The story of the Irishman buried alive in Kilburn
In London in 1968, an Irish emigrant made international headlines trying to break the world record
As Mick closed in on the record, conspiracy theorists speculated if he was in the coffin the entire time. Or had he been escaping to the Lord Nelson pub at night?
Crowds gathered outside Keane’s lorry depot in Kilburn to watch the coffin being lowered into the ground. Photograph: Killorglin Archive Society
Mick Meaney was spoken about in the House of Commons in 1968. Sitting MPs leaned in from their benches to hear about the married father who was buried alive in Kilburn.
They heard the Tipperary man was trying to break the world record of 45 days entombed underground, which had been set by an American adventurer called Digger O’Dell.
They heard a charismatic Kerry publican called Butty Sugrue was promoting the stunt; that Mick communicated with the outside world through a pipe. The heavyweight boxing champion Henry Cooper visited his graveside, and the Irish tenor Jack Doyle sang as his coffin was lowered into the ground. The stunt had become a thing of international focus.
In the House of Commons in 1968, they wondered should they bring him up.
Longing for fame
In late summer this year, Mary Meaney opened the door of her Mitchelstown home and tentatively offered me a welcome. I was there to hear her story, for a radio documentary I was making for RTÉ (which airs tomorrow on RTÉ Radio 1 at 2pm) about her late father Mick.
Mary was a small child when her father took on the challenge of trying to make it into the Guinness Book of Records. Did her father ever tell her mother what he was planning to do?
“He knew the answer would have been NO!” she laughs. Her mother had found out through a radio report.
“She’d be stood out the front of the house smoking, waiting for her husband to come back from the world of the dead, as you would.”
Mary talked about her father’s inventive mind, and how he longed for a life of adventure beyond Mitchelstown and his birthplace of Ballyporeen. He had dreams of being a boxer. His hero was the iconic world champion Joe Louis, but a workplace accident left him with a hand-injury. Who knew he would find fame in a muddy trench?
“They called him the human JCB back then,” she says. “He could literally lift up a tree and throw it over his shoulder. Incredible strength. The strength of 10 men. But when he couldn’t become a boxer he said he’d find another way. As he said himself, being buried alive was all the rage at the time and I reckon he said: ‘I’ll do that, I’ll get into the Guinness Book of Records and I’ll be world famous.’
“All he had to work with really was his own belief and the faith that he would be alright. He took a chance.”
Everyone knew Butty Sugrue, “Ireland’s Strongest Man”, in Kilburn. He famously pulled a bus across Westminster Bridge with his teeth. He could lift a full barrel of beer up over his head and had made his name as a circus strongman. They said when he bought a new shirt he’d just pull the sleeves off it to make it fit.
Butty possessed physical charisma and had an eye for an opportunity. The type of person who could try and recreate Killorglin’s famous Puck Fair on the Killburn High Road; who four years later brought Muhammad Ali to Ireland.
In 1968, in a pub lounge in Kilburn, Butty fell into conversation with Mick Keane from Cork. The Kerry man needed a site to bury Mick Meaney, and Keane’s lorry depot was just the place.
The Ballyporeen builder had already begun his preparations. He was sleeping in a coffin laid out upstairs in The Admiral Lord Nelson pub, which belonged to Butty. He dug his own grave and in a clever stroke of publicity, Butty organised a Last Supper and invited the Press.
When the time came, Mick was sealed into an oversized coffin and passed out a window of the pub and onto the back of a flatbed lorry. Kilburn was teaming with thousands of curious spectators, who followed Keane’s lorry to the burial site.
At the same time and on the other side of the Atlantic, the American “Country Bill White” was preparing to be buried also. The BBC organised a satellite link-up in order to interview both men.
Meaney bedded down for the challenge, and the days took on a surreal rhythm. He’d wake in the morning at 7am in time for Butty to direct a series of exercises. Newspapers and breakfast were then passed down through a pipe. The toilet took the form of a hatch on the base of the coffin which opened onto bags of lime. A stream of people queued throughout the day to talk to Meaney down the pipe.
But if there was joy in the challenge there was danger too. Enough to turn the subject of Mick’s safety into a discussion in the House of Commons.
As Mick closed in on the record, conspiracy theorists speculated if he was in the coffin the entire time. Or was he escaping to the Lord Nelson pub at night?
“He was in there the whole time,” says David Keane. “I can tell you that because I was there the day he was dug up and it was chaos, just this extraordinary thing.”
Mary remembers her father returning home from London. She saw him walking towards the family home and he lifted her high into the sky. He had been promised a pot of money and a world tour if he broke the record. Neither materialised. And while his feat was recognised as far away as Germany, his daughter says the Guinness Book of Records failed to acknowledge his achievement - 61 days buried alive in Kilburn.
“He was a very contented man,” she said. “He loved his family and his job at the council but a part of him forever stayed buried alive in Kilburn. Once he tasted world fame like that he couldn’t let it go.”
Documentary on One: Mick Meaney - Buried Alive airs on RTE Radio 1 at 2pm on Saturday December 12th, and will be available to podcast at rte.ie/radio1/doconone. It is produced by London-based Irish journalist Robert Mulhern @MulhernRobert