EPISODE 78 LIVES OF MINERS IN BUNMAHON IRELAND 1840 TO 1875
June 29, 1960
This is a staged picture of miners in the 1850’s…too well dressed…too well fed…in my opinion
The only thing wrong with this picture is the light. There was no light in the Knockmahoon mine except for
the stink of the Tallow candles…after a blast the miners could barely see 6 inches of light. So imagine this
picture with only a candle wedged into a bump in the rock.
1) AT 6 A.M. a bell was rung and the men began to defend the shaft ladders. Men would step off
the ladders at various levels as the vein of Chalcopyrite was vertical. The deepest wa 800 feet
where the passageway extended under the ocean. There were around a minimum of 370 men
on the ladders. Perhaps many more The total work force is not accurate known.
The descent was done in complete darkness.
2) Once at the level of their work station the six man teams would pick their
way through broken but non mineralized waste rock to the face of the vein. where they
would been punching holes using hammers and heavy sharpened chisels.The punching
would be done as circular as possible sine the hole must be packed with gunpowder then
sealed with wet lay through which a blasting wick has been forced.
3) Only the weak light of candles helped the miner get ready to blast chunks
of ore from the vein. Not good candles. Rather they were tallow candles that
the miners had to buy from the company. The candles had two purposes…light, and
that was poor, and a test for oxygen. If the candle would not light or kept going out
then there was cause for alarm because the oxygen had been depleted and the
miners could smother and die without the candle warning.
4) Then there was the steady drip…drip…dripping as ground water found its way to
the stopes and passageways. The sucking noise of the water pumps was comforting
because it meant the water level was under control. If the two steam
engines high above stopped then the deep parts of the mine
would soon fill with water. And that water level would keep going higher and
higher. Miners could and did drown in these condition in mines around the world
but not at Knockmahon fortunately.
5) BLASTING: Gunpowder was stuffed in the holes made by hammers and sharpened
crowbars. The miners paid the mine owners to sharpen the crowbars. Once filled, the
hole was sealed with clay through which a length of blasting
chord had been inserted. when the fuses were lit the crews moved
well back into the passageways. safe distance. All the teams are setting their
explosives around the same time. Onc fuse is lit soon followed
by multiple “Cracks, Roars and Rumbles” as the high grade ore is loosened
from the face and tumbles to the floor, “The smoke is so dense the miners cannot
see a single object more than six inches from the flame of his candle.” “The smoke is
inhaled by himself and his comrades.”
In this dark and unholy place the men gather the copper baring ore and manhandle
the chunks, often quite large, to the main shaft where a lifting mechanism hauls
it to the surface. This will occupy the teams for the next
twelve hours until a signal is gven and the men retreat in the darkness to the ladders
for the long climb out of the mine. Young men first, Then those in their thirties and
finally the old men in their forties. The pay was good though…better than any other
Before leaving the mine head frame arrangements and payments had
to be made for the following day. Candles made of animal fat would be
needed no matter how foul they smelled. And Crowbars had to be sharpened and
ready for tomorrows shift. Again payment had to be set
GOING ‘HOME’ AFTER 12 HOUR SHIFTS
As the men gathered around the ladders changes in health became most evident.
At the ladders that men begin to fail. THE sick and the infirm had to confront these
long wooden ladders. In the dark a rung might be broken or the
ladders may swing as the human procession makes the 45 minute climb to the open air.
This was not easy even for the best of men.
Then they have the slow trudge to their homes some of which
are miles away in the case of local people. The newcomers…miners from Cornwall
for instance, lived nearby in the one roomed botthans or in two roomed cottages
Many do not live in single family groups. 39 of the 70 bothers, for instance, house
two families. Take a moment to imagine what that must be like…wives and Children…no
privacy. Religious leaders expressed concern about the morality ,.. rather the immorality …that must
ensue from the human pyramids.
FROM WHISKY TO TEMPERANCE AT BUNMAHON
Some men…many men… did not go home directly. Instead they went directly to the pubs
There were 21 of them, perhaps more than that even. “MINERS are a drnken and
improvident race,” cites Cowman from an observer of miners social life. One miner
was heard to say that he regretted he was unable to spend all his money on alcohol.
“The miners at Bunmahon,get great wages,” commented the Catholic courate of
Tramore, “but they spend their money very much on liquor.”
Payday consumption of whisky was estimated at 300 gallons. At lot of these
miners from Bunmahon and surrounding villages were very drunk a
lot of the time which played havoc with their family life.
Alcohol consumption among these minters in the early 1840’s was out of control. And then
this strange thing happened. The Temperance movement reached the miners. Now this was
unusual since these miners were largely illiterate and many were rejected by the large
affluent society elsewhere in Ireland. As one source stated, Bumahon was “a wretched”
community … poverty stricken. The copper mine changed things. Money flowed. And
so did whisky … for a while.
Then came Temperance. Some Irish had a momentous change in their lives.
One family, for instance, were so impoverished by alcoholism that they had no
furnishings. “Not even a pot to cook potatoes”/
Temperane leaders changed this remarkably. Foremost was the Catholic church but
there were others among the secular community that believed earnestly that drink was
the curse of society. In Bunmahon it suddenly became unfashionable to drink. Families
were strengthened. Pubs went bankrupt. As mentioned there had been more that 21
pubs in tiny Bunmahon. This number dropped to one pub and several semi secret source
The advertisement below for GREAT COZA as a cure for alcohol consumption is
fascinating. I do not know what Great Coza was…perhaps you can fine out. But the
advertisement from London, England, was just one of the efforts to turn people away
from rampant alcohol consumption. We are all familiar with the Gin Lane engraving
done by William Hogarth in the 18th century. Similar condemnations of alcohol spread through
the 19th century communities none I might say changed more dramatically than