UCD’s Crystal Cave by Dr Patrick Roycroft

UCD almost certainly possesses the last great ‘unknown’ mineral collection left in Ireland. While analogous collections in other colleges and national institutions have been catalogued, UCD’s national treasure has remained effectively terra incognita. Thousands of specimens have lain hidden from sight for decades: many are of museum grade, others have great historical significance to Irish science going back to the early 19th century. These minerals, however, are in a sad state of neglect and decay, which prompted the Heritage Council to recently fund a conservation project involving myself (a 1996 PhD geology graduate from UCD), Dr. Matthew Parkes (National Museum of Ireland {NMI}), and Prof. Stephen Daly (UCD School of Geological Sciences) to save the most endangered and most historical parts of this collection.

About two-thirds of the minerals reside inside of one of the metal shipping containers currently sitting in front of the School of Geological Sciences – the ‘cave’ of the title! For years, the minerals have suffered high humidity, high summer temperatures, low winter temperatures, and water damage due to leaks and condensation. All the specimens now need care; hundreds are in serious danger; and a minority have literally disintegrated in their trays.

This conservation project effectively started during the winter of 2013, the offshoot of a quite separate project. On a hunch, I had been searching the collection for an ultra-rare variety of quartz known as ‘cotterite’. After four hours in the cold, damp ‘cave’, and getting covered in rust and dirt, I found a hitherto completely unknown cotterite specimen: one of currently less than 20 in the world. In the process, I saw the general poor state of the mineral collection. So, in January 2014 – armed with international letters of support – I submitted a grant to the Heritage Council asking them to fund a major conservation project. And they did!

Over the summer and autumn of 2014 the serious conservation work will be done. The endangered parts of the collection will be transferred to the NMI’s storage and research facility at Beggars Bush (Dublin 4) for proper curation. This process will take at least until the end of November 2014. The specimens will still belong to UCD, but they will be safely cradled in the arms of the NMI for national posterity and access.

Hopefully, by the end of 2014, the great UCD mineral collection will take its rightful place alongside the other nationally important collections: available for research, public display and pure mineral enjoyment.