Challenge to power: Nixie Boran, freedom and the Castlecomer coal miners

Jimmy Carroll (RIP), Deerpark Miner

On Wednesday 12 October Anne Boran spoke to packed room at the Home Rule Club, Kilkenny City, about the remarkable life of her father Nixie Boran.

She began by outlining his background in the small town of Castlecomer, north County Kilkenny.

The town was at the centre of the Wandesforde estate.

Originally from Kirklington, North Yorkshire, they took possession of 22,000 acres of O’Brenan lands in the early 17th century.

The Wandesfordes owned most of the mines on the Leinster coalfield for three centuries until the Deerpark, the last major mine, closed in 1968.

Apprenticeship to life – 1904- 1922

Nixie Boran was born in Massford in 1904.

He was the first son of a small tenant farmer, George Boran, who was also a carter.

His grandfather, after whom Nixie was called, benefited from the Wandesforde sale of land after the Wyndham Land Act in 1903, gaining 31 acres just before he died in 1912.

In the first phase of his life Nixie came to terms with what was offered to him in the Castlecomer Coalfield.

He first had to face the loss of his mother, who died immediately after the birth of her fifth child in five years.

Although relatives were very supportive, Nixie felt his mother’s loss very deeply.

His options were farming, carting, mining or emigration.

When he was twelve his school was visited by a De le Salle brother recruiting for the brotherhood and he decided to try it out.

He spent two years there and his exposure to reading and focused education served him well later.

He rejected a clerical life, however, and returned home, aged fourteen, to farming and mining.

He went into mines in 1918, first in Modubeagh and then nearer home in Glenmullen.

It was an unsettled period in Ireland politically and socially.

Nixie was too young to participate in the War of Independence but unemployment in the mines forced him, aged eighteen, to join the Free State army in June 1922. That was after the Treaty and just before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Unfinished Business – 1922-1927

Thus began the second phase of his life. The army sent him to Tipperary to fight Republican forces led by Dan Breen, Dinny Lacey and Seamus Robinson.

After some months he became appalled by the state’s harsh punishment and execution of republicans.

He defected to the other side on 20 December 1922 and joined Dan Breen’s men.

An eventful life followed and he built up a strong physical constitution, able to weather all conditions.

He found Dan Breen’s behaviour unnecessarily harsh, one example being the shooting of a young Free State soldier in the middle of an act of contrition.

But then Nixie was shot and injured in an ambush at Soloheadbeg.

He was brought to St. John’s Hospital in Limerick under the assumed name of James Ryan.

His backstory that he was a farmer and had fallen and cut himself on a hay knife, but he was unmasked when the Bishop of Limerick visited, wanting details of where he came from and who had confirmed him. He had to escape with the help of Cumann na mBan, Dan Breen and Dinny Lacey.

Finally arrested in the Glen of Aherlow on 8 May 1923, he was court marshalled and sentenced to death, but he and three others then made a daring escape through the roof of the guard room at Emmet Barracks, Clonmel.

He went on the run for several years, escaping several encounters with the Gardai who had a search warrant out for him.

The Radical Phase – 1927-1935

Nixie finally returned to Castlecomer in 1927, aged 23.

While on the run he had identified with left wing thinkers in the IRA and felt little had changed for workers after Irish independence.

He wanted to change things.

He began to organise the miners and set about creating their own union.

Through contacts in Dublin a representative of the Kilkenny miners was invited to attend the Red International of Labour Unions conference in Moscow in August 1930.

The miners wanted to see how communism worked in practice and they raised money to send Nixie.

Refused a passport, he stowed away on a cement ship to Russia and after an eventful journey he met important labour leaders of the day from around the world, travelled around to see practice in the mines and collectives and returned to Ireland full of ideas.

The miners then set up the Mine and Quarry Workers union and also a Revolutionary Workers’ Group in Moneenroe in the heart of the mining district.

Needless to say, this was like a red rag to a bull as far as the Church was concerned and a campaign was mounted against the union, the RWG and the Workers’ Voice, a communist newspaper that published the miners’ grievances.

A strike was called in 1932.

With few resources they were nevertheless supported by Peadar O’Donnell and by Jim Larkin Jnr.

After six weeks they achieved modest success but the Church, State and employer got to work to bring the union down.

Bishop Collier visited Moneenroe to condemn the miners from the altar and published a pastoral letter in January 1933 stating that the miners could not be Catholics and Communists at the same time.

This was instrumental in killing off the union because of divisions within the local community and within families.

Realism and Industrial Struggle – 1935-71

Having failed to sustain their union, the miners joined the IT&GWU later in 1933.

Nixie made a realistic appraisal of the realities of Ireland and decided to join the Labour Party in 1934.

He remained a member for the rest of his life.

The IT&GWU had the resources to support the miners in their struggles.

They secured baths and drying facilities at Deerpark in 1939 and a welfare society with medical and hospital care benefits.

They also had three strikes for better wages and conditions – an eleven-week strike in 1940, a one-week stay down strike in 1943 and finally an eleven-month strike in 1949.

Despite massive opposition from the employer, they eventually secured a generous pay rise across all categories of workers in the mine.

It brought an era of stability in the mines.

Nixie was elected to the executive of the IT&GWU and took on the battle for legislative changes. Pneumoconiosis was declared an industrial disease in 1956, better holidays were gained to reflect their harsh conditions of work in 1963, and safety at work addressed in the Mine and Quarries Act 1965.

This came just at the time of crisis in mining and Nixie led the fight to delay closure and bring more employment into the area.

The final loss of jobs at the mine was 340.

Nixie’s story was one of great courage and tenaciousness, both on his part and that of the workers he inspired.

He died in 1971 but he is remembered with pride and affection in north Kilkenny and beyond right up to the present day.

Author: Anne Boran, Challenge to Power, Nixie Boran, freedom and the Castlecomer miners. Geography Publications, Dublin. Book available through the Publisher and in the Book Centre, Kilkenny and Bargain Books

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