Glenmalure, Glendalough and Glendasan, three stunningly beautiful valleys in Co Wicklow are widely known for their rugged remoteness and monastic heritage but not for the mining industry that thrived among these mountains.
I’ve lived and written poetry here for over 20 years but it wasn’t until I heard about a local community group developing a long-distance path linking six disused mining sites across the three valleys that I found myself drawn to the stories behind the rusted machinery, tumbling buildings, derelict shafts and half-hidden entrances to tunnels.
An afternoon with a former miner, Robbie Carter, led to the first poem in a sequence responding to the distinctive natural and cultural heritage of the valleys.
Robbie began work in the mines at the age of 16 and almost 70 years later recalled with vivid detail the daily life of miners in the 1940s and ’50s. He was visibly moved when showing me a yellowed newspaper cutting from January 26th, 1957; a Wicklow People report of the inquest into the mining accident in which he was seriously injured and his cousin and workmate, James Mernagh, was killed. After the explosion Robbie never worked in the mines again but he dedicated much of his life to ensuring that the mines and the men who worked there are not forgotten.
I met another former miner on a sunny July morning in his home near Laragh. John Byrne took a small, faded brown envelope from his top pocket; his pay packet from 1955 with name and wages pencilled on the outside. He explained that apart from forestry work or farm labouring there was little local employment when he was young. The mines paid best and it was either that or take the boat to England.
“Two shillings an hour, that’s what I got for minding the pit ponies. I would have been paid half a crown an hour for work underground but I loved working with the ponies, it got me out in the air, out of the tunnel.” His stories inspired one of the eight poems in my Miners’ Way sequence, Pit Ponies of Glendasan. Sadly John Byrne died a few months after our conversation.
While learning about mining in the valleys, I began work with independent radio producer Claire Cunningham to make a poetry programme for BBC Radio 4. InThe Miners’ Way I walk the 19km path, meeting neighbours along the way: local historian Carmel O’Toole shows me one of the old mining buildings, the Crushing House in Glenmalure, farmer Pat Dunne tells me how sheep farming in the valleys has changed over the years and mountain leader Charles O’Byrne explains the geology of these U-shaped glacial valleys and highlights today’s flora and fauna. Robbie Carter is at the heart of the programme with his moving story of the explosion that brought the long history of mining in the three valleys to a close.
Glens of Lead, a community group dedicated to preserving and highlighting the local mining heritage, kindly gave me access to the transcripts of 10 interviews with former miners and their families recorded in 2012. One man spoke about what happened if they were overcome by gas when the gelignite exploded in a tunnel. “ …It happened to me a number of times, you were put into a wagon, wheeled to the outside, dumped out and left there to come to. The person who brought you out went back in to work. Fresh air was your medicine.”
Further incidental details expose the abysmal standards of health and safety. The only protective clothing provided was a helmet. When it rained the men had lunch in the gelignite shed. After a day underground they would hang their soaked clothes in the same shed. The next morning the white mud would have set like cement and as Robbie Carter put it: “the garment could stand on its own.”
Despite the poor working conditions and constant sense of danger, the men shared a nostalgia for their years as miners. They recalled that on a bitterly cold winter’s day in the valley it was a relief to walk into the warmth of the tunnel, where it was never either too hot or too cold.
Robbie Carter spoke about feeling a kind of peace when working underground. He and the other miners reminisced about the comradeship among the men, the likes of which they never experienced again. They remembered men cycling up to 30 miles a day to get to work, the steel shovels that wore out after a week, the “Tunnel Tigers” tug of war team, the practical jokes they played on each other, the popular and fair-minded Scottish mines captain, Jock Steel, and most of all how the men stood by each other through hard times.
When the last of the mines closed in June 1957, five months after the fatal explosion, local mining families and the wider community grieved the loss of employment as well as a traditional way of life and a unique connection with the mountains.
Pit Ponies of Glendasan
By Jane Clarke
Hitched to an eight-hour shift
in britchens, hames and traces,
they follow the miners' carbide lights,
halt under hoppers, turn
on a thruppence and lean into their collars
to pull the five-wagon train.
Low-set cobs from the Curragh,
a piebald and two greys, their hooves
fall heavy as hammers on granite.
They haul lengths of larch for pit props,
pneumatic drills, boxes of gelignite,
and, from time to time, deliver
injured men back to daylight.
The miners pat their necks in passing
and feed them windfall apples;
comrades in toil and the first to stall,
legs locked at a sudden rumbling, a change
in the air or the rush of running water.
The Miners’ Way, produced by Claire Cunningham (Rockfinch Ltd), will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday, May 3rd, at 4.30pm and repeated on Saturday, May 9th, 2at 11.30pm. Jane Clarke’s second collection, When the Tree Falls (Bloodaxe Books), has been longlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize 2020, the annual award of £10,000 for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place. Jane Clarke’s debut The River was the first poetry collection ever to be shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize back in 2016.