TULLY CROSS, Ireland — It was on a wind-swept mountaintop not far from this village that St. Patrick is said to have banished all snakes and reptiles forever from the Emerald Isle.
Now, many local people say, a new menace has arrived in the form of international mining companies, crawling all over western Ireland looking for gold.
Croagh Patrick is one of Ireland's holiest sites and thousands of pilgrims climb its 2,500 feet every July to pay homage to Ireland's patron saint at the chapel overlooking the sea. Many are aged or infirm, some walk for hours barefoot over rocky trails, praying or chanting.
Now fears of an Irish Klondike have been provoked by the discovery of rich gold deposits on the slopes of Croagh Patrick and other nearby mountains.
Protests and Rallies
At least one company has found gold in quantities of up to 6.7 ounces per ton. Industry experts say gold--worth about $360 an ounce--becomes commercially viable at about half an ounce per ton.
Opposing the mining companies and government are environmentalists and local residents, thousands of whom have attended protest meetings and rallies.
"Christ, when the money men wormed their way into the temple in Jerusalem, rose in anger and cast them headlong out. Let us cast the money men from our temple," resident Anne Parker wrote in a recent letter read to a protest meeting in Tully Cross.
Croagh Patrick "belongs to all Christian people; we . . . are its special guardians," she wrote.
The companies say they are conducting environmental impact studies and deny their operations would harm the environment. The government says the protests are premature and it has made no decision yet to grant mining licenses.
It also points out that mining could create jobs in an area where unemployment is about 20%.
But locals accuse the government of being too cozy with the companies. They note that Prime Minister Charles Haughey's son, Conor, is managing director of Feltrim Mining, one of the 19 companies searching around Croagh Patrick.
The protesters say the rush to extract gold--a process that commonly employs cyanide and can be done by stripping--could gravely threaten the sacred mountain and also undermine farming, fishing and tourism, western Ireland's economic pillars.
Mining, they say, would destroy one of the cleanest and most striking places in Europe. Cyanide runoff could poison the crystalline waterways of Mayo and Galway counties and kill the foxes, ferrets, badgers, rabbits, fish, seals and hundreds of species of birds that live in one of Europe's last remaining areas of blanket bogland.
'Balance Has to Be Struck'
"Sometimes a balance has to be struck between beauty and material gain," wrote Joseph Cassidy, Archbishop of Tuam in a recent letter in the Irish Times.
"Beautiful places are gifts from God," he wrote. "As such, it is not just a local preserve, but a national, even international, inheritance."
Emer Colleran, chairman of Ireland's national trust, is concerned about the future of a valley and lake, well known to local salmon fishermen, called Doolough where the British company Andaman Resources and Glencar Explorations of Ireland have found gold.
"It is one of Ireland's major treasures," she said. "It is remote, untouched, a wilderness like you rarely find anymore, without a telephone pole or any other sign of human activity.
"The lake looks black on gray days and it is quite magically gloomy and dark. When the sun shines, it is absolutely transformed with the lake a sapphire blue against the soft brown mountains," she said.
'Source of Economic Growth'
Although she does not oppose mining in general, she would like Doolough declared a national park.
Eddie Phelan, a Department of Energy spokesman, said: "The government is committed to the active investigation of the country's mineral potential and the development of commercial ore . . . subject to environmental safeguards, as an important source of economic growth and employment opportunity."
The companies say they understand local concerns, but accuse outsiders of misrepresenting their plans.
"Everyone says the environment is very important and we agree," said Michael Murphy, chairman of Birman Mining, the company licensed to prospect on Croagh Patrick. "Mining and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive."