Joe Flynn (Photo: James Fennell)
Just outside the village of Arigna, a garrison of fifty massive white wind turbines strides along the top of Kilronan and Corry mountains, their rotating blades pumping electricity into the national grid. The sight makes a dramatic contrast to the tall chimney smouldering its black smoke into the sky over the Arigna Fuels factory where, somewhat ironically, smokeless coal briquettes are made. The Arigna community once depended entirely on coal but, lest nostalgic minds be tempted to view the factory as the last surviving vestige of the great Arigna coal mining days, bear in mind that the coal which burns in Arigna today is imported from the distant mines of China, Poland, the Ukraine and other lands.
There have been mines along the shores of Lough Allen since at least 1629 when the Earl of Cork and Sir Charles Coote, two wily English entrepreneurs, established an ironstone mine close to Arigna.[i] It reputedly employed 3,000 men, all Dutch or English; the secrets of iron smelting were not to be bestowed on the native Irish. Perhaps in consequence, the mine was destroyed during the 1641 Rebellion.
In 1765, a vast coal seam was discovered in the hills above Arigna. Twenty years later, three brothers called O’Reilly took the plunge and rebuilt an iron works, complete with its own horse-drawn railway line connecting the mine to the furnace. The O’Reilly’s mine closed in 1838, but coal mining continued as it became an increasingly vital fuel for the heating of homes and hospitals, and for powering steam engines.
Demand for coal continued to expand to such an extent that, in 1920, the British government constructed a narrow-gauge railway to link the Arigna Valley with the iron colleries at Creevelea, 50km to the south. It was to be one of the last projects completed under British rule. Unfortunately the new line was badly managed. There were not enough wagons or engines to transport the coal and mountains of coal were too often left exposed on the hillsides, soaking up the Irish rains.
Nonetheless, the Arigna mines continued to employ hundreds of people and to provide coal for businesses across Ireland throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Joe Flynn’s father worked for an English company in Arigna which was later taken over by Layden’s. Between 1930 and 1934, Layden’s Arigna Collieries operated an overhead cable system between the siding in Arigna and their mines at Rover, Rockhill and Derrenavoggy. The rusty remnants of this short-lived ropeway still stand today.
‘My fathers’ family were miners for hundreds of years in Arigna,’ says Joe. His mother’s family were of similar stock. ‘They came from Drumkeeran in Leitrim and her brother was a miner and so were his sons.’
One of six children, this quiet, unassuming bachelor went to school in nearby Greaghnafarna. When he left school in 1939, his first job was with Roscommon County Council and at the age of sixteen he was to be found ‘out with a shovel along the side of the road, cleaning drains.’
Coal miners were shaping up to be an endangered species in Ireland by the late 1930s. The Rover collieries on the northeastern side of Kilronan mountain ceased operations in 1938, as did McDermott Roe’s Colliery. Many of those who worked part-time in the mines were spending more and more time back on their small farms.
However, with the outbreak of the Second World War, the demand for coal rocketed and in 1940, aged seventeen, Joe followed his father into the mines. He started his mining career as a Drawer with Layden’s, working from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, with two half hour tea breaks, one at eleven o’clock, the other at two. In the wintertime, he rarely saw daylight but for Sunday. ‘There were three or four hundred people in it that time’, he says. ‘Good strong men from Donegal and Mayo mainly.’
‘We were shovelling coal on the ton, all day. Drawing and shovelling it into the hutches. That’s what they called the little wagons they used to put the stuff into. It was all rail at that time, a two-line rail with full wagons coming out and empty ones going back in, around and around and around.’
He likens the coal-cutting machine to a horse-drawn mowers, slowly rumbling alongside the coalface, carving a three-foot high swathe every day. Joe and his comrades then broke this coal up and shovelled it into the hutches. ‘Aye, it was dangerous,’ he says. ‘But all mines are the same, wherever you’re born, South Africa, Chile, Australia or Arigna. There was no one killed in my day, but there’d always be stones falling, along the roof and around the sides.’
The Flynn homestead is in Lower Rover, the foothills of Kilronan Mountain, and beholds the rolling views towards Drumshambo, Co. Leitrim. There was a strong sense of community in Joe’s younger years which he recalls with unmistakable longing.
‘We used to be kicking footballs around in the evenings and on Sundays. We’d be pitching and tossing and the money got plentiful. There was a shop up the road where you might have fifty or sixty young bucks playing it on Sundays. There’s not many of them left now, not from my age.’
In 1957, the state-owned Electricity Supply Board established a power station at Arigna. Everyone realized that the main purpose of this station was to save the jobs of all those employed in the mines. In the meantime, Arigna was hooked up to the national grid.
The coal that Joe shoveled now burned in the Arigna power station, turning the turbines that electrified his own home. ‘It was a big change compared to the lamp with the wick and paraffin oil,’ he says. ‘Still, I seen a man who used to kill pigs around November and salt them, and he’d do it all by lamplight.’
With electricity came television which brought its own consequences. ‘The houses around here used to be full of ramblers,’ says Joe. ‘Everyone would know everyone else. Then television came in and that finished it. Everyone got one in every house and they all quit their rambling’.
Both of Joe’s brothers left the mines at this stage, one to settle in Shepherd’s Bush, London, another to work in the Drumkeeran power station on the shore of Lough Allen. Joe stayed on at the Arigna mines until 1967 when he retired to help his invalid mother and look after their twenty-acre farm.
At its peak, the power station burned over 55,000 tons of coal a year but when foreign coal flooded the market in the 1980s, Arigna lost its viability and the mine closed down in 1990.
Joe says he was never tempted to emigrate or marry. Music is his private joy. Two of his mothers’ brothers played fiddle and Joe himself had a crack at the tin whistle when he was young. Some of the men he served alongside in the mines sang and whistled while they worked, ‘old bits of song and new ones and all.’ Joe doesn’t rate his own whistling skills highly but mourns the recent dearth of music in Arigna.
‘It used to be full of musicians up here,’ he says. ‘On both sides of the river, you’d hear them playing of a Sunday, with the dancing and all. I know there’s lots of musicians in the country now – look at the fleadhs and all the young musicianeers who go there – but I don’t think there’s many around here now.’
With thanks to Charlie Hopkins and Maureen Daly.
[i] Nolan. W. Fassidinin. Land, Settlement & Society in South-East Ireland 1600-1850.