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My Story......Mining in Slieveardagh

My Story ……
Mining in Slieveardagh
When I was eight years of age I got my first experience of underground mining.  My father was working in a small pit or basset in 1926 and after school I used to pull coal in a bucket with a rope attached to a small windlass with a handle on the side.  The coal was then loaded onto the donkey’s cart and brought home for firing or for sale.  There were several of these small pits in Slieveardagh where men worked in twos or threes.  There were some deeper shafts ranging from 6 to 35 yards and usually operated by about six men.  Coal at that time was selling for 25 shillings or £1.25 per ton.  The Found near Ballynonty was supposed to be the first place coal was found and hence the name.
I left school when I was 14 years and took up employment with farmers.  Many of these farmers had pits or bassets on their land therefore one would have to work in the pits as well as do farm work.  Working underground, the road would sometimes be less than two feet high and the same width, which made it nearly impossible to use a shovel, which had to have a very short handle.  My first experience of a coalmine was in 1942 in Lickfinn.  The wages at that time was 36 shillings for a 48 hour week, when we went underground this was raised to £2 and 4 shillings or £2.20.  A steam-winch was installed which was operated with coal.  When working on coal underground the only light we had was a candle, which you struck to a lump of clay.  I was transferred to the mine in Ballynonty where we were on contract at a rate of 12 shillings and 6 pence per ton.  There were around 200 men employed at that time.  In the early years there was no bathhouse so the men had to go home up to seven or eight miles, in cases wet and mucky, to clean up.  There wasn’t any transport, many walked, some had bicycles but the roads were bad and punctures were plenty.  Later the mining company bought a horse-drawn coach to transport to older men.  It operated from The Commons and it carried four men.
Food was severely rationed at this time, you were entitled to ½ ounce of tea, 1/2 lb of sugar, 1/4 lb of butter a week.  Working conditions were very primitive; men had to lie on their side and work a pick and shovel.  After some time the lighting problem was solved when we were supplied with carbide lamps worn on the helmet.  Most working places were wet with water dripping from the roof, which resulted in men lying in water for the shift.  During the war years 1940-45 and up to 1948, almost every County in Ireland was represented in the workforce and some form England and Scotland also.  A bathhouse was erected around 1943 where men could wash and change their clothes.  Huts were built later as lodgings were hard to find.  I lived in the huts for a few months as l found it easier than cycling seven miles to work.  Full board at the Hostel was £1.50 per week, for breakfast you got 2 slices of bread, 2 sausages and a mug of tea.  When going down in the mine you got 2 slices of bread with marmalade.  The dinner was much the same every day; boiled beef with potatoes.  On Friday we got porridge instead of sausages for breakfast and fish for dinner.  Despite all the hardships the miners were a jolly crowd.  When not on night shift the nights were passed telling jokes, playing and listening to music, mainly the melodeon, mouth organ and tin whistle and many a good set was danced.
In June 1948 the mine closed.  My brother and I went to Rossmore Collieries.  The rate was £1.50 per ton with a 25p/ton compensation if the place of work was wet.  I worked there from July to Christmas and then went to England and remained there until 1956.  When I came back I went to work in a pit with my brothers and John O’ Meara R.I.P.  I started work at Clashduff in February 1957 and that mine closed in June 1957.  Gurteen mine was developing at this time; Tommy O’ Brien was now the owner of the mines.  In 1959 the miners went in strike, which lasted seventeen weeks.  Strike pay was 37 shillings and 6 pence per week.  Miners with nothing to do went in search of coal and it was estimated about 37 bassets were sunk around the basin.
In 1961 production was at its peak and in 1962 a new mine was opened at The Commons.  A bathhouse, winch house, compressor house and screening plant were erected.  In February 1963 most of the miners were sent back to Gurteen and a few remained in The Commons for a few months until it closed.  In 1962 and ’63 up to 3,000 tons per week were mined in Gurteen.  The underground manager died on 17th January 1964 when water burst in and brought stones and timber with it.  Air pipes had burst and it was a terrifying time until the water subsided.  It was lucky that more lives were not lost.  It took a couple of weeks to put the mine back into production.
The air-pick gave the best return and where coal was good one pick could produce up to 60 tubs per shift with around 12-14 cwt. In each tub which would be around 40 tons.  In 1968 a coal plough was purchased.  In 19870 around 60 men lost their jobs.  Then came the bank strike.  On 16th April 1971 all employees were laid off except men to maintain the plough and pumpsmen.  At this time the company was operating open-cast mining at Lisnamrock and Knockinglass and the coal was taken to Gurteen to be screened and washed.  In July 1971 some men were taken on to repair the road leading to the plough.  These men were laid off in September ‘71.  In March 1972, 50 men were re-employed and worked on coal in various parts of the mine with air picks.  The mine closed on 22nd September 1972.  Maintenance men were employed until the mine closed completely on 27th July 1973.  The electricity was cut off and the mine was left to flood.  I was involved with others in security duty at the mine from July ‘73 to September ’74.  Lickfinn mine worked from July 1978 to 1991 and it closed on a few occasions during that time.  I didn’t work in Lickfinn during that time.
Young miner a few weeks in the mine “I think I have coal dust on my chest”.
Older miner, “You are not here long enough to have it on your coat”.

William Cleere, Kylelane, The Commons

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