Walk of the week: Arigna Miner's Way Co Roscommon
A crisp day after rain, with streaks of cloud over Lough Allen and the Iron Mountains. A sharp wind blew from Leitrim into Roscommon, streaming the smoke from the chimney at Arigna Fuels into long tatters, soon snatched away. I climbed the long lane from Derreenavoggy Bridge towards Kilronan Mountain, hunched far into my coat collar.
Two ladies came down the road, each bearing a bucket brimming with clear spring water. "Oh, we've tap water in the house all right," they chirruped, "but 'tis only for the washing. We'd never make the tea or boil the vegetables without the good water from the spring well!"
The lane levelled out and snaked along the hillside. Glancing over a gate, I made out a couple of shadowy stone chambers side by side under a bank, half smothered in ferns. Sweathouses! Good Lord, what our ancestors put up with before the advent of modern medicine. Why the country round Lough Allen should have been so well stocked with sweathouses, no-one seems to know. Sufferers from a broad range of maladies, from fevers and headaches to rheumatics and madness, were stripped and inserted into these tiny stone hutches, to cook and sweat in the roaring heat of a turf fire, before being extracted half-unconscious and plunged into an ice-cold stream. If it didn't kill you, it sometimes cured.
I left the lane and climbed a steep path of mud and stones to where another sweathouse loomed out of a bank. From here, green field paths and stony moorland tracks led me over moorland under a great round cairn topped with a beehive of stones at the ridge of Kilronan Mountain. A stop, a sit-down and a chance to gasp at the five-star view over Lough Allen and the twin lakes of Meelagh and Skean, with the long whaleback of Slieve Anierin beyond, the highest point of the Iron Mountains where iron ore was once extensively mined. But it was another kind of fuel entirely that made the name and fame of Arigna.
Soon, the blackened heaps of coal-mining spoil began to lump up beside the path. I snaked around between them, then plunged down the hillside to follow a lane to the extraordinary, futuristic buildings of the Arigna Mining Experience, canted at 45° and apparently sliding sideways into the ground. Many a former industry has rebranded its leisure-orientated ghost an 'Experience'. But the Arigna mine tour truly earns that title. From a superb display of photographs of grubby-faced miners I entered the mine itself in the company of Michael, a wonderfully humorous man with 30 years at the coal face behind him.
"Riddled with tunnels, the Arigna mine," he intoned, his voice echoing back from the rough-hewn walls. "A wet mine, too. We'd see stalactites of iron forming on the tunnel roof. Soda bread and cold sweet tea, that was it. You'd to lie on your side to pick and shovel the coal."
We tramped the eerie tunnels, hefted the solid weight of pickaxes and pneumatic drills, and marvelled at the vast 'Iron Man' coal-cutting machine that rendered both of the hand-wielded tools redundant. Back out in the sweet rainy air of Roscommon, everything smelled wonderful.
Down in the Miner's Bar by Derreenavoggy Bridge I stood with a pint of Guinness, looking at a display of mining memorabilia -- helmets, lamps, tokens, photos of tired, black-faced men. Michael's parting shot ran through my head: "It was very hard, tiring work, aye. But there was something about it that kept you down there -- kept you coming back to it. Mining got in your blood, I suppose. That was it."