Wolfhill Coalmine Project
By Carmel Hayes
A REMARKABLE exhibition exploring the rich history of a former coalmine is now open at Dunamaise Arts Centre in Portlaoise. The Wolfhill Coalmine Project follows a year of painstaking research by a local miner’s grandson, who has gathered a wealth of information about the mine that was a major employer in Laois for nearly 30 years.
When he embarked on the oral history project last year, Killenard resident David Delaney wanted to capture the memories and stories of Wolfhill miners before they were lost forever.
The result is an evocative and sometimes deeply moving exhibition that includes photographs of miners and their families, newspaper archives, social and community history, original documents relating to the mine and recorded interviews with former miners, as well as their families and descendants.
A grandson of the late Jim Delaney, who worked below ground at the mine, David has been fascinated by Wolfhill since childhood. He recalls: “I remember standing in the mine with my grandfather when I was eight years old and being struck by its desolate beauty. Even today, over 50 years since it closed, there is still an extraordinary sense of stillness there. I am always moved by that stark silence in a place that was once full of noise and industry.”
The Wolfhill mine opened in 1939 and employed 166 people at its peak in 1961, of whom 66 worked underground. Before dawn each morning, miners descended into the pitch-black passageways. It would be long after sunset when they emerged from the mineshaft into the night.
It was tedious, tortuous work as they hammered out pieces of coal along damp underground corridors but the shared difficulties and dangers forged a tremendous bond. Mining was a way of life and a vital livelihood that supported a large rural network of families throughout the Wolfhill area and beyond.
The quality of anthracite in the was such that a special railway link was built to carry coal from Modubeagh in Wolfhill to Athy, where it was loaded onto the Dublin railway line for export. Part of that legacy is still visible today at the railway embankment in Simmons Mill, on the N80 road from Portlaoise to Carlow.
Two men lost their lives in the Wolfhill mine during its 27 years in operation. Men would stop to say a prayer at the familiar Marian Shrine in Wolfhill on their way to work and would pause again on their way home to give thanks for their survival.
The exhibition includes work by award-winning photographer Ciara Drennan and artist Pauline McEvoy, both based in Portlaoise. Anyone with an interest in or connection to the mine is particularly welcome to visit the exhibition during usual opening hours at Dunamaise Arts Centre and is welcome to contact David on 087 9423741 or via the website here.