Mr. Tom Brennan (roe)
An Old Miner tells  his story

   

Tom Brennan (Roe) R.I.P. in an interview taken a few years before his death

TOM BRENNAN (Roe) is as much a coal miner today as he was 50 years ago when he began work at the coal face in the Deerpark Colliery at the tender age of 14.

      Despite the fact that he is now retired and he has not worked in a mine for 19 years, Tom still retains his passion for mining.  It takes just a few simple questions about mining to ignite that passion and to have it blazing.  Stories about the good old days trip off his tongue.  The people, the crack, the camaraderie, the hard work.

    It's a fiery passion that plays down the cramped, dangerous conditions more than 700 feet under the ground where he spent almost all of his working life.

    To an outsider who is not bitten by the mining bug, Tom's 32 years as a miner sound like hell on earth.  From day one he worked at the coal face, lying on his side in a space just 18 inches high giving him just enough room to swing his pick at the narrow coal seam.

    In addition to the cramped conditions, there was the heat.  The very physical work and the shortage of air at times, deep in the mine, meant it got very hot for the miners, who used to work in just their trousers and vests.

    In 1951 the picks were replaced by coal cutters, and with the new machinery came the dust which resulted in the premature deaths of so many miners.  At times it was so thick at the coal face that you would not be able to see a 100 watt bulb nearby.

    And of course, at all times there was the danger.  At any time the rock roof above you could come crashing down.  Your safety depended on your skill in putting in wooden props to support the roof over the area you were working in.

    A deep rumbling noise like a heavy underground thunder was often a sign that a collapse was about to occur.  But, then again it was also often a false alarm.  And because the miners were paid by the amount of ore they mined, some took the risk of continuing to work on when the rumblings came, rather than rushing out of the area for a false alarm when they could be mining.

   Come the winter and the miners would only see daylight at the weekends.  It would be dark when they entered the mine in the morning and it would be dark by the time they emerged in the evening.

    But when you have Tom's passion for mining, you don't view the job the same way.  He can honestly put his hand on his heart and say he enjoyed his 27 years at the Deerpark and his five years in Ballingarry.

    "It's not the same when you are reared with it" he explained.  "You are born into it like any other trade".

     When he reflects on his life mining, he doesn't dwell on the risks he took.  Instead,  he remembers his workmates.  "The crack we used to have was terrific" Tom remembers.  "They were terribly witty people and it was the crack that kept us going".

    "The friendship underground was second to none in any other employment.  We were a kind of family and if you were in trouble, I  would come to help you".

      The danger of the job was also balanced out by the fact that you had to be highly skilled as a miner in that part of the colliery.  "You needed more skill at that, than in any other job in the world. If you did not  know how to secure yourself, you would not last an hour".

       Young miners learned the skills from senior colliers who were usually family members.  In Tom's case he spent the first year working with his late brother, John.  The experienced miner would tap the rock over his head and know where the fractures and weaknesses were, and so where the supports were needed.

       But just because you were a skilled miner did not mean you could become complacent about the dangers.  In his 32 years mining, 12 men were killed at the Deerpark.  The figure is low for such a hazardous industry, but it conceals the large number of injuries suffered.

    Broken bones were common place, with arms and fingers being the most frequent complaint.  Tom himself broke his arm in three places when he was caught in a roof fall.

    But such dangers did not stop him dicing with death, when he heard the "thunder" warning sounds.  "When you saw the bits falling from the roof it was time to move out" he recalls.  "But I did gamble from time to time if it was not too big a rumble".

    Mining has been good to Tom, who lives at the Prince Ground, Castlecomer, with his wife Mary Ann.  He has six children.  He was a strong trade unionist at the Deerpark and worked alongside the late Nixie Boran when it came to Irish Transport & General Worker Union matters.

     "We were always battling for better conditions" he said, although they were better off than many other workers in similar occupations. They worked a 42   hour, five day week, and enjoyed such benefits as coal allowances.

       When the decision was made in 1965 to close the mine, on the grounds that it was no longer economically viable to extract the ore, the Union stepped in with their consultant, and it was re-opened after a three month break, with the aid of Government funding.

     But the writing was on the wall for the Deerpark Colliery.  It continued on until 1969 when the last piece of coal was mined in Castlecomer and a 300 year tradition came to an end.  The closure left the 300 miners and the town devastated.  Fortunately for Tom he had left the Deerpark in 1966 to take up a mining job in Ballingarry.  However a similar fate followed him there in 1971 when the mine closed and he was made redundant. He then worked for Avonmore for 12 years before retiring in 1987.

    But Tom's mining passion still lives on.  He is convinced that if the local mining industry had been nationalised the mines would still be open today.

    He had high hopes that the State would step in and nationalise the industry in the mid 1960s.  He had been part of a trade union delegation which had travelled to Dublin to meet the then Minister for Industry and Commerce,the late Jack Lynch.  The Minister had been sympathetic towards their case until the news broke that oil had been discovered in the North Sea.  The prospect of cheap British oil swung Lynch away from any possible programme to Nationalise and develop the Irish coal industry.

    With North Sea oil came the death knell for coal mining in Castlecomer.  Few have mourned its loss more than Tom Brennan. If the mines were to re-open in Castlecomer tomorrow morning it would take an army of strong men to prevent him from donning his hard hat and heading underground once more.

  1. Mr. Seamus Walsh

  2. Mr. Michael Nolan

  3. Mr. Michael Doogue
  4. Mr. Gerry Holden

  5. Mr. Michael Farrell

Miners

Home Page