As part of a wider industrial heritage programme for Mid and East Antrim Council, we have been busy developing an interpretative strategy for community-based Industrial Heritage tours helping them tell the story of their past. It has been an exciting journey back into an almost forgotten era when the Industrial Revolution came to local villages and the hills of rural County Antrim.

As Britain became industrialised the hunt for iron, coal and other minerals led to something like a local ‘gold rush’ with mining towns springing up and railways being laid across the country. This flurry of activity was matched in local villages with new technology driving mills and factories processing textiles and other raw materials. Today as we see the remains of this industrial heritage it is hard to appreciate the sheer scale and impact of it on local communities and the environment. Part of our interpretative work has been to understand the positive and negative impacts of this industrial past and we have been working closely with local communities helping them reflect on this Industrial past. Local villages like Broughshane and Cargan are very much products of their industrial past, but for younger residents, it is a very distant past and hard to understand.

Other stakeholders we are working with include the Woodland Trust, whose Millenium Wood at Cargan will hist a number of interpretative panels. For them, the extraction industries of the past represent an example of how the environment is impacted and scarred. their work has brought life and wildlife back to the area. The project shows the balance that needs to be struck when telling a story of the past, and how different groups have different perspectives.  For some mining was a symbol of progress and brought much-needed employment and prosperity off-setting the impact of the famine and stemming local emigration which could have killed local communities, for others it was an industry that exploited local people and local resources.

Our original research approach of putting faces to the past and looking at ‘the men behind the mines’ exposed just how contentious some of these figures still are in the local area. The male-dominated world of mining can also be a difficult picture to a modern reader, but more particularly some of the key protagonists, namely the Benn family still divide opinion. While money made in local mining was spent in philanthropic and charitable causes in Belfast where they are remembered fondly the same was not the case in Cargan. Just as councils and public bodies across Britain, are wrestling with historic figures who divide opinion our research has to navigate this contested issue.

We have seen statues torn down and legacies questioned as we all begin to realise that men and women we have remembered in one way are often more complex and contentious when their entire life is explored. In this project, we soon realised that as landlords and mine owners the Benns had become a byword locally for oppression and exploitation. In fact some sources likened then to the plantation and slave owners presently being exposed, therefore what began as a ‘run of the mill’ industrial heritage project if you pardon the pun became very much more complicated and contested.  It is at this point our guiding principles, of sound research, integrity and courage when dealing difficult pasts; along with working closely with local communities, custodians and champions of the history in question, came in handy.

Our aim is always to make out interpretation an exciting and education blend of story and history and to tell it well. Denial of difficult facts, or the airbrushing of unpalatable pasts is not the answer, so we hope we have presented a balanced, honest informative narrative which stimulates the reader to think and to reach their own conclusions.

We would like to thank all those who have been working with us, sharing not only their knowledge but also their passion for the past. We have been spoilt for choice when it comes to local history and out only regret is the rather limiting word count we are restricted to. Telling a 300-year-old story in 300 words is always a challenge, but hopefully, we can convey the essence of this remarkable period. Special thanks to Glenravel Historical Society and Dominic O’Loan for their valuable local input, as well as Felix McKillop and Kevin O’Hagan whose local histories were invaluable. We simply cannot get enough of local knowledge and would commend their two books ‘Along the Ravel and Clough Water’ and ‘The Mountains of Iron’ to anyone looking to learn more. A more recent and less local book Glenarriff Mines Railways and Pier The Rise and Fall of a Victorian Enterprise by Steve Flanders also sets the scene well.