Earlier, less complete lists were given by Russell (1907) and Rhoden (1959a and 1959b). Giesecke (1832) reported, without further details, "brittle silver-ore" (syn. stephanite) and "grey cobalt ore." However, without the benefit of modern techniques, the former could easily have been a mistaken identification of many of the silver sulfosalts known from recent work to occur (and which do not include stephanite), and the latter is an ambiguous term which could apply to a variety of minerals. Accordingly they have been omitted from the list. "Quicksilver," said to have been found in the 17th century (Wynne, 1860), and a report of orpiment (Gages, 1860) have never been substantiated and have long been regarded as doubtful. A report of geocronite, as grains up to 200 microns (Zakrzewski, 1989), gives analyses with As[greater than]Sb so the mineral should actually be jordanite and is listed as such in the table. Andrew (1986) mentions guitermanite but, as this is not a recognized species, it is omitted from the list.

Most of the rarer sulfides and sulfosalts are known only as microscopic grains, inclusions and intergrowths. The mineral-by-mineral description that follow therefore concentrates on those species that have been found in specimens of interest to collectors.

Barite BaS[O.sub.4]

Barite in massive form is abundant. Tabular crystals to 3 cm across were reported from the Magcobar mine (Boyce et al., 1983) and radiating and stalactitic masses and aggregations of wedge-shaped crystals are known from the Ballygown South mine (Russell, 1907). Many sulfide specimens from the Mogul mine are accompanied by white to translucent tabular crystals up to about 2 cm across.

Boulangerite [Pb.sub.5][Sb.sub.4][S.sub.11]

Boulangerite was concentrated around some of the feeders of the B and Upper G zones, including the silver-rich lens of room 4611. Close to the main B zone northwest feeder it was found as fine hairs in numerous small vugs (Taylor, 1984).

Bournonite PbCuSb[S.sub.3]

Some of Barstow's specimens from the great rug include well-formed tabular to blocky bournonite crystals up to about 2 x 1 cm. They are sharp but have relatively low luster and appear to have suffered some dissolution.

Cerussite PbC[O.sub.3]

At one time cerussite was abundant as masses of acicular white crystals, sometimes copper-stained, particularly at Gorteenadiha or Gortnadyne mine (Russell, 1907).

Galena PbS

Many magnificent crystals of galena were recovered from the great vug by Richard Barstow. The dominant habit is cuboctahedral, and crystals up to 2.5 cm across were found, often as intergrown groups but occasionally singly. They are commonly a little distorted so that the cube faces are rectangular. Both cube and octahedron faces tend to be somewhat uneven, sometimes distinctly convex. But their luster is often exceptional and mirror-bright.

Hemimorphite [Zn.sub.4][Si.sub.2][O.sub.7][(OH).sub.2] [multiplied by] [H.sub.2]O

Hemimorphite is the principal secondary zinc ore in the "calamine" deposits. (Smithsonite is the next most common but is impure, limonitic and not of collector quality.) Only at the Ballygown South mine has it been worked in quantity. The colorless to white crystals were described as small (up to 2 mm) but "wonderfully brilliant and sharp," lining cavities in gossan (Russell, 1907). Larger, blockier white crystals up to 4.5 mm across also occur. Although largely unaffected by supergene processes, some Barstow specimens from the Mogul mine exhibit clusters of 0.5-mm, transparent pale yellowish hemimorphite crystals on sphalerite.

Pyrite Fe[S.sub.2]

Massive pyrite, often colloform and frequently brecciated, was the principal sulfide in the B and Upper G zones and occasionally formed "chimneys" where the fluids emerged from vents on the ancient sea floor. Cubes up to 4 cm across were found associated with the fossil hydrothermal vent in the Magcobar mine (Boyce et al., 1983). Little is known of the more recent Magcobar occurrence, as few specimens were preserved. Specimens recovered by Barstow from the great vug in the Mogul mine often have pyritohedra up to 2 mm underlying the galena and sphalerite. These are sometimes beautifully iridescent.

Quartz Si[O.sub.2]

Slender, colorless and often flattened prisms up to 3 cm long are sometimes present on specimens from the Mogul and Magcobar mines.

Sphalerite Zn[S.sub.2]

Pale cream, yellow and brown sphalerite is the major ore mineral of the district, the color varying according to the iron content. Good, crystallized specimens have so far been restricted to the Mogul mine, where they occurred lining cavities in pyrite in the northern part of the B zone, in cavities in the Lower G zone and, of course, in the great vug in the Upper G zone. The Mogul specimens consist of rich masses and crests of lustrous, gemmy crystals up to 1.4 cm across, accompanying galena and pyrite, sometimes also with platy barite crystals, creamy dolomite and occasionally quartz. The color is usually amber to honey-brown, occasionally sulfur-yellow, rarely almost colorless. At least one rare specimen shows a predominantly cubic habit, modified by the dodecahedron.


The Mogul and Magcobar mines are now both closed and flooded. The huge dumps of the latter are disappointingly barren. There is scant dump material associated with the former, and what there is contains little more than rotting pyrite. The ochreous dumps of the Ballygown South mine are small in quantity and poor in quality. Much digging is required to find anything other than micromount specimens of hemimorphite. Similarly, the 18th and 19th-century dumps to the west are almost devoid of worthwhile specimens.

For good specimens, the collector is now almost entirely reliant on those recovered by Barstow. Some additional material was given away at the mine office to passers-by at the time the Mogul mine closed and, for a while, some locals adorned their mantlepieces with magnificent specimens of honey sphalerite and lustrous galena. The area has now been well trawled by dealers from all over the world, but fine specimens may still remain tucked away, unappreciated, in attics and sheds (and, in one case the author heard about, in a garden rockery in Clonakilty, County Cork). Barstow is reputed to have saved an enormous quantity of material, but this is now widely dispersed and when pieces do resurface they are often overpriced.

Finally, the preponderance of Mogul specimens in the photos accompanying this article reflects the fact that a collector and dealer - Richard Barstow - happened to be on hand at the right time. Had he not been there, it is probable that only a fraction of the material would have been rescued, for the benefit of just one or two institutions and a handful of lucky individuals. The fate of the acicular cerussite mined before the advent of collecting, and the recent find of pyrite crystals in the Magcobar mine, left where they lay because no one cared, highlight the importance of the role of collectors and dealers in the preservation of our mineralogical heritage.


The author is indebted to the following, without whom this article would not have been possible: the late Richard Barstow for saving and distributing much of the Mogul mine material, and Dr. Wendell Wilson for providing much of the photography. An important contribution to the detailed mineral descriptions, information on the great vug and other helpful suggestions came from Dr. George Ryback of Kent, England. Thanks are also due to Prof. Mike Russell and Dr. Allan Hall of the University of Glasgow, Scotland, and Des Cowman of the Mining Heritage Society of Ireland for help while researching the article; Dr. Dave Green of the Manchester Museum, England, for checking the manuscript; Jack Hicky, miner at Silvermines, for information about the Magcobar pyrite crystals; John Ashton, geologist at Tara Mines Ltd., Ireland, for information about the great rug; and Mrs. Helen Sheehan of Hillview, Silvermines, for her hospitality and excellent accommodation close to the mine.


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Author:Moreton, Stephen
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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