The ‘can do’ attitude by women was instrumental to the survival of families and the community in Castlecomer

John Delaney and Seamus Walsh at The Deerpark Mines

Mai Dormer puts pen to paper for The Kilkenny Observer this week as she reminisces about life in a coal mining community

Apart from the Audio/ visual tapes at the Castlecomer Mining Museum, little is written about the role of women through the coal-mining years.

Mothers, wives, daughters and sisters within mining families played a very important and supportive role to their men – folk and with family and community life. It was they who prepared the lunch on a daily or nightly basis, depending on which shift their men worked on. This lunch was put in a tin box to protect it from underground vermin, particularly rats. A Corcoran’s lemonade bottle carried the cold tea. Mended and patched working clothes with, if they were lucky “knitted socks” in working boots was 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 the Vera.

The women worked in the home caring for large families. With great skill and on a daily basis, they put ‘life’ on 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 men-folk when their shift of work ended.

‘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), Joyces (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 St., Tommy Fogarty Chatsworth St., Miss Kealy, Seamus Hahessy, Mrs Quinn, Miss Mansfield all in Kilkenny Street. Dressmakers, like Mrs Brennan ‘Comer Jim’s wife in Kilkenny Street 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 aprons. 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 life 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 ‘bumbs’ 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) of the local river for bodily hygiene or for washing clothes in the zinc bath was an everyday event. Rain water 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 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 the clothes.

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 to 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 it, 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 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. This included, 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 eater 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 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!

Mai Dormer {nee Hosey}


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