French Wizards

While researching for the Guide I read in Ballinagleara and Inisgmagrath: The History and Traditions of Two Leitrim Parishes, of a French mining company that came to Sliabh an Iarainn (The Iron Mountain) in 1930. According to the book they had some financial backing from the State to prospect for iron deposits there in the hope of opening a mine and drilled boreholes at two locations (northern Slievenakilla and southern Stradrina).

There used to be a thriving iron industry in the region possibly from the Iron-age until the 1800’s with one furnace in Drumshanbo at what is still today known as Furnace Hill as well as one in Creevelea near Dromahair. Iron from Leitrim is known to have been used for the entrance canopy of Foyle’s Hotel in Clifden, Co. Galway as well as Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge. I spoke to a local historian about it and they knew the story behind the 1930 drilling and once I heard it knew the account belonged in the Guide.

He remembered his father telling him about the excitement at the time and promise of jobs and of the day the drilling rig appeared in Dowra from the boat in Belfast with its Welsh crew to begin its long slow journey along the same famine road which still stretches across the mountain today. The French representatives of the company who arrived soon after had quite good English but what they asked the locals about was more concerned with mythical stories of the Tuatha DeDanaan (who are said to have landed on the mountain in a cloud) and other legends to do with the mountain than likely places with iron deposits. They appeared to select their two drilling sites based on this mythical information but had, according to them, already been there before on a research trip.

On the day the drilling commenced they raised a few more eyebrows (including the local Roman Catholic parish priest) when they did a quasi religious ceremony complete with robes, much to the amusement of the rig crew and the curious locals that were expectantly watching. Then when the first core samples were retrieved it’s said they treated them with something more akin to sacred reverence rather than objective scientific appraisal. Since there was no on-site laboratory or even a geologist employed the crew had long suspected all was not what it seemed about the company they were working for but as long as they were being paid they weren’t too worried. However they did express these doubts privately to locals who they warned not to get their hopes up about a mine opening there anytime soon. After just a fortnight of activity with a number of test-cores from various depths also retrieved from the second site, the rig left the mountain and so did the French, never to return or be heard from again.

I was then told what his father had told him; that people of the time gradually came to feel that something else more intangible had also been taken from the mountain and the land around them since that time, which had also never returned. They began to realize that something eternal and of greater value than rock samples had been allowed to be snatched away from them for nothing. After a year this strange feeling persisted until the same parish priest who had un-approvingly witnessed the previous ceremony announced a special mass to be held on the mountain close to the two sites. During it he is said to have turned a blind eye to people who brought certain objects from an earlier, more pagan, time to be left as an offering to the scarred earth in the hope of healing the mountain. Whether it worked or not we don’t know but most of the people felt more reassured at least.

I realised this story could be seen to tie-in with the little known fact that mysterious rock core samples were found both in Hitler’s Berlin bunker and in the ruins of his Wolf’s Lair headquarters at the end of World War II. They were finally tested in the 1980’s and were thought most likely to be of Irish origin. He may have been using them as a talisman, but if they truly were the samples in question, how they would have come into his possession remains a mystery.  While occultism and the Nazi’s has become a staple of fantasy fiction they did actually have an SS division called the Ahnenerbe whose role was to research and gather up ancient religious relics and such like, who were active even before the outbreak of war. One of their interests was said to have been the suppression of the Irish harp in Ulster by the British but there is no evidence of them ever having been in Ireland. It struck me that this could also be where the local and up to now inexplicable saying, ‘French Wizards’, comes from. “There’s a bit of a French wizard about him.” is still said when someone is doing something out of the ordinary in this part of Leitrim. (Stephen Rennicks)

Approx location of drilling sites on map

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