Michael holds out his miner’s hands, still etched with pallid blue stains from where coal dust got into the inevitable cuts. ‘You hear a lot of talk these days about child labour in Asia and Africa,’ he says quietly, ‘but it wasn’t so long ago they had it here in Kilkenny.’ In 1951, a few weeks after his fourteenth birthday, Michael Brennan Roe made his first trip down into the dark wet tunnels of the Deerpark coalmines in Castlecomer. Coal dust was in the blood. ‘My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were miners on both sides and my uncles and brother too.’
For the next eighteen years, Michael headed down, six days a week, living the intensely claustrophobic existence of a coal miner, eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, and five hours on a Saturday. ‘In the winters we’d see no sunlight until Sunday.’
The Comer Mines were founded in the 1740s by the Prior-Wandesforde family. By the late nineteenth century, the famous smokeless anthracite was heating homes throughout the British Isles, but, by the 1950s, the coal seams were proving too narrow for modern technology and the Wandesfordes were still trying to maintain a workforce of five hundred.
‘There’s a few older than me left,’ says Michael, ‘but not so many now.’ One of them is Paddy Love, a cobbler living in the hills outside Clogh who specialises in dancing shoes. Paddy is pushing eighty-four but keeps his hair black as the coal he mined as a youth. ‘Don’t mention it!’ he says with a grimace. ‘It was terrible. Pure slavery!’ The reaction is the same for most of those who remember the mines although there are some who insist the craic was mighty and that it was simply a way of life.
Michael was ‘trained in’ by Mark Brennan, an old collier who’d been mining since before the First World War. Mark literally taught him how to lie on his side and hack coal off the narrow seams. ‘You learned quickly what not to do. You couldn’t whistle or sing because you’re dependent on your hearing. Or sit on your haunches in case a rock fell and landed on your legs out flat. You really needed to have platinum legs.’
Michael’s first major job was as a hauler, ‘letting down empty tubs and pulling up the coal’, then transferring the tubs to a donkey and cart which would take them on to the coal-train. Mark showed him how ‘to load up trucks with anything up to half a ton of coal and push it off up the tracks’. ‘There was switching around as you got older – if you got a name as a fearless one, you got the jobs’. The hardest job was that of the contract trammers – ‘the men that were pushing the trams’ – and if you gave them a hand ‘they might give you a few bob or some fags’.
During the 1930s, a Communist group headed by Nixie Boran formed a union that, ultimately, won some improvements to the miners’ welfare. But even in Michael’s time, injuries were commonplace and accidental deaths not unusual. ‘If the buzzer sounded for fifteen minutes that meant someone had been killed.’ The only wildlife they encountered were the rats who urinated in the water and stole their food. ‘Conditions were very bad down there,’ says Michael. He spoke of inhaling gelignite and coal dust all day long, of men and boys spluttering with chronic coughs and shortness of breath. ‘There was always talk about getting good air into the mines but that was put on the long finger.’ The incidence of emphysema, bronchitis and pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) were high and, after nearly two decades down there, Michael did not escape. He had to have part of a lung removed. ‘It was a strange thing but we never had any fear. We weren’t afraid of getting hurted.’
The Castlecomer mines finally closed on 31 January 1969. Today, all that remains are the ruins of an old bath house where the miners took their showers and a massive pyramid of coal dust over which cattle now graze. Michael was amongst the last to leave. ‘I don’t think there was anyone too sad bar maybe those making their living out of supplying miners with food and all that.’ He went on to work at the Comerama Textile Mill in Castlecomer.
‘Once you’re able to throw the two feet out of the side of bed in the morning, you’re not too bad.’ He lives in Castlecomer with his wife, Lizzie, the mother of their five children. He is a quiet, intelligent man with a healthy appetite. He believes life is a good deal better today than it was in the past, although he just cannot stomach televisions in pubs. He also finds it frustrating to describe the way it was in the Comer Mines to today’s teenagers. ‘Either they don’t understand or they don’t believe me! But I was down there and I seen how it was.’