The Last Mining Village

Author: Brian Leyden

The changing patterns of rural life in Ireland of the 1960s.

They said the coal mines would not last much longer. And it seemed, with every passing week, another one of the old characters had gone to that dauby graveyard on the hill.

Picture a valley by a lake below an iron and rusty-red mountain. Add a pub, a parish hall, two grocers” shops, scattered housing, a bridge, a river and a loose knot of coal-and-black roads.

On Easter Sunday morning outside an immaculate church, bright as the pearly gates, gleaming lines of family cars grace the carpark below the church and graveyard. A church bell tolls calling the respectable, responsible citizens of the valley to mass. A late-comer trips up the steps, creaks and bangs the door, turns all heads, and slips, shamefaced, into a seat at the back. Then the hushed and prosperous Sunday morning stillness.

Dark figures shuffle in the church porch. They crouch and whisper over the prayers, sermons, coughs and bells of the mass going on inside. They talk about coal mines, cattle and current affairs.

“I hear the Germans bought a farm over on the far mountain.”
“You don’t buy a farm over there, you buy an address.”

The sun breaks through the stained glass windows above the altar and scatters like confetti across the aisle. It is after half-past eleven. The men outside listen for sounds of the crowd stirring.

“Go forth in peace.”


And the race is on. The shopkeeper’s assistant is out the door like a shot off a shovel. A quick blessing and they pour out the church door like dark treacle running down the steps. Engines throb to life, misty exhausts fume in the carpark. Men and women and children bolt down the road with unbuttoned best coats. The clicking and clacking of high heels kicking up the gravel and dry leaves under a chestnut tree as old as the valley. It is neck and neck all the way to the paper-seller’s hut.

And then they’re off again, with a near-naked and brazen huzzy tucked under one arm on the front page of the Sunday World: naughty and giggling with a promising of scandal, Fr. Brian D’Arcy and the cartoons.

The finishing post is an always-open-on-Sundays shop where the crowd will always be there before you. Women with Sunday dinners on their minds, lined six-deep at the counter. Calling for freshly roasted chickens, frozen peas, carrots, cauliflower and ice-cream, litres of lemonade, sweet cakes and something for the supper. And treats for scrubbed children on their Sunday best behaviour.

Outside, patient men in long coats and white, open-neck shirts shuffle around the pub door, like the mourners of Lazarus waiting for the miraculous opening of the tomb. What do they care about the black-coat-and-hat brigade of pious tooth-suckers, tut-tutting as they pass, swallowing eucharist and gossip between lips as severe as a Good Friday collation.

With righteous heads held high they aim their sharp viper tongues at a certain big redheaded, loud-laughing, pint-loving lout sporting an outlawed Easter lily, sideburns, cowboy boots and baggy trousers from a mart-day stall.

“He didn’t get that head drinking water.”

The easy Sunday babble of the river follows the good people walking home from mass. In the pub the Sunday drinkers discuss work, jobs, money and the future. Over the rim of the frosted glass in the bar-room window, heaps of wet coal glitter on the dark hill overlooking the pub.

“There’s a race of men that don’t fit in
They’d break the heart of kith and kin
They’d break the heart of a stone
Break the heart of a stone.”

The big man whispers into his drink. But nobody is listening.

Establish your credentials here with a pint. And sitting at the bar, overhear a yarn about Francie the barber, who lived by the church and shaved the priest for beer-money.

“Do you remember the morning Francie got the shakes and he drew blood with the old cut-throat razor? And the priest said:

“That’s the drink for you, Francie.”

“I know, Father, it leaves the skin very tender.”

The ganger Gaffney adds to the legend, and he tells the company about the time the same priest was walking back to his house after saying Mass when he met Francie, staggering past the chapel, on his way home from the pub.

“I’m warning you now, Francie, you’re on the very brink of hell.”

“Didn’t they build it very close to the church, Father?”

Outside, the shrill yelps of children. Out of nowhere the travelling fair has arrived. Each year it comes mysteriously, like the first snow. Brightly painted and always harbouring some dark secret behind the painted shutters. And always a mad dog chained at the back of the slumbering caravans. The children haggle for silver from their parents and mount the rides with rough glee. Screams of delight pierce the brittle air. All is harmless now in the bright light of day. It will only develop its special, sinister magic when darkness falls. When the fairground music echoes the length of the valley and the whir and clatter of the rides mingle with boisterous shouts of young and old. When the blue dusk falls like magic powder on the eternal fairground and restores to life swing-boats, rifle-ranges, bumper-cars, and a childlike sense of wonder.

Once upon a time hard men walked the valley. Those were the days of gang fights, Paisley shirts and broad ties, purple suits with matching waistcoats, bell-bottom trousers and platform shoes. After a week of hacking deep in the belly of the mountain the weekends were given over to drinking and fighting. To days of longstanding rivalry between the country dancehalls that served nothing stronger than minerals and bags of cheese-and-onion crisps.

Long lines of Honda fifties � twenty-five or more � circled the village in clouds of summer dust, and then trailed off to a neighbouring parish. Looking for trouble and usually finding it: fist-fights and broken furniture, torn jackets, blood on white shirt fronts. Split lips, bleeding noses.

Or drinking all day before a feed of burgers and white soup at the chipper, and then on to the Mayflower ballroom. To hear Joe Dolan or Margo or Big Tom.

The crowded cloakrooms, the empty dance-floors. Girls dancing together � steps rehearsed at home or in school corridors; long lines of girls sitting with their backs to the wall.

And the crush: that body of youths milling close to the sweaty walls, tightly packed, like prisoners chained to the pillar, going round and round asking every girl in the line for a dance.

“Will you come for a slither on the boards?”

“Will you lean up against me for this one?”

“Would you ever hold me pint, I’m bursting for a �?”

“No No No.”

And then, of course, there was always the village bike. A big-hearted, broad-hipped girl, engaged more often than the women’s toilets at Connolly station. But never married. Like that last turkey on the supermarket shelf; everybody had a squeeze but nobody took her home.

In the slippery, wet-floored, reeking toilets the young men slick back their hair before returning to the crush to try their luck or, perhaps their looks again. And standing at the urinal you hear a low, serious conversation. Two boys with slurred voices face one another.

In the wink of an eye one goes down. Blink and you miss that smart smack to the jaw, that gush of blood from a burst lip, that sudden buckling at the knees before he slumps to the floor.

One man lies stretched and another man with bruised knuckles and dead eyes, breathing beer and onions, leans up against you and says:

“He was asking for that.”

And you’d be a fool to disagree.

There was always more action at the door, where the trouble with the bouncers started. Big men, like sides of meat with bow-ties on, who always seemed to be looking for a fight. And you could look on at the minor scuffles among the colliers and doormen and recall one mad, full-moon night when the ballroom came under siege.

Stones were thrown through windows and the bouncers kneeled under the broken panes like cowboys cornered in a western saloon. Then somebody tossed a motorbike through the window. A red and white Honda fifty crash-landed on the dance-floor and the bouncers fled for home. Chased all the way to the county border by youths yelling abuse out the windows of Ford cars.

Cars were made for cowboys then. The bog-standard old Ford Escort, with extra heavy springs in the back. And the king of cars, the mark two Cortina E in chrome and black, with furry dice, simulated leopard-skin seat covers, a cassette player warbling country music and a cardboard air-freshener with a naked girl hanging from the rear-view mirror. Back seat romances, reclining front seats and smoochy music. How many girls stepped into marriage through the passenger doors of those second-hand cars?

After every summer there were casualties. Hurried marriages before it showed. And on and on it goes: long after the furtive encounters at the backs of dance-halls, long after the passing of the ballroom days the romance, the bouncing springs, the steamed-up windows remain. In hotel carparks where discos are the new kings crowned with coloured spotlights. A new generation is born, but habits remain the same. Second-hand cars, dances, fights and childhood codes of honour.

“Eggs and rashers for the Arigna smashers,
Hay and oats for the Drumshanbo goats.”

And then, shortly after that first shave with his father’s razor, he drops his schoolbag for a pit helmet, and the promise of freedom bought with a working man’s wage. The pit lorry passes the school bus and a pale-faced student looks over at black, grimy-faced pals: tired but suddenly grown-up men in tattered working clothes, working off a bellyful of last night’s porter.

“What does your father do?”

“He works in the power station.”

“Shovelling light into dark corners.”

Memories of innocence before hard labour. Before adult rites of passage in the dark mines and bars. And a question for a bystander.

“You never worked in the pits yourself?”

“I’ll be long enough underground.”

We have all gone our own ways now. But we remember common ground.

The national school was built three miles away from the village centre; as the pitmen headed for work the scholars set out for school. Walking the long road to a day in school whose only reward was the journey home. A journey past hay-barns and orchards. Orchards with sour green crab-apples that tasted like nectar, protected by a notice saying “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”. And still you dared, and you had to reach through the mossy branches for the reddest, sweetest apple that was, always, at the top of the tree.

On the way home “Poodle” Dean drank water from the puddles and ate earthworms for a dare. And everybody stamped on the hosts of flying ants, because you never forgave them for their stings, years ago, when you sat on their nests by accident in short trousers, and found your pants full of pismires.

But it is all changing so fast. New schools and new open-cast mines. In the old days they sank mine-shafts here. Tunnelled their way to the seams of coal. The men marched underground, a hundred or more working in one mine. Foreheads lit by pale flames from brassy, bubbling carbide-and-water lamps hanging on their helmets. Swallowed up each morning by the open mouth of the pit. Only a glimmering thread of lights leading in to their private subterranean world. And a long steel cable fishing out lines of hutches. Rattling out on narrow rails, and loaded with shiny, black lumps of coal.

The lorries, painted red then, rumbled down the valley and rattled back empty from the habitually smoking power-station with its tall chimney like a balanced cigarette, on Lough Allen’s shore. Above the noise of conveyor belts, pumps and air compressors came the screech of the sawmill, where pillars and props �� that would soon be creaking and bending under the dripping wet weight of the mountain � were cut. But no more.

The old mines are closing. Slowly turning to places of ghosts and memories. The wealth of coal exhausted. The old shafts have been sealed up and regiments of conifers press in upon these abandoned places. Graveyards marked with mechanical headstones. It would take a child or an artist to find beauty now in places so full of rain, rust and ruin. Among the tangled remains of broken hutchwheels. Among fallen-down sheds and shattered windows and broken rails. Among rusty serpent-coils of steel rope and bent pipes scattered to the wind like drinking straws. Among the ghost voices of long dead men and their fiercely guarded ways.

The Sunday drinkers are having one for the road; the yarns are all told, the painted shutters are going up on the fairground booths. Dinners and papers, wives and children, the Sunday football game and the afternoon snooze are waiting amongst the bungalows. And far from schoolhouses and dance-halls, far from fairgrounds and bars, far from scandals and prayers, far from pits and power-station, the road takes me away from a valley by a lake below a mountain.