Mr. Seamus Walsh
-The true story of A Miner- 



John Delaney (left) and Seamus Walsh
 Working with a coal cutter in an area with a roof space of less than 2 ft.

Seamus is the Author of  " In The Shadow Of The Comer Mines"

This is his Story

In The Shadow Of The Comer Mines.

My 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.

This 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.

An 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 death.

So the miner looks under the great devil earth, he too has been in touch and is unable to forget.

So I journeyed out those few miles from Castlecomer along the Clogh Road to the grave of the Deerpark Mine.

Not 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.

I 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, his big brown eyes filled with care hoping another day or night, would pass without any accidents, for he carried a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. I  hear big Paddy Power and Jack Brennan, (goading each other about how about big or small they were (and not from head to toe). I  hear the loud call of the buzzer as it called the men to work; the buzzer (or hooter) would blow in the morning, lunchtime and evening. The buzzer also sounded, when there was a bad accident, or death in the Mine. If it was a death the buzzer would blow for 15 minutes at a time. When mining families would hear the buzzer blowing for that length of time, the panic and fright would set in . The rattle of donkey's and ponies as they make there way up the yard, accompanied by those great "car men" to draw coal to Kilkenny, and neighbouring counties.

I  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. Looking down the tunnel hill you'd think I  had extra vision in my eyes, for I can see the Miners walking down the drift, and then slowly disappearing out of sight.

I  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.

Coal 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 in order to allow free circulation of air. When this was complete, miners went down the shaft in a kind of bucket shaped box, lowered down to the coal face over 100 feet below. You wouldn't want to be afraid of the dark on your lonely travel to the coal face!

          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.

About 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 Kilkenny.

At 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 after 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 evening.

          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 union proposed to the company that the miners should be getting some form of ration of coal. But the company did not want to know anything about rations or concessions, because, if rations were given to the miners, the company would be at a loss of 100 tons of coal a-month ,or roughly a half days production. The company often dropped the miners down to half time on the basis, that there was no sale for the coal. Sometimes coal would be stock piled in the pit yard and it was felt at the time by the union, that some free coal would have been a good will move on behalf of the company and would not have unduly damaged the company's financial standing.

          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

O' 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

            There were plenty more strikes in the Deerpark, some which were very bitter indeed. The eleven-month strike started in March 1949 and lasted until 14th February 1950. As far as I know, it was one of the longest strikes to ever take place in this country. During this long strike miners worked with farmers on the bog, in other pits like Rossmore,  Hollypark and Ballingarry, and they had to take whatever was going to keep food on the table for their families. I was only 14yrs when I started in the mine. I worked on the “landing” for a few weeks, then went down in the mine. Moneenroe national school were in the under14 county football final in 1959. I was young enough to play for the team that played against Thomastown so I believe I set a record here in being the first miner to play under-14 football! I would say my early years were happy enough in the mine, although 1 worked very hard for little money- six days per week for £2 from 8.00am until 5.30p.m. I remember bringing home my first pay package to my mother and it not even opened, feeling a great sense of pride being a wage earner. I remember going to the pictures in Moneenroe with black eyes from the pit, my baths key stuffed in my breast pocket to let everyone know, yes I was a miner. A lot of young lads my age would be working in the mine. It was the thing to do at the time, for the miner's rule was to follow in your fathers footsteps, to go down in the mine and be proud to do so.

          I often sat in an empty round of trams going down the main drift to the depths of the mine, it was a lovely feeling with the boxes going from side to side and giving this special click on passing over each joint on the tram rails. It was a very dangerous thing to do, for it was illegal to travel on any haulage road  whilst the rope was in motion. If you were seen travelling on the trams, you would be in danger of getting the sack.

          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.

Rats 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’ Disease".

          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 notice. They knew the mine wasn't going well.  A week's notice wasn’t a lot to get especially as three hundred years of mining was coming to a sad end. I will never forget walking down Kilkenny Street in Castlecomer sometime in February 1969, seeing two hundred white-faced miners lined up outside the dole office, signing on for the very first time. I felt very sorry for my fellow miners, the humiliation these great men were enduring, not alone did they lose their jobs, but their way of life was gone forever. Three hundred years of mining in Castlecomer was now gone, it was truly a sad, sad day for all the miners.

The last efforts by the management and union to save the Castlecomer Collieries from closure were in vain in spite of many trips from Castlecomer to Leinster House. The mines closed down on the 31st January 1969, ending a long association of mining tradition in Castlecomer going back over three hundred years.

  Friday night, the 23rd. of July 1999 was a very special night for my family and I and especially for the miners. I had a launch of a mining book in the community hall in Castlecomer (In the Shadow of the Mines) is the name of the book, started by my late father over thirty years ago. I finished the book and it took me five years to complete.  It's a true story all about the miner's struggle for their rights, the strikes, the good times and the bad.

The 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 Castlecomer.

(The 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.

  1. Mr. Michael Nolan

  2. Mr. Michael Doogue
  3. Mr. Gerry Holden

  4. Mr. Tom Brennan

  5. Mr. Michael Farrell


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