Friday 20 September 2019

Sarah Carey: 'Coal mine trip has power to make you appreciate progress'

Blown away: The Seltanna-veeny Wind Farm near Arigna, Co Roscommon. Photo: Bloomberg
Blown away: The Seltanna-veeny Wind Farm near Arigna, Co Roscommon. Photo: Bloomberg

Sarah Carey

Pity those of us languishing in the midlands, deprived of sea views, for whom our address is just another signpost on someone's trip to the Atlantic coast. But I can't cast aspersions, because I do it too. For instance, I've passed that signpost to Arigna on the way to Co Sligo countless times. How often did I say "We should go there sometime - but not today" as we sail past thinking only of our destination.

But anxiety grows in me year after year that Ireland is full of historical and cultural gems off the national routes and I'll be dead before I see the half of them. So this year, on a quick trip to Rosses Point, I scheduled a pit-stop in the hills beyond Carrick-on-Shannon. Whatever was in Arigna, this was the summer I'd see it.

And so I made the right turn off the N4 and, ignoring the protests of my teenagers, headed for the hills. As we wound up the mountainside, the complaints ceased and their curiosity was roused.

Ireland's mining industry is puny compared to England and Wales. A portion of our few resources was to be found in Co Roscommon, for hundreds of years the source of iron, wood for its smelting and finally coal. When we pulled in at the car park perched on the edge of the former mine facing a magnificent view of Lough Allen, I decided the journey was already a triumph. Phones were dumped as we got down to fitting hard hats for the adventure.

Barely an hour later we emerged full of astonishment and information relayed by Jimmy, a former miner, who walked us through the mountain. What shocked me most was how recently the mine had operated and the incredible conditions in which the miners worked. Jimmy pointed out the picture of the Sacred Heart at the tunnel entrance. "We'd say a prayer there every morning: that was our health and safety". Then the workers - who began when they were 15 - would proceed down miles of increasingly smaller and tighter tunnels until they reached the coalface and lay down to work.

When I say lay down, that's not a metaphor. For eight hours a day, a miner would lie on his side scraping coal out of a seam only 18in high. A "drawer" behind him would dump it into a wagon or "hutch", the kind you've seen in an Indiana Jones movie.

When it was full he'd put a tag on the hutch and shove it off down the track towards the mine exit where it would be weighed and credited to the relevant team. Miners were paid by weight and could produce three tonnes of coal a day.

Arigna was a wet mine, which meant water poured through the rock constantly, so the workers were never dry and didn't stop much to rest because otherwise they would get cold. They'd bring cold milky tea and bread for lunch and their light was a candle, carbide lamp or, only in latter years, a battery lamp. When the light went out - and Jimmy turned out the lights to give us a flavour - you were plunged into pitch blackness. When that happened in the mine, they crawled along the track, feeling their way out.

All of this took place until 1990, when it finally closed. I know I'm getting on a little, but 1990 doesn't seem like a time to me when men lay on their sides crawling through rock, in a pool of water, scraping coal out of a mountain with a pickaxe. 1990 feels recent. For all our complaints of modern life, it was a reminder that we know nothing of hardship.

Men took the jobs because, comparatively speaking, they paid well. While there were few fatal accidents at the mine, the graveyard tells a sad tale of men who died too young from lung complaints such as silicosis, caused by inhaling silica embedded in the rock.

Most of the coal was used to generate electricity in the power station nearby, but as the quality of the coal declined it became more and more futile to use it for that purpose.

It had never been a particularly efficient way to make electricity but, like the peat-powered stations, was valued as much for job generation as electricity generation. For so long a desperately needed source of employment, Arigna's closure was sorely felt in the area.

But times change and, hard as it is, there are winners and losers as each era ends and another begins.

Rather than returning to the N4, we took the back road to Co Sligo, a lovely meandering tour across the countryside. It was only then we noticed that the hills are still generating electricity: they are now home to wind turbines. It's a much cleaner way to power our country. No carbon emissions and no men mining in miserable conditions in the heart of a mountain.

Some people don't like the sight of turbines but, having glimpsed the alternative, they are clean and elegant - to man and nature. Progress doesn't benefit everyone equally, but for some perspective I'd heartily recommend a visit to Arigna to honour the past, and feel grateful for today.

Irish Independent

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