Last winter our European Volunteers explored the Arigna Mines. They took in the exhibits, went on an underground tour with Gerard, an ex-miner, and later walked along the Miner’s Way. 

The Arigna Mine was a coal mine in the Arigna Valley, Co. Roscommon, from the 18th century to 1990 when it closed. At the time, the mine was a sustainable income for families in the area. Especially after 1958 when ESB opened an electricity generating station close to Arigna Mine. The amount of coal consumed by the station could reach 55,000 tonnes per year. But as all mining sites, the quality and concentration of coal ended up decreasing until the Mine closed in 1990. The Mine finally reopened in 2003 as a visitor attraction with the support of Communities and Government.  

The visit started with the Exhibition, a sort of little museum about the Mine’s History at the entrance with pictures of ex-miners and the industry at the time. A video showing the experience of the miners’ weeks before the closing date is available before the tour, which helps a lot the imagination during the Tour. 

A tunnel in the Arigna mines

Then, Gerard the guide came and gave safety helmets (and caps for the long-hair team). The entrance of the mine was decorated for Christmas and the European volunteers were disappointed to learn that Santa was there the day before and that they could not sit on his lap… but once the disappointment was over, the team went further in the 10°C mine with Gerard. He started telling his story with enthusiasm and energy as if he was there (he was there: he’s an ex-miner) in front of the map of mine. 

The mine is formed by several passages called ‘slopes’, stemming from a central tunnel named ‘straight road’. From every slope depart several narrow branches that distance from each other approximatively 11 m. Before guiding us through the tunnels, Gerard takes off his helmet (the original one from when he was a miner) with reverence in front of a small shrine with a depiction of the Virgin Mary. He says that, back in his day, every miner would stop here before entering the mine, saying a short prayer for coming back home safe and sound in the evening. It was their form of Health & Safety, he comments with good humour. 

As we walk through the dim-lit passages, we come across various fascinating formations of stalactites, stalagmites and manganese, and Gerard explains us that the tunnels stand thanks to poles made of Scots pine wood, which can last forever if kept wet. In fact, we notice with amazement that we are standing right under the riverbed, and that water from the stream right above us keeps dripping on our helmets and on the pine trunks that sustain the ceiling. 

A manganese formation on one of the surfaces of the mines

At our next stop Gerard shows us the hutches that were used to transport coal from the narrow branches to the main ‘straight road’, passing through the slopes. The coal seam line was less than 1m high, so miners were used to work lying down on their side in the narrow branches, with their feet towards the passage entrance. In Gerard times he and his colleagues would use a jackhammer to cut the coal, but he says that in the past miners were working with just a handpick and no helmet, only a soft hat with a band of tin to hold their lamps on their foreheads.

Younger miners would then shovel the cut coal in the hutches and push them to the entrance of the slope as fast as they could. From there it was then transported to the ‘straight road’, collected and later measured in tonnes. Our guide explains that speed was essential in working in the mine, as their normal working day was always about 6-hours long, usually from 8am to 2pm. 

Gerard also shows us the coal cutting machine that they were using to cut the coal seam along the longwall of the slopes. Another way employed to expose the coal and remove the excess of rock was blasting. Miners would use nitroglycerin-based explosive and would have only a short span of time to seek shelter after lighting the fuse. He suddenly turns off the lights in the tunnel and simulates what a blast would have sounded like thanks to a recorded sound. We are left in complete pitch black, wondering if our eyes are open or closed, with the loud blast resonating in our ears. 

Gerard showing us around

Before the end of our visit, we ask Gerard what it felt like going back to the mine not as a worker but as a guide. He smiles and reveals that, in the beginning, it felt like walking through a graveyard. In fact, even though there were only 4 casualties in Arigna, most of the old miners that worked with him and taught him the job are now dead. He wonders if in the future will there even be former miners to guide the tours in Arigna, as their number is diminishing every year. Despite this, he confesses that this will be his last year as a guide, as he is going to retire next year. 

Once outside, the day was sunny and bright and so the team decided to go for a walk on the Miner’s way to try to see the top of Sliabh an Iarainn and Lough Allen, both covered by a thick mist. Hopefully, there was no tornado. 

The clouded top of Sliabh an Iarainn

If you want more details on the Arigna Mines, click here: