Beneath the Earth

When the Arigna coal mines closed in 1990, an era of Irish history closed with them

When the Arigna coal mines closed in 1990, an era of Irish history closed with them. In this excerpt from his new book, Brian Leyden describes the dangers of the eerie world the miners inhabited.

Daly, Lavin, Reynolds, Keegan, Cull, McManus, Early, McDermot . . . Names from the coal-face. Pitmen.

Gilrax McPartland, Flynn, Dooley, Cullen, Rynn, Tivnan, Guihen, Gaffney . . . Generation upon generation. A 300 strong father-and-son labour force, employed in the north Roscommon coalfields of Arigna.

A company coal lorry brought the coal-miners to and from work at the Rockhil, Derrinavoggy and Rover mines. More came on Honda 50 motorbikes. These "hair-dryers on wheels" were often without signal lights or a headlight, sometimes even without brakes.


One evening the white squad car stopped a Honda 50 with nothing on it, only the driver's brother. Both men raised their white eyeballs to the guard, their faces black with coal dust after a hard day working underground.

"Where are you coming from?" the guard asked.

"The bakery," the driver said.

Visitors to Arigna got a shock when they met these black-faced men on their way home. But coal-miners were cleaner than a lot of farmers; they had to have a bath every day. And the young lads with jobs in the mines always arrived at a dance spruced and gleaming with money aplenty in their pockets. Working in the coal-mines, you learned to rely on the man using the coal-cutting machine or the pickaxe alongside you. At break-time the miners might stuff photos of topless women in the pit bag of a young fella, knowing his pious mother would find them when she was getting his lunch ready the next day. Or the man who brought his lunch to work in a biscuit tin might find his lunchbox nailed to the floor.

But teamwork got the job done, and the mines generated a fierce closeness. It was an easy thing to spot the Arigna crowd together at the same table on a Saturday night out. When a new priest in the valley remarked at a dance in the parish hall: "There are very bad acoustics here", the pitman standing beside him bunched his fists and said: "I don't know who these acoustics are, but if they start any trouble here tonight, Father, they'll get the worst of it".


THE coal-mines were tiny by the standard of most industrialised countries. The men often had to lie on their backs in water, using a handpick or short-handled shovel to get at a thin seam of coal under a ledge of rock. It could be a three-mile walk to the coalface, followed by a day spent "rooting like a dog and sweating like a pig". You never saw a "styme" of daylight from the time you went underground that morning until you surfaced again that evening. And when the clocks changed back to winter time, pitmen went to work in the dark, worked all day in the dark and came home in the dark.

They spoke an underground language of "sumps" and "gobs", "peacetime", "hutches" and "clips", "bings" of slate and "bullets" of rock, "caps" for detonating "spats" of dynamite. They worked in teams: the miners working at the face cut coal alongside shovellers and drawers who took it out, and brushers who replaced the rock and slate to keep up the "roof" after the coal was removed. They were overseen by the firesmen who gave the orders. Monday was their day off. Tuesdays were rough.

The pitmen were under no illusions about their choice of career. As one coal-miner said: "The work was hard and the pay was small, and no matter how little you did, you earned it all". For most of their working lives the coal-miners in Arigna used carbide lamps. The rocks of carbide in the bottom chamber of these lamps released acetylene gas as the solids dissolved under the drop of water from the top chamber. Experienced pitmen had the control of these gas flames down to a fine art. A steady flame of light was vital. If you ran out of carbide underground you could end up stranded in total darkness. Men hid reserves of carbide in waterproof containers for emergency use, and when these private stashes got stolen they lit the darkness with curses.

At the pit entrance a red lamp burned night and day under a picture of the Sacred Heart. The coal-miners blessed themselves at this spot before they went underground. Strangers who visited the mines out of curiosity often found the experience of the mineshaft so frightening they never got "past the picture".

The coal in Arigna produced no explosive gas compared to English or Continental coal. But a job in the mines had its dangers. Falls of rock were a constant threat, and most of the time you worked alongside coal-cutting machinery in confined spaces in poor light. Every branch of every mine had its own noises and subterranean character, like a ward for the elderly at night. The sheet-rock shifted and the pillars propping up the weight overhead groaned and resettled. Water dripped. Voices echoed.

The compressed air passed your face like a disembodied whisper. And beyond the glow of the lamps the darkness was complete. It took steady nerves not to keep looking over your shoulder, working alone and immured in these black vaults under the mountain.

The older pitmen talked of seeing lights underground down empty branches of the mine where no one had set foot for many years. Seeing strange lights was an augury of misfortune. A more real but invisible danger was the "black damp". If you stumbled into a pocket of bad air, or the reek of poisonous fumes left behind after a blast, then you understood what the old miners meant when they spoke about the black damp. The only warning sign was a flickering flame as the carbide lamp began to fail from the lack of oxygen. If your lamp went out, all you could do was run as fast as your legs could carry you, keeping your head down to avoid the bullets of rock jutting from the low roof and hope to God the air up ahead might be breathable.

In spite of the dangers, fatal accidents were few and far between. But if you worked too close to dynamite and got caught by the blast, the fragments of blue-black debris stayed in your skin a lifetime. After a deep cut the slate and coal dust stayed in the scar, like route marks on a map of your days underground.

The temperature in the mines stayed constant. A cavernous still air that made you sweat when you worked, yet the minute you stopped, you were perished to the bone.

"It's hot behind the wheel," said a lorry driver to a coal-miner one summer's day.

"It's hotter behind four wheels," said the pitman, pushing a hutch loaded with coal back onto its rails.

There were feuds and disputes over the years and one prolonged and bitter strike that left the colliery workers without a wage over Christmas. But the real problem was the quality of the coal, which in real terms wasn't worth what it cost to mine.

The Arigna coal bought to supply the local power station at Lough Allen had to be heavily subsidised to compete with Welsh, English, Polish and American imports.

The coal reserves began to dwindle. The power-generating station at Lough Allen was at the end of its operating life. And the fate of the coal mines was sealed. At a packed meeting in the parish hall the matter of the miners' redundancy payments was settled. The coal mines closed in 1990. The power station shut three years later.


DESPITE the closure, the coal-mines maintained their curiosity value. And on a recent bank holiday weekend, a poster with a miner working at the coal-face appeared, announcing Arigna Mining Display, a three-day exhibition of coal-mining artefacts, photographs and videos.

On a set of folding screens in the body of the hall, scores of snapshots donated by the community were on display: the pitmen at their trade, together with family and school photographs. It was shocking to realise how many of the miners were dead.

And it felt as strange to be looking at hand-tools once commonly used by the miners now labelled and catalogued and displayed in glass-fronted cabinets. To see what had been essential in your lifetime become a museum piece.

People as they went around the exhibits gradually fell silent, almost a chapel-going hush. The pick-axes, carbide lamps and short-handled shovels, the implements of manual labour and coal-cutting machinery parts had an atmosphere, a power similar to holy relics.

Nobody was calling the pitmen saints. But the torn caps and pit helmets were laid out like vestments, with old account books and colliery receipts for sacred manuscripts. And the large-scale, professional black and white photographs, taken by Derek Speirs years before of the pitmen at their work, looked like industrial stations of the cross.

Images that froze and distanced the coal-miners from their lives. With a litany of names to recite: McLoughlin, Lynch, Woods, Wynne, Moran, Conway . . .

The Home Place, by Brian Leyden, is published by New Island Books at €13.99