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The Ballyshannon Unconformity
"Rocks from the Basement of Time"

I am a simple man. I lack the scientific knowledge to explain the simplest things. How an airplane weighing tons and tons can rise in the air, and how it can stay there, is a mystery. So are chromosomes, and cholesterol, and how my people can persuade thousands and thousand of tourists to come from all over the world and pay money to hang upside down to kiss a stone set in a wall.

Imagine my predicament when I attempt to understand that all my life I have been familiar with one of the greatest natural phenomena, not only in the world but in the very universe. Familiar in the sense that I have seen it, written about it, walked on and around it, carry it in my memory wherever I go, and have an affection for it that transcends nostalgia and the age old yearning of generations of exiles to see once again the land of their ancestors and all that it holds dear for them.

It is something I never heard of until a few short weeks ago. It is called--wait for it--the Ballyshannon Unconformity, and if the world wants to see it that’s where world must go, to the town of Ballyshannon in the County Donegal, Ireland.

What is the Ballyshannon Unconformity? It is the geological term given to a survivor from the far away past. How far away? Try 1,600,000,000 years ago. That’s 1.6 billion years, as a recent Internet correspondent so aptly dubbed it, "from the basement of time".

Regular readers of this home page know it has treated at length with the history, old and modern, of Ballyshannon and environs, the known history, the written history, the oral history, the history of legend, of myth, history at most dating back four, six, ten, or twelve thousand years, less than the blink of an eyelid compared to a geological history of o-n-e p-o-i-n-t s-i-x b-i-l-l-i-o-n years.

I can’t quite grasp a time span of 1.6 billion years. In scientific notation, I am informed, this is internationally written as 1.6Ga. Geologists and others may have no trouble placing it in context in the evolutionary history of the universe. The "Big Bang" theory espoused by certain physicists, derided by others, may satisfy some human minds and provide an explanation for geographical quirks such as the Ballyshannon Unconformity. But to me there must be more than that.

Using the resources at my disposal I turn to ways tried and true in past endeavours. When something is beyond my ken I look for inspiration to the wise of all ages, the poets. One beloved by students is the unknown monk who described how he spent his days and nights in company with Pangur Ban, his cat, Pangur hunting mice, the poet knowledge:

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
Instinctively I am led to the first, the most ancient of Ireland’s poets, Amergin the Milesian, renowned through the ages, mystic and prophet, to whose "Incantation" and "Triumph Song" obeisance and honour have been paid by all who have followed his path. His "Triumph Song" has echoes of the earliest beliefs and accepted wisdom of the many peoples who predate him.

It is always a pleasure to revisit his "Song". An earlier offering in this home page quoted these lines:

Who can lead to falling waters?
Who can tell the white Moon’s ages?
His answer:
I, the poet, prophet, pray’rful

We can interpret to our hearts’ content, but what were "the white Moon’s ages" that Amergin could tell? Another translation renders "tell" as "announce", conveying the cyclical waxing and waning of the moon, in other words a simple calendar. But there is no dispute with the "moon’s ages". Had its ages been revealed to the prophet, its geological ages?

Is there corroboration? Where does one find other "prophets, pray’rful"? They abound in the Bible which, to the faithful, is the revealed truth of the Creator, of Yahweh, of God.

Genesis, recounting primeval history, has the most powerful opening verse known to mankind:

"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wave swept over the waters."

Many, many attempts have been made to date the creation of the earth. A wishful attempt to place it a mere six thousand years ago, to conform to the Bible’s written texts, made by, among others, Archbishop James Ussher of the Established Church of Ireland, held sway until overtaken by the mass of scientific evidence to the contrary. Ussher claimed that God created heaven and earth on Saturday evening, October 22, 4004 BC.

Now it is held it occurred by spontaneous combustion over four billion years ago. This satisfies mortal intelligence, but leaves aside the more fundamental belief so graphically described by surviving descendants of the sun worshippers of the Old and New Worlds.

As revealed by a Canadian Indian elder: "They say we worship the sun. They are wrong. We worship what is behind the sun."

Given our predilection to interpret words as we ourselves use them—"when I use a word it means what I choose it to mean" (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)—what is behind the sun is the force that created the sun, the acknowledgment that there was/is a creator, not a happening without a happening maker. "May the force be with you" of the cinematic "Star Wars" is but a secular updating of "May God be with you", "Vaya con Dios", and our own "Dia dhiut".

And what has all this to do with the Ballyshannon Unconformity? It is that it is ("I am who I am") a marker, a geological milestone in the ongoing act of creation.

That still leaves me attempting to come to grips with the enormous stretch of time compassed in 1.6 billion years.

The rock below the dynamited and desecrated Falls of Assaroe, around the north side of the Cove and Inis Saimer, is now known to be 1.6 billion years old, older by far than the rocks in the Niagara Falls Gorge, in other terms as old as some of the rocks recovered at such expense from the surface of the moon.

Why fly to the moon when you can "saunter down the Mall" (Allingham) in Ballyshannon, and marvel in the knowledge that what you see is a natural phenomenon that is 1.6 billion years old? If this knowledge gets out, some local rock hound may make a million selling authenticated samples that, when kissed, may bestow no one knows what powers. After all, Pet Rocks were the rage not too long ago.

O-n-e p-o i-n-t s-i-x b-i-l-l-i-o-n years old.! Somewhere in our multi-layered, multi-dimensional universes, the Creator must be laughing.

For those of a scholarly bent, the Web site operated by the Irish Geological Survey is well worth a visit. Senior Geologist, Barry Long, very kindly found the time to provide the following information in reply to an e-mail query:

"Lower Carboniferous age rocks of the Ballyshannnon Limestone Formation lie unconformably upon Precambrian quartzo-feldspathic paragneisses (referred to as the Slishwood Division) seen in the Lough Derg inlier which extends in the southwest as far as Ballyshannon (and also seen in the northeastern Ox Mountains inlier, eastern Rosses Point inlier, and probably also the central Tyrone inlier. The basal portion of the Ballyshannon Limestone Formation comprises chiefly argillaceous limestones and calcareous shales of Chadian age.

"The age of the Precambrian paragneisses has been an ongoing problem. They were deposited as feldspathic (i.e. arkosic) sands most probably sometime since 1554 million years ago (based on their samarium-neodymium model age). The were recrystallized (i.e. metamorphosed) at extreme pressure and temperature in the eclogite facies at the base of a greatly thickened crust (minimum of 70 kilometres depth) approximately 600 million years ago, and thereafter at lower pressure and temperature durng the Grampian mountain forming event close to 470 million years ago. By approximately 400 million years ago they were at the surface. Chadian age Carboniferous rocks were deposited about 342 million years ago. Their history of deformation and metamorphism differs very substantially from that of other Precambrian rocks in the northern half of Ireland. In particular the timing of the eclogite facies metamorphism was such that it suggests the Slishwood Division rocks were nowhere near the northern half of Ireland at that time and were probably on the opposite side of the ancient Iapetus Ocean."

In reply to further queries, he has written that the best exposure of the unconformity was formerly to be seen in a roadside cutting on the north side of the road east of Ballyshannon near Assaroe Lake, adding that "in recent years this has become overgrown by briars and other vegetation and the rock itself no longer shows a clean fresh surface."

A final thought. Since much of Ballyshannon's natural heritage was destroyed by outsiders who cared nothing for the damage they wrought, before it too falls to the dynamiters and the cement pavers the Ballyshannon Unconformity should be designated a heritage site, a landscape in stone. There are many precedents world wide.

Tourists might then consider including the Ballyshannon Unconformity in their itineraries, free of charge, and free from the fear of being manhandled upside down.

A latter day Irish poet, James Mary Plunkett, has the last word on rocks and their Creator:

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice--and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

John Ward
February 2001

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