Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
2 January 2010
40. Arigna Miner’s Way, Co. Roscommon
A crisp day after rain, with streaks of cloud over Lough Allen and the Iron Mountains. A sharp wind blew from Leitrim into Roscommon, streaming the smoke from the chimney at Arigna Fuels into long tatters, soon snatched away. I climbed the long lane from Derreenavoggy Bridge towards Kilronan Mountain, hunched far into my coat collar. Two ladies came down the road, each bearing a bucket brimming with clear spring water. ‘Oh, we’ve tap water in the house, all right,’ they chirruped, ‘but ‘tis only for the washing. We’d never make the tea or boil the vegetables without the good water from the spring well!’
The lane levelled out and snaked along the hillside. Glancing over a gate, I made out a couple of shadowy stone chambers side by side under a bank, half smothered in ferns. Sweathouses! Good Lord, what our ancestors put up with before the advent of modern medicine. Why the country round Lough Allen should have been so well stocked with sweathouses, no-one seems to know. Sufferers from a broad range of maladies from fevers and headaches to rheumatics and madness were stripped and inserted into these tiny stone hutches, to cook and sweat in the roaring heat of a turf fire, before being extracted half unconscious and plunged into an ice cold stream. If it didn’t kill you, it sometimes cured.
I left the lane and climbed a steep path of mud and stones to where another sweathouse loomed out of a bank. From here green field paths and stony moorland tracks led me over moorland under a great round cairn topped with a beehive of stones at the ridge of Kilronan Mountain. A stop, a sit-down and a chance to gasp at the five-star view over Lough Allen and the twin lakes of Meelagh and Skean, with the long whaleback of Slieve Anierin beyond, the highest point of the Iron Mountains where iron ore was once extensively mined. But it was another kind of fuel entirely that made the name and fame of Arigna.
Soon the blackened heaps of coal mining spoil began to lump up beside the path. I snaked around between them, then plunged down the hillside to follow a lane to the extraordinary, futuristic buildings of the Arigna Mining Experience, canted at 45o and apparently sliding sideways into the ground.
Many a former industry has rebranded its leisure-orientated ghost an ‘Experience’. But the Arigna mine tour truly earns that title. From a superb display of photographs of grubby-faced miners I entered the mine itself in the company of Michael, a wonderfully humorous man with 30 years at the coal face behind him. ‘Riddled with tunnels, the Arigna mine,’ he intoned, his voice echoing back from the rough-hewn walls. ‘A wet mine, too. We’d see stalactites of iron forming on the tunnel roof. Soda bread and cold sweet tea, that was it. You’d to lie on your side to pick and shovel the coal.’
We tramped the eerie tunnels, hefted the solid weight of pickaxes and pneumatic drills, and marvelled at the vast ‘Iron Man’ coal cutting machine that rendered both of the hand-wielded tools redundant. Back out in the sweet rainy air of Roscommon, everything smelt wonderful. Down in the Miner’s Bar by Derreenavoggy Bridge I stood with a pint of Guinness, looking at a display of mining memorabilia – helmets, lamps, tokens, photos of tired, black-faced men. Michael’s parting shot ran through my head: ‘It was very hard, tiring work, aye. But there was something about it that kept you down there – kept you coming back to it. Mining got in your blood, I suppose. That was it.’
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 26; also in Miner’s Way booklet (see below)
TRAVEL: Arigna is signposted from R280 Drumshanbo-Drumkeeran road just north of junction with R285 Keadew road, 2½ miles from Drumshanbo.
WALK DIRECTIONS: From Miner’s Bar at Derreenavoggy Bridge (OSI ref 193314), uphill. Just past Arigna Fuels, keep ahead up lane; in 300 m, over crossroads, on uphill. In ½ mile pass cottages on right, then lane; in 250m, sweathouses over gate on right. In another 200 m, ‘Miner’s Way’ post on left; right up steps; up path; at top, right (arrow) past another sweathouse. Follow marker posts and yellow waymarks. Left over stile onto path across moorland. In ½ mile, right (arrow) towards Lough Allen. At escarpment edge, left over stiles and through gates (arrows) for ½ mile to Miner’s Way fingerpost. Don’t turn downhill, but continue for ¾ mile through old colliery sites, then right downhill (arrows), and right along road. In 1 mile pass Arigna Mining Experience on right; continue, and in ¼ mile, left down lane to Miner’s Bar.
LENGTH: 5 miles: allow 2½ hours
DON’T MISS … !
• the sweathouses – keep your eyes peeled!
• views from Kilronan Mountain over Lough Allen and Iron Mountains
• Arigna Mining Experience
REFRESHMENTS: Miner’s Bar, Derreenavoggy Bridge (071-964-6007) – lots of mining memorabilia
GUIDE BOOKS/LEAFLETS: ‘Miner’s Way & Historical Trail’ map guide booklet, from local tourist offices and shops, or from EastWest Mapping (053-937-7835; firstname.lastname@example.org)
ARIGNA MINING EXPERIENCE: 071-964-6466; www.arignaminingexperience.ie
INFORMATION: Walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s National Loop Walks, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking; www.coillteoutdoors.ie
Glen of Aherlow Winter Walking Festival, Tipperary: 29-31 January (info: www.aherlowhouse.ie)
Tourist Office: Boyle (071-966-2145), Roscommon (090-662-6342) OR Sligo (071-916-1201); www.discoverireland.ie/northwest