The Chimney of Life - Mai Dormer


Having attended the launch in Clogh, The Kilkenny Observer Newspaper was quite taken with not only the publication, but the work ethic of the writers group. Over the next 11 weeks we reproduce some of that work, and are delighted to work hand in hand with this North Kilkenny writers group.

WEEK 7: This week we feature the work of Mai Dormer

Chimney Of Life

Shafted in sturdy black seams

You stand high above a

Basin shaped valley

Looped in a rim of hilly landscape

Stone by stone you stretch heavenward

Your tall elegance a testimony

To a culture born in tunnels of darkness

In breathless miners

You depict a unique heritage

That aired earthy body space

Miles beneath the surface Of Laois soil

Now, roads of stories

Of men and boys stooped

In pitch black dungeons

In inky black waters

Old workings shape new life

Beneath green fields as

Crevices form fossils dating

History, mystery and evolution.

Mai Dormer


I Observe Restrictions

I busy myself with work

that’s been on the

long finger, far too

I sit in your high back chair,

feed page after page into the

crunching teeth of a black

An old magazine, titled

‘Forget Me Not’ dated 1904 comes into view,

I pause, recall you telling me

it came from Bill Whelan’s old house

down the lane at Coultha,

where a stone castle once

I hear you tell stories of this place,

and in my mind I lean against

the old stone bridge, where brave

coalminers once rested their weary bones,

walked the narrow beam on their way

to the black path at Clogh

I hear the sound of the stream and

birds singing in the wild thorny bushes,

the heron, guards its river patch.

A rainbow of colour hangs over Crutt

and a sense of belonging fills me with

wonder for this place and its people.

I stand and admire my now newly framed

‘Forget Me Not 2021’.

Mai Dormer


Coal Mining: The Role Of Women

Mai Dormer (nee Hosey)

Apart from the audio/visual tapes at the Castlecomer Mining Museum, little is written about the role of women during the coal-mining years. Mothers, wives, daughters and sisters (within mining families) played a very important and supportive role to their menfolk and within family and community life. They prepared the lunch on a daily or nightly basis, depending on which shift their men worked on. This lunch was put into a tin box to protect it from underground vermin, particularly rats. A Corcoran’s lemonade bottle carried the cold tea.

The women mended and patched working clothes. If they were lucky the men had knitted socks (also the work of the women) in their working boots, as these were the order of fashion. Some tell the story of wearing old jumper sleeves for socks. These clothes very often had to be dried over an open fire to be ready for the next shift of work. The men walked or cycled to work in pits with familiar names; Deerpark, Modueabeagh, Wolfhill, Rossmore, Skehana, Jarrow and Vera.

The women also worked in the home caring for large families. With great skill and on a daily basis, they put ‘life’ into the biblical story of ‘the loaves and fishes’. Because resources in those days were often scarce, these women became dab hands at budgeting, cooking, baking, sewing, washing, ironing, caring for children and babies and always there with a nourishing meal for their menfolk when their shift of work ended. If truth be told they cared for their loved ones from the cradle to the grave.


‘Shop local’ did not have to be advertised in those days. Every penny earned was spent in the local economy. Milk, eggs, potatoes and vegetables were bought from the local farmers. Meat was purchased from the local butchers. The weekly shopping was bought from Delaney’s (now a private residence), Cantwell’s (now the Village Pub), Joyce’s (now a private residence), Scanlon’s (now a private residence) and Massford Stores (now a thriving Centre that includes Meals on Wheels). Thanks to Buggy’s Buses, Castlecomer, we had a good many years of a daily bus service between Castlecomer and Carlow. This provided the people of Clogh and surrounding areas with alternative shopping options.

For many families, designer gear came in the ‘American Parcel’, from ‘fair days’ or from the local drapery shops in Castlecomer. Today, there is no drapery shop in the town. Back in those days, there was a choice of drapery shops; Andy Ring in Barrack Street, Tommy Fogarty Chatsworth Street, Miss Kealy, Seamus Hahessy, Mrs Quinn, Miss Mansfield, all in Kilkenny Street. Dressmakers like Mrs Brennan (Comer Jim’s wife) in Kilkenny Street who was an excellent dressmaker, as was Ellen Murphy of Clogh. Overall, clothes were altered, minded, mended, recycled and passed on to younger members of the family.

The women of that time usually wore the cross-over navy paisley patterned apron. Up until the seventies many of them still wore the black shawl, long black skirts and black laced boots. Good wear was kept for Sunday Mass and then carefully put away for the following week.

The coal-fire played an important part in the everyday lives of those women. It was lit with the help of paper, sprigs, cinders, coal and a bottomless bucket (which speeded the

draught). It provided the only heat within the home. If coal was scarce, the mixing of yellow clay with coal dust and water demanded the skill of experienced ‘dancers of the culm’. When the consistency was deemed correct, the next stage was the making of what was called ‘bombs’ and when dried out, these gave out great heat.

The women did all the cooking over the open coal-fire. They also baked delicious bread in the bake-pot which was hung on a crook over the fire. The hob on each side of the fire was used to keep food warm.

The ritual of collecting water in enamel buckets from the local fountain (for drinking or cooking) or the local river for bodily hygiene or washing clothes in the zinc bath was an everyday event. The rainwater was collected in a barrel under the downpipes and this was used for hair washing etc. The women washed the clothes with the aid of a wash tub, a wooden board, Sunlight soap and plenty of scrubbing up and down the board. When dried on the outside line, the clothes were then brought inside and hung on an inside line in the kitchen. The heavy flat black iron was heated on the coal-fire and used to iron them.

The social life of women in those days in Clogh/Moneenroe was at a level of neighbour to neighbour, going to church, rambling for a chat or game of cards, being present for each other at a birth, in times of sickness, sharing their worries and in general helping each other out so if one ran out of tea, milk, coal or whatever – if the neighbour had some they shared! If and when there was an accident or death in the mines a ‘whistle blower’ went off to alert people of the tragedy. This was a tough time on the women who constantly lived with the fear of bad news of losing a loved one.

The formation of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association provided women with a social outlet. Through this, women were encouraged to share their creative skills and participate in education. This participation helped to combat social isolation and contributed in no small way to the building of community. The women organised classes, outings, dinner-dances, first communion parties, children’s and elderly parties at Christmas times.

Women were to the forefront to lobby for better conditions and services within the community, i.e. for mains water schemes, public sewerage systems, road lighting and speed limits for the area. It was women who constantly met with school management to lobby for better education facilities such as new schools at both Clogh and Moneenroe.

Cleaning the church was another task undertaken by women. In Clogh, there are memories of collecting the water for washing the church floors with the aid of a tin can and a bucket from the stream in Phelan’s field. The seats were moved from one side of the church to the other and with Vim, cold water and deck scrubs, these women scrubbed the floors white. They then put the seats back in place. They polished the seats and shined the glass door panels. It was women who delivered the weekly church envelopes to each house for the upkeep of the Church. It was women who put the few bob in the envelopes!

The contribution those women made to family, community and society in general cannot be measured in words. They left us a great legacy and value system to be proud of. Their ‘can do’ and ‘make do’ attitude mirrors equal greatness with their coal-mining men!



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