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Scoil Naomh Molaise, Grange, Co. Sligo

Interview with a miner


22 Nov 2017

Charlie Joe/Hugh: What age were you when you started working in the mine?

Owen: I started off in the mine when I was 20.

What were your duties:

We had to open the mine, which was closed. There were 5 old miners who had worked there before but it was closed in 1956 and it had been closed for 20 years and the whole face of it had been closed up.  Its on the very top of the mountain, but we had to build a road from the old school right up to the mine.

We made the road in the winter of 1973.  It was very cold and very frosty.  We used two diggers to dig the road and one very frosty night the frost was so bad that it bent the arms of the digger.

In the spring of 1974 we reached the door of the mine, which was the height of the roof.

Was there a door in?

No there was no door it was just built up with a wall of blocks.

We broke that wall with sledge hammers. It took us two days to break it down.  We burst the wall and it was so dark.  The mine is on 4 levels. 

Was there water in it?

There was water there, drops come down from the roof and you could hear the echo after they fell. 

The mine has its own railway for pulling in and out the carriages.  “Betsy” was the name of our rail engine.  The mine goes in VERY FAR. 

Who blew up the holes?

I did, I was the driller.

How many were working there?

There were 50 men on each shift from all around Sligo, Donegal and Leitrim.

What tools did they use?

A shovel and a pick axe, Air drills.

What did they use to blow up the area? 

We used Gelignite, dynamite.

What colour was the dynamite?

The dynamite was brown, like Tea, it was gelignite.  It was made in Mullingar by Irish Industrial Explosives.  It arrived on a lorry guarded by the Gardai, who would have to stay until it was all used up because it was so dangerous and due to the troubles that were happening in Northern Ireland.

Did it make a big noise?

Yes it made a really big bang.  We would drill 12 – 20 holes at a time until we opened a hole of about 12 foot each time and put on our lights on, this took a full day.

Did it hurt your ears?

No I had ear muffs on me to protect my ears.

What were you digging for? 

We were digging for Baryte, it was rock.

Did you find a lot of it?

Yes lots pure white baryte and either side of it was rock. 

Was the baryte valuable?

Yes it was very valuable it was used for drilling for oil. 

It was used as chemicals it’s used in paint and can be ground down so that it becomes a liquid, it’s the only rock that can do this, it’s like milk and it can be used for x-ray purposes, a “barium meal”.

Main reason it was used was because it can become a liquid and when you’re drilling for oil there is a full tank of barytes and the first thing that happens when you hit oil is that the gas on top can explode so they cork it with barytes.  They close the well with steel.

Was there any dust?

Yes lots of dust, you wouldn’t see your hands

Did it affect your lungs?

I hope not, a 4 inch pipe of water was brought in to help calm the dust. It was built into the drill. 

It made a hole the size of the kitchen.  

I would drill a diamond cut in the rock, this was the first area to be detonated.  We would use the handle of a brush to pack the dynamite into the holes.  We arranged it that the detonators all went off in a row. 

The whole face of the wall was all wires.  The 1’s were all joined, the 2’s, the 3’s etc and then all the wires were added to two wires at the end, a plus and a minus.

The wires then went on a thing for blowing up the hole.

A storm of dust would come flying down and rocks everywhere

Did you have to wear gas masks?

No we had to wear face masks not gas masks.

How many years did you work there?

I worked there for 3 years then I went to Saudi Arabia in 1976 to drill on the oil rigs because of the experience I had received.

Were you trained in college or how did you learn?

No I finished school at 16. 

So how did you learn? Did you volunteer?

I went up to the mine and asked “Please can I have a job”?  We had to learn how to drill and blast explosives and after a while we were trained better.  We were trained by the older miners, we were lucky because 5 of the older miners from the 1950s who had worked in it previously, agreed to train us.  We put timber on the ceilings to make it safe.

How old were the old men?

They were in their 60s when they came back, like I am now.  I’m one of the last of the miners now that mined in the 1970s.

Did you get lunch breaks?

We had lunch breaks, we cut out wee kitchens out of the rock and we would make a table and seats.

How many men worked there?

2 men drilled and 2 men cleaned up around you in each tunnel but there might be 5 tunnels going on at the same stage maybe 10 people drilling at any one day and then people would clean out the cave with “Betsy” and her 12 wagons.

Each time we blasted a hole we had to lay some railway line.  The railway line would carry our stuff through.

The mine stayed open 24 hours a day.  Everyone had a shift to work, the mine was cleaned out during the night shift.  I was a driller so I always worked the day shift.

How much did you get paid?

We got paid well, £100 a week.

Did you have showers?

We had a base camp with showers, lockers and changing rooms.

Describe a typical day?

You arrived at 8 am and went to our locker room and put on water proof leggings and gear because it was wet and we had lights on our helmets.  We sat up on “Betsy” to take us in to the tunnel. 

Was it a big train?

Big enough and there was no roof on it. 

Oh so it was a real train!!!


What colour was the train?

The train was dark green.

We drilled each day.  One day we might have to drill up and another day straight.

How far down was the mine from the real ground? 

The height of Grange church

There was a special bull dozer you stood on the side of it and it went in and lifted the stone and fired it over its head into the wagons behind like a cannon ball, it would fill it and push it to one side and then “Betsy”, the train would bring it back out but this was done all through the night.  One person drove this and that was his job.

All this material was put into a crushing mill outside which broke the rock all the time there was a conveyer belt off it all the time, all the barytes was separated from the rock.

What mountain was it on?

It was on both Gleniff and Benbulben, they are on a plateau, you wouldn’t know the difference between them.

Was it up high or down low?

 It was up high. The railway came from the very top of the mountain and to the pier in Mullaghmore so that the ships could come into the harbour and take it away.  Later on lorries brought it into the quay in Sligo.

Was it in a hole or a cave?

A Cave

How did you get down to the different levels? 

We used a ladder.  In the lower levels everything had to be carried up mechanically, by pulleys.  We made shoots overhead so the rocks could be sent down.

What way did you get everything up and down the mountain? 

We made the road first and we drove up and down. 

It was very difficult to get up and down when there was snow. 

In the summer was it very hot in the mine?

The mine is warm in the winter and cold in the summer.

Did anyone ever get hurt? 

One man was killed in the time of the first mine in the 1950’s when a ceiling collapsed on him, the timber supporting the roof was rotten.  The mine collapsed in the 70s too and we all had to run out of it and one man lost his welly.  It took weeks to clean it out, one of the overhead shoots collapsed.

What’s left there now?

The railway tracks

Did anyone ever get lost?

No, nobody ever got lost.

Is there a well underneath it?


Was it hot when they blew it up?

Yes it was very hot, it would burn everything.

When you blew it up did your moustache go black?

My moustache was already black back then, but yes everything went black.

How big was the explosion?

Very big 12 foot of rock every time

Was there a lot of black smoke? 

There was a lot of dust not smoke, and a very strong smell.

How loud was the bang?

You often heard them in grange.

The Barytes Mine was a community of miners in itself and we knew all of their families, they were a great group of friends.  We had great fun there.

When that mine was open it was part of an Industrial Revolution of that time, with its own Mill, Railroads and Roads leading on to the pier in Mullaghmore.

On the left is the remains of the pulley system that brought the barytes down to the Glencar side, On the right is the road leading down to the old school

Last changed: Nov 23 2017 at 10:35 PM