-The true story of A Miner-
John Delaney (left) and Seamus
Seamus is the Author of " In The Shadow Of The Comer Mines"
This is his Story
The Shadow Of The Comer Mines.
name is Seamus Walsh, from Castlecomer, formally of the Old-road
Moneenroe- you could say the heart of the coal mining area of Leinster.
All my family worked in the Mines. my father worked there all his life as well as my brothers, PJ and Liam and two of my brothers in law Danny Shalloe and John Delaney.
is a true story about a mining family, trying to survive in Moneenroe
nearly forty years ago. Why is there a yearning to go back, to what is
long gone, is it perhaps because part of you, your family, your friends,
men you worked with, laughed and cried with are permanently fossilised '
in the seam of your memory, a seam that is ancient and gone forever, as
that which was plunged, from the depths of the Deerpark Mines.
old fisherman looks out to the great mother ocean, not able anymore to
cast his net, yet, those eyes know he has been in touch with life and
the miner looks under the great devil earth, he too has been in touch
and is unable to forget.
I journeyed out those few miles from Castlecomer along the Clogh Road to
the grave of the Deerpark Mine.
a sinner or soul in sight, but there is a touching here, a slow
unfolding, and gathering, as the bones of the dead
are fleshed with remembering.
sit down on a block of stone, and recall all the men and boys who walked
to those famous Bath-Doors, I hear them talking and laughing and see the
miners stitching their clothes, and smell the strong aroma of "
Jiffitex"- the new revolution in clothes mending. I
hear the voices of miners singing, and I
hear the crying of mothers, wives, and girlfriends, when loved
ones failed to come home.
I see my father sitting on
a stool , getting ready to go down in the Mine,
hear the noise of the machinery on the land breaker, the washer,
and the screens all-keeping time as they grade the coal for the market.
I rise and walk around the park yard, knowing that beneath my feet, lie
the trapped echoes of another time, a feeling of loneliness filters
through me for, a lot of the men I worked with are now dead and gone,
yet their eyes smile out at me through their noble blackened faces.
I'm up at the mouth of the tunnel now, I
see the wall built up by my father all those years ago. It's very
silent up here but listening carefully I can hear the noise of the pit
below singing back to me, the screeching of the wheels crying out for
the grease, as they carry the big endless rope round and round, while it
carries it's load of coal and stone up to the surface. I
hear the thunder of the empty trams as they make their way down
to the “Big Flat” about three hundred yards below.
know this is no ordinary place for these were extraordinary men,
working in awful conditions working deep down in the bowels of the earth
in dirty wet and narrow confines, dark and dangerous for you'd never
know the minute your life would be taken away from you. Only a few yards
from the mouth of the tunnel I see
where the new shaft was built, this was supposed to be the latest
innovation in mining. It was installed by British mining engineers and
proved to be a waste of money, for it seemed the correct site for such a
shaft should have been two miles away in Loon. Though beautifully
constructed it had to be filled in for safety reasons. A lot of work
went into the sinking of the shaft and a lot more to the filling up of
it. In 1970, it was
christened –“The New Shaft" and that's the way it remained.
has been mined in the Castlecomer area since the early 17th century,
Thomas Wenworth-Head Deputy of Ireland and later to become Lord
Lieutenant and Earl of Strafford invited Christopher Wandesforde, a
gentleman farmer from Yorkshire to Ireland. Wandesforde was made master
of the rolls and was granted a large estate in the Castlecomer area.
When the Earl of Strafford was later tried for high treason and
executed, Wandesford became Lord Deputy for a while. After his death the
land that fell to Wandesforde included the Castlecomer coalfields.
Castlecomer is at the heart of the Leinster coalfield, it took
over the most part of North Kilkenny and also extended into Laois and
Carlow. Nearly all the coal around here is
anthracite with the depths of the seams varying, but most seams
would be only 18 inches high. There was no gas in the mines around
Castlecomer, so in the early times candles were used, stuck in balls of
clay and in later years carbide lamps were used and I
can still smell the carbide even though the pit is closed over
thirty years. The first seam opened by Wandesford was called” The Old
Three Foot" extending from eight to ten square miles, at depths
varying from fifty to one hundred and fifty feet. This method of mining
was to last for nearly one hundred and fifty years. It was estimated in
1875 by a mining engineer called Robert Meadows, that it had produced as
much as 15 million tonnes of coal (that is a huge amount of coal).
The old three-foot seam produced the famous Castlecomer coal,
which was of very high quality- free burning with very low sulphur
content. This seam extended
from Coolbawn to Crettyard and was worked for many years. The
mining method used at the time was called “Bells-pits”. Two shafts
were sunk about fifty yards apart and
were joined by an underground tunnel
The miners would stay down in the mine for up to 8 hours at a
time, digging out the coal from one shaft to another. Explosives were not use at this
time so the coal had to be dug out by hand with picks and wedges. All
big coal would be broken by hammers and wedges for easy loading.
the time of the outbreak of the First World War another seam was
discovered in Skehana. The seam was fairly high in places, sometimes
reaching two feet three inches in height, containing a high quality
coal. The Skehana seam worked it's way down to the famous Deerpark
Mines, which opened in 1924. This coal proved to be of very high quality
and was regarded as being the best coal in Europe. By the early 1930’s
there were five major pits in theCastlecomer coalfield.The
“Jarrow" in Clooneen, the “Rock" in Monteen the “Vera”
the “Deerpark" and “Skehana”.
Captain Wandesforde, had great interest in the mines and carried
out considerable expansions and improvements. He had an overhead ropeway
constructed, connecting all the mines so that all coal could be brought
to the Deerpark Colliery from where it would be transported by rail to
any rate regardless of improvements he was withdrawn and reserved and
regarded by the men as stern and hard. Most of the miners in the 1920's
saw him as their lord and master determining salaries and conditions.
Instead the Wandesford family boasted of not yielding to pressure,
strikes, or conflict of any type. But in the late 1920's and early
thirties there was a lot of unrest about housing, looking for better
conditions in the pit and somewhere to wash because at that time there
were no baths at the mine. After working all day, or night in the mine,
the miners would have to wear their dirty pit clothes home to Moneenroe
and in the winter when there was heavy frost or snow, the clothes would
actually freeze on the men's backs. It really was a tough way of life.
Miners were tough men- they had to be to work in those conditions!
My late father often told me that in their house in the Old road
Moneenroe, where there were
nine brothers and one sister, and next door the Geoghegan family, where
there were also nine brothers and one sister, had between them the
making of a great football team with subs as well as that! All the men
of both families worked in the mines. When the lads came home from work
with their dirty pit clothes on, they would all wash out in the shed at
the back of the house. When
the lads were finished washing themselves their mother would rinse the
heavy dirt off their clothes and bring them into the house with it's big
open fire and two very large hobs. Their clothes would be stacked all
around the fire and some up the chimney to get them dry for the next
days work and at 6.30 the next morning, the lads would grab their
clothes, go out into the yard and bang them off the gable-end of the
house to knock the stiffness out of them. Then they'd get their piece-box(or
lunchbox) and cold bottle of red tea and head up the old road to
Timberoe and go across the Spring Beam Bridge over the river Deen. In
the winter it was bad when the rains came, for it would mean whether
walking or cycling (if you had a bike), when you reached the pit your
clothes would be drenched and you’d have to wear the wet clothes all
day, which wasn’t very pleasant, but, that's the way it was- hardship
In the early thirties the miners were talking about starting a
union in the Deerpark which did not go down well with the mining
company. All they wanted was work, work, work and profit. The clergy in
Moneenroe got news of the union too and again were not pleased with the
idea. When Nixie Boran along with Paddy Carroll and my uncle's Jimmy and
Tom Walsh, formed a branch of the revolutionary workers group, the
miners were invited to send a delegate to the Congress of the Red
International of Labour Unions held in Moscow. Nixie Boran was selected
but was refused a visa by the Government, however he was smuggled out of
the country on a ship containing a cargo of cement and succeeded in
reaching Russia where he stayed for about three months. On his arrival
home the bus on which he was travelling was stopped in Crettyard, and
was boarded by a sergeant and two guards. They took him to the local
barracks at Massford for questioning. He was interrogated about his
visit to Russia and how he got there but he refused to talk to them. The
miners had gathered in their droves outside the barracks and when he
emerged he was cheered and applauded and escorted home in a manner fit
for a hero.
On the following Sunday morning ,the parish priest of Clogh,
preached from the pulpit during mass condemning communism in Moneenroe
and referred to Nixie and his now famous trip to Russia as being
financed by red gold. In the weeks that followed, the priest visited the
schools in Moneenroe and Clogh and spoke to the children about the evils
of Russian Communism. Just imagine how the children felt shaking in
their boots with this man shouting at them. The following Sunday Nixie
held a meeting in his native Moneenroe where he gave a detailed account
of what he saw and learned in Russia. From then on, Nixie devoted his
time and energy to the foundation of a miner's union. The union was
launched on 30th November 1930 in Moneenroe - the heart of
the mining district. Nixie wrote regularly in the "Workers Voice'
on the working and living conditions of miners living in the area. In
Timberoe for instance, some miners were living in wooden huts with sheet
iron roofs that were full of holes. The inside walls were plastered with
mud to keep some heat in the house but when it rained the water would
come in through the roof, and washed the mud all over the floor. It goes
without saying, that this was none too pleasant on a cold wet winters
Miners were not getting any ration of coal at this time. The fuel
they used was cannels and homemade bombs. Cannels was a stone with some
coal running through it and had to be broken into small pieces for
burning. The homemade bombs were made from culm bought for three-pence a
hundred weight. This is where
the women came into their own as they were the experts at making the
culm bombs. It was known in the Castlecomer area as “dancing” a
batch of culm. You would get a hundred weight of culm (or fine dust),
yellow clay and water sprinkled with a little lime, to hold them
together. The dance would start and last about 15-20 minutes. I can see
my mother now, in a big pair of Wellington boots singing as she
made the bombs, a woman like so many of her generation adapting
as best she could to the tough times that prevailed. But change would
have to come, for people deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity
for the work they did. The miners were starting to get uneasy and the
mine and quarry
In the autumn of 1932, things were bad at the colliery with the
management claiming that there was no sale for the coal that was piled
high in the pit yard while miners continued to work a two day week. The
trammers threatened to strike unless there was a wage increase of three
pence a ton and Nixie handed in notice to this effect.
Around this time there was an increase in union membership and
the men were getting very uneasy, however, the company reacted by
ignoring the strike threat and made no offers to the miners. Nixie wrote
that there was widespread discontent and that the trammers were
especially unhappy. He also claimed that the rates in the Jarrow and
Skehana mines fell well short of what they were looking for. The company
continued to ignore the unions threats and demands and on October 17th
1932 an all out strike of the four hundred miners came about, the strike
began with a militant flourish, but soon the men and their families were
in difficulties because the union had no funds and by the third week the
strikers were feeling the pressure. Local shopkeepers were canvassed for
food and money and collectors were sent out to look for and organise
support. Peadar O' Donnell, approached some of the bakeries in Dublin
and two carloads of bread were delivered to the miners.
The Dublin Trades Council on the other hand refused assistance
because the union was not affiliated to congress. In an attempt to
settle the dispute, the Department of Industry and Commerce, invited
Nixie and other mining leaders, to a meeting in Dublin. The Department
officials suggested a return to work pending a conference of all
concerned. The strike committee would not agree to this and no agreement
was reached. Peadar
Donnell urged support for the strikers at street meetings in Dublin. The
strike committee appealed to the nations newspapers for awareness and
help. The strikers were said to be fighting in their bare feet and
further appeals were made to workers and republicans to support them.
Writing in "An Phoblacht', Peadar O'Donnell said that four hundred
Irish families had been flung out on the scrap heap, crying out for
help. The men in their sixth week of strike were without food and money.
The Government sent in two mediators, which consisted of the Labour T.
D.Mr. Gavin and Fianna Fail
T.D. Mr. Gibbons.
From the discussions that followed with both sides in the dispute, two resolutions arose and were put to the striking miners. The first which was defeated, was that the men would return to work pending a conference. The second which was carried, was that there would be no return to work without some agreed increase in tonnage rates. After further discussions the company offered an increase of a half penny in tonnage rates. This offer was put to the men and was accepted- the strike was over! The union leaders boasted of the miner's glorious victory when there was in fact very little glory. The strikers had been brought to their knees through lack of funds and were glad to get back to work with a small bit of dignity. The strike however, had some very important long-term effects. It had brought miners closer together to form a bond that would last until the pit closed down in 1969. Flushed with success as they saw it, and with this new- found confidence, the union committee began to discuss the building of a workers hall as, during the strike they had to hold their meetings in the open air. The miners were very angry at the fact that they contributed to the building fund of the school and new church in Moneenroe, which had been officially opened by the Bishop Dr. Collier two years previously. They were determined that in the future, they would not be dependant on the clergy for a meeting place. This angered the clergy very much but the miners were determined to continue with their struggle for their rights. Even when Fr. Cavanagh was transferred to Kilkenny, he still spoke out against the miners but he wasn't working underground in a dark hole
I often sat in an empty round of trams going down the main drift to
There were many very bad accidents in the Deerpark mine, hundreds
of men were maimed, and scared for life, fourteen people at most lost
their lives in the mine, and many more died on the account of the injuries
they received. The first man to get killed in the mine was Martin Brennan,
of Gazebo , Moneenroe in the early 193O's.
Joe Brennan (Durrick) commonly known as Bosy was hit by a wagon in
the yard and he wasn't even working in the mine, he was just over from the
Old road Moneenroe getting a ration of coal for his parents, when he was
killed. A lot of these men
who were badly hurt never
returned to work the coal again, the compensation they received was very
little £4-10 shillings a week even if you had 10 children or none at all
you would still get the same amount.
Ned Kelly from the Old Road Moneenroe was the last to be killed in
the Deerpark mine, he was just a few months short of his 16th.
birthday and 1 remember it as if it was yesterday. It was the 1st.
day of April 1960 late on a Friday afternoon. We were getting dressed to
go home when news came filtering through that there was a bad accident
down in the mine. I can still picture the miners faces, the shock and
worry in their eyes as if to say "oh no, not again, it can't be
true" but it was true, as Johnny Brennan (Jingler), came running down
the baths floor, and told us the dreadful news about poor Ned Kelly. Ned
was caught in the face engine, in a place called the fault about two miles
from the mouth of the tunnel. I raced home to tell my mother as she was
very friendly with Mrs. Kelly (Ned's mother).
When she heard the news, she just froze and thought it was an April
fools joke but when she saw Fr. Lougry come into the yard her screams will
remain with me forever.
A doom and despair born of a sense of helplessness, for we all knew
the dangers of mining, but had to live in a certain sense of denial in
order to keep going and it was traditional for all Deerpark miners not to
return to work until the man or boy was laid to rest.
were a big problem in the pit too, they were bigger than the rats you
would see on the surface, you could not leave your lunch down, or they
would eat it upon you, that's why the miners always had peace-boxes to
hold their lunches. There was plenty of clear spring water down in the
mine but it was too dangerous to drink, for the rats would have urinated
in it and you could easily pick up that fatal disease known as "Weils’
Miners also suffered a lot with bad chests especially those who had
been working on the coal face for many years, the disease conceived from
these conditions, was known as "Pneumoconiosis", the bane of
coalminers lives. Pneumoconiosis was not made an industrial disease until
1971, too late for a lot of miners who were dead and gone.
When the mines closed down in 1969 the miners got just one weeks
The last efforts by the management and union to save the
Friday night, the 23rd. of July 1999 was a very special
night for my family
miners were great men, I was proud to be a miner, and a miner's son. It
was in the blood, and you could do nothing about it.
In the Shadow of the Mines is on sale in Castlecomer, and Kilkenny
or from myself in Castlecomer, at 056-41504.
It's a good read, a study of mining, and social history of
miners really were a breed apart), so with the help of my book “In the
Shadow of the Mines”, the great Deerpark Miners will never be forgotten.
Mr. Michael Nolan
Mr. Gerry Holden
Mr. Tom Brennan
Mr. Michael Farrell