Coal-Mining Museum

The 45-minute audio-visual exhibition charting the geological formation of coal, significant fossils finds and crucially the social history and heritage of coal-mining in the Castlecomer region. Scroll down for more background information on the exhibition’s content. Open daily, last entry 4 pm.

Cost: Adult €5; Child €3; Student/OAP €4; Family 2+2 €15+ 2€ pp; Group & School discounts available.

Book Coal Mining Exhibition Now


RTE RADIO 1 Feature: Marie Louise O’Donnell hits the road with a Castlecomer Coal Merchant

The link above leads you to an audio clip of Marie Louise O’Donnell sharing her experience on the road with Paddy Coady, a Kilkenny coal merchant, on Sean O’Rourke’s RTE Radio 1 show. Here she relives the tales she was told, of the days when the coal mining played a big part in the Castlecomer community

The Coal Mining Exhibition comprises a 45-minute tour through Castlecomer’s coal mining past. The exhibition is an interactive multi-media display that takes the visitor on a journey through time. Starting with the formation of the coal 300 million years ago, it brings the visitor through more than 300 years of coal mining history to the closure of the mines in 1969.

First, through the use of life-sized reconstructions of prehistoric animals and plants, video clips, fossils, rock specimens and information panels, prehistoric life in the coal swamps of the Carboniferous Period is brought to life. Then life sized and scale models of the mines, displays of mining artefacts, information panels and video interviews with ex-miners and the families of those associated with the mines bring to life more than 300 years of coal mining history.

Science & History

The Jarrow Fossils
While digging out the coal, miners occasionally came across plant fossils, the remains of ancient forests. Then in 1865, coal miners working the Jarrow pit near Clogh started to find strange animal fossils among the coal. William Booking Brownrigg was a scholar who had heard about the plant fossils and came to examine them. When he came down to the area, he found something much more significant, the remains of ancient amphibians. He started to describe them and persuaded the Geological Survey to pay for their illustration.

Room 2. Audiovisual
Nowadays if we want to find out about the history of the Earth and the plants and animals that once lived here, we can pick up a book, consult the internet or visit an exhibition but where did all that knowledge come from? At the time when the Castlecomer fossils were discovered, scientists were collecting rock and fossil specimens from all over the world and trying to piece together skeletons and plant fragments in order to find out about the past. The theory of evolution was very new and most scientists were still trying to equate fossil findings with living plants and animals.

The work of 19th Century scientists provided valuable insights into the way the world works. Their studies on the origin of rocks and landforms and the ecology and adaptations of plants and animals have provided the information we need to understand where our coal deposits came from and the conditions that led to their formation. Their work has also helped us to understand the plants and animals of the distant past.

Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

Darwin published his book ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859 just 6 years before the discovery of the amphibian fossils near Castlecomer. In it, he outlined his theory of the evolution of animals through natural selection. He was strongly criticised by many scientists because he dared to contradict the teachings of the church, and it was many years before his teachings were widely accepted.

Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875)

Many 19th century scientists believed that geological and landscape features were a result of Catastrophes such as Noah’s flood. Lyell argued that these features were the result of gradual change over very long periods of time. In 1830 he published his ‘Principals of Geology’. Lyell became a private supporter of Darwin’s theories on evolution but never publicly declared his support.

Professor E.P. Wright

Wright was a professor of Geology at Trinity College Dublin. He heard about the amphibian finds in Clogh and came to study them himself. After studying the amphibians, he realised their importance and arranged for further excavation of the mine, which yielded more fossils. Wright then contacted Thomas Henry Huxley to come and examine the fossils and together they published a paper on them in 1867.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 – 1895)

Huxley was a very vocal supporter of Darwin’s theories on evolution which earned him the nickname ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. He was an important scientific figure at the time and an expert on vertebrate fossils. Having previously published papers on Scottish amphibians, he was called in to examine the amphibian fossils found near Castlecomer, which he, along with Professor E.P. Wright, described in a paper published in 1867.

Huxley described at least ten genera of amphibian fossils in Castlecomer, five of which were previously unknown.

Room 3: Rocks
Over time, the shape of the Earth’s crust has changed with continents moving and changing shape over millions of years. These changes in the shape of the Earth and subsequent changes in climate have led to a variety of different conditions which produced the different rock types of the Earth and led to the evolution of many different forms of plants and animals.

Ireland’s position on the Earth has varied over geological time and as a result, our climate has changed many times. The main sedimentary rocks found in Ireland formed in very different ways under very different conditions.

A large portion of Ireland is covered in sandstone deposits, formed during the Devonian age approximately 400 million years ago. During this time, Ireland was situated just south of the equator and was part of a large continent known as the Old Red Sandstone Continent, which was mostly desert and was subject to occasional flash floods. Large amounts of sand were transported by rivers to be deposited in layers which over time were compressed down to form sandstone rocks. At this time, life was beginning to emerge from the oceans. Archaeopteris species were some of the first trees to grow on the Earth and examples of these have been found in a quarry at Kiltorcan in south-east Kilkenny. Early amphibians had also started to evolve and walk on land. A set of footprints from a four-legged creature dated at about 385 million years old were found on the shoreline of Valentia Island in County Kerry.

At the end of the Devonian period, there was a large mass extinction event that wiped out over 70% of all animal species on the Earth. The Archaeopteris trees also became extinct. At this time, the sea level rose dramatically and most of the Old Red Sandstone Continent was covered by the sea.

This warm tropical sea was populated by a variety of sea creatures including the sharks which had survived the Devonian extinction. The bones and shells of these sea creatures and the remains of underwater plants eventually formed the Limestones of the early Carboniferous, which cover most of Ireland today.

Towards the end of the Carboniferous Period, about 300 million years ago, the sea levels dropped again and a large area of tropical swamp emerged, stretching around most of the equator. Trees falling onto the waterlogged forest floor formed peat deposits which over millions of years were compressed and heated by subsequent rock layers to form the coal deposits of the Castlecomer Coal-field. The extinction of so many plants and animals at the end of the Devonian had cleared the way for a wide variety of new organisms to evolve. Huge forests grew up in the swamps and these formed an ideal habitat for early amphibians.

Room 4: Swamp Scene
If we could travel back in time 300 million years, we would see a very different landscape from the one that surrounds us today. The Carboniferous swamp forest is recreated here to give us an idea of what the area would have looked like at the time.

Some of the plants and animals would have looked familiar but many were unlike anything that is found on the Earth today. The trees were very large, many of them up to 45m tall. Tree ferns, similar to those found in New Zealand and certain tropical countries today were quite common. Calamites species were hollow stemmed plants related to modern day horsetails that grew up to 20m tall.

The Lycopods, of which Lepidodendron and Sigillaria are two types, grew up to 35m tall. They had distinctive diamond patterned leaf scars on their stems, which are often preserved in the coal. It has been estimated that up to 70% of the coal may be composed of lycopod remains. Cordaites species grew to a height of up to 45m tall. They had a root system similar to modern mangroves.

Invertebrates are animals without a backbone. The group includes insects, spiders, centipedes, millipedes, worms, slugs and snails. Carboniferous invertebrates were much larger than modern day forms and one possible reason for their large size was a greater level of oxygen in the air, which made it easier for them to absorb oxygen through their skin. Insects were the first animals to develop flight and may have evolved wings in order to feed on the very tall vegetation that characterised the Upper Carboniferous Period.

Arthropleuris was similar in shape to modern millipedes but much larger, growing up to 3m long. Like its modern relatives, it would probably have fed on rotting vegetation. Dragonflies would have grown extremely large during the Carboniferous Period. Fossils have been found with wingspans of up to 75cm.

Most of the animal fossils found in the Castlecomer coal were amphibians. Amphibians were the first tetrapods to walk on land, a tetrapod being any animal that walks on four legs. There are three groups of amphibians living today: the newts and salamanders (order Caudata); the caecilians (order Gymnophiona) and the frogs and toads (order Anura). The fossil forms found near Castlecomer are closely related to modern day newts and salamanders. Some of these amphibians would have been terrestrial forms living mostly on land, while others were more aquatic, spending most of their time in water. Some were predators, feeding on fish and other animals, while some of the smaller species would themselves have been preyed upon by larger animals.

Keraterpeton Galvani was similar in form to modern newts. It was about 50cm long and would probably have eaten small fish and invertebrates. The flattened tail and the wings on either side of its skull are thought to have been used as aids for swimming.

Ophiderpeton brownrigii was similar in appearance to modern snakes. Although it had lost its legs, Ophiderpeton seems to have been more terrestrial than many of the other amphibians lacking the flattened tail, which marks the more aquatic forms.

Megalocephalus pachycephlus can be translated as ‘big headed thick head’. This creature seems to have been a very large aquatic predator with needle-like teeth for fish eating. Megalocephaluswas first identified from a flattened skull, about 35cm long.

Dendrerpeton rugosum was a terrestrial amphibian, which grew up to a metre in length. Its large head and short squat body suggest that it probably couldn’t move fast over long periods of time, but the sharp backward-facing teeth suggest that this was a fierce predator that possibly lay in ambush waiting for its prey.

We can tell a lot about prehistoric animals by studying their fossils. By studying their teeth and the shape of their heads, we can tell whether they were predators or prey species and the shape of their bodies and the weight of their skeletons can tell us a lot about how they moved. We cannot however tell the colour of their skin from a fossil. Probably many of them used camouflage, to hide from predators. Predator species may even have used camouflage to ambush prey. It is possible however that some of the smaller species may have had poisons in their skin similar to some tree frogs and salamanders today. If this was the case, they would probably have been brightly coloured to deter predators.

Room 5: Fossil Room
Many specimens of plant fossils were found in the shale quarries around the Castlecomer area. The shale is found directly above the coal and is quarried for brick-making. These fossils can be seen in the display cabinets. Other fossils on loan from the Geological Survey of Ireland include fossil shark teeth from the Devonian Period and a specimen of Archaeopteris, from Kiltorcan, one of the first trees to colonise the Earth. The Jarrow amphibian fossils are held in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, but replicas are on display and can be used for fossil rubbings.

The History of Castlecomer Discovery Park – How it all began

Wandesforde Family
Castlecomer Discovery Park stands on the site of what was once part of the Wandesforde Estate. The Wandesforde family originally came from Kirklington near Richmond in Yorkshire. Christopher Wandesforde came to Ireland in 1636 along with the Earl of Stafford, who was then Lord Deputy of Ireland. He was granted an Estate in Castlecomer along with the titles of Master of the Rolls and Lord Chief Justice and later Lord Deputy after the Earl of Strafford was executed for treason. His son, Christopher was created a baronet and his grandson, also Christopher was named Baron Wandesforde and Viscount Castlecomer by Queen Anne. That title ended with the death of the 5th Viscount Sir John Wandesforde, who was succeeded by his daughter Anne in 1784. Anne Wandesforde married John Butler, heir to the Butlers of Ormonde and became the Countess of Ormonde. Her sons Walter and James became the 18th and 19th Earls of Ormonde while a younger son Charles inherited the Wandesforde estates and took the name Wandesforde.

During the Countess of Ormonde’s time on the Estate, the coal mines were mainly run by master miners who leased the land and employed teams of about 50 men to operate them. Her son, Charles Harward Butler-Clarke-Southwell-Wandesforde took a great interest in the running of the Estate and in the welfare of his tenants and attempted to reduce the role of middlemen by reducing rents and providing assistance. He even helped some of his tenants to emigrate.

CHBCS Wandesforde was succeeded by his daughter Sarah, who married John Prior. She outlived all her children and was succeeded by her grandson Richard Henry who inherited the estates and assumed the Wandesforde name in 1892.

Captain Richard Henry Prior-Wandesforde took personal control of the coal mines and invested his own money in upgrading and modernising the mine workings.

The Castlecomer Estate
Castlecomer Discovery Park is situated on grounds that once formed part of the Wandesforde family estate. Castlecomer House, the family home was located on the opposite side of the N78 road. The original house was built in 1638 and was burned down during the Battle of Castlecomer in 1798. A bigger house was built in its place in 1802 during the time of Lady Anne Ormonde. Most of the building was demolished in 1975 as it was no longer in use and had fallen into disrepair. Nothing now remains of the house.

The Visitor Centre is located in what was originally the farm yard and kitchen gardens of the estate. The stables and many of the farm buildings have been restored and now house the craft units and the education facilities. The original walled garden is now home to a small herd of Fallow and Sika Deer and a flock of Jacob Sheep.

The Lakes
Like many large landowners at the time, the Wandesforde family spent time improving their grounds to create an idealised landscape. One major part of this was the construction of two artificial lakes, which would have been used for fishing and boating.

The lakes were drained in the 1980s and the surrounding vegetation had gradually taken over. In 2004, the lakes were re-instated as part of the restoration and clearance of the woodlands, and are now used for rainbow trout angling. A replica of the Wandesforde family boathouse has also been constructed on the original site on the lower lake.

The Castlecomer Plateau
Mining in Castlecomer began in the mid 17th Century with the extraction of iron ore. Huge areas of oak woodland were cleared to feed the smelting furnaces. At this time coal was not used as the process of coking coal for the furnaces hadn’t been developed yet. Iron was generally found as nodules known as iron balls in the shale deposits of the area. In later years coal deposits were found beneath the shale and these were to form the basis of the coal mining industry in the area which lasted for over 300 years.

In the mid 17th century, Christopher Wandesforde, from Yorkshire was invited to Ireland by the Lord Lieutenant and granted a large estate in Castlecomer which included the Castlecomer coalfield. The Wandesforde family were responsible for the opening up of a number of coal seams and over time earned quite a large fortune from coal mining. In the early days, the land was leased out to middle men who employed miners to dig the coal. Overseers were employed to watch for illegal mines but some people managed to work small scale mines for a time by keeping the entrances hidden.

The Leinster Coalfield is centred on Castlecomer and extends into counties Laois and Carlow. The coal seams were often quite narrow but the coal itself was very high-quality anthracite with a low sulphur content. There were three separate seams worked in the area at different times with a number of pits operating in each seam.

The Old Three Foot Seam – The first coal seam to be worked in Castlecomer, the Old Three Foot seam was found at depths of between 15 and 45 meters. This seam was worked using Bell Pits until 1815 when the coal was exhausted.
The Jarrow Seam – Once the original coal was exhausted, the Wandesforde family enlisted the help of geologists to search for more coal and they located the Jarrow seam. This was in the shape of a horseshoe with coal up to 1.2m thick in the centre and thinner at the edges.
The Skehana Seam – In the early 20th Century, a deeper seam was discovered at Skehana, which contained some of the best quality anthracite in the world. A number of pits were opened up in the Skehana seam including the Deerpark. The Deerpark was the largest and deepest of the pits in the area and was the last to close, remaining open until 1969.

Early Mining Methods
In the early days, mining was carried out through the use of bell pits. Two shafts were sunk up to 150 feet (45 metres) apart and joined by a connecting tunnel for air. The miners would then go down the shaft and start digging out the coal on either side of the connecting tunnel with pillars of coal left in place to support the roof.

Because the coal seams were often quite thin, many of them only 18 inches (45cm) thick, the coal miners often had to work on their sides ‘colliering’ or digging out coal from the coalface with a pick for up to 8 hours per day. The coal was then brought to the bottom of the shafts by men dragging sleds filled with wooden boxes of coal, and winched to the surface by hand. The coal sleds were pulled using a ‘Gurl and Swivel’, which consisted of a heavy leather belt worn around the waist with a hook attached to the sled. In later years, mining became more mechanised with the use of coal cutters and electric conveyor belt and rope systems for transporting the coal. Because of these improvements and the addition of pumps for removing water from the mines and fans for circulation of air, mining could be carried out on a larger scale.

Wandesforde Family
When Captain R. H. Prior-Wandesforde inherited the estate in the late 19th Century, the family owned thousands of acres of woodland in the area. In previous years, the mines had been operated by master miners who leased the mines from the Wandesforde family, but ‘The Captain’ took personal control of the mines. He introduced many improvements in the mine workings including overhead ropeways to transport the coal to the Deerpark railway depot. He also established the Castlecomer Basket Factory, the Castlecomer Agricultural Bank and the Colliery Co-operative Society and built a number of housing schemes for the mine workers.

Conditions in the coal mines were very difficult and many workers were dissatisfied with their pay, housing conditions and lack of washing facilities. In the 1920s, Nixie Boran and some of the local miners formed a branch of the ‘Revolutionary Workers’ Group’. After a visit to Russia, for which he had to be smuggled out of the country, Nixie Boran returned to Castlecomer and the ‘Castlecomer Workers’ Union’ was formed and later renamed as ‘The Irish Mine and Quarry Workers’ Union’. The union sought to improve pay and working conditions for the miners but was strongly opposed not just by the mine owners but by many local people, including the clergy, because of its supposed communist connections. Over the years, there were many strikes and disagreements with management, but these eventually led to improvements in pay rates, the introduction of showers and lockers and improvements in mechanisation and working conditions.

Working in the coal mines could be very dangerous and many people lost their lives. The coal was taken out the mines on carts which travelled on a tracks attached to a continuous rope system. The system needed to be carefully managed and there was potential for great disaster if a chain snapped and a cart got loose and travelled back down the mine to collide with those behind. The coal miners’ lungs were often very weak as a result of breathing in the coal dust underground and the coal miners’ disease Pneumoconiosis was common. The mines did however, have one major advantage over other coal mines in Europe. Because the anthracite produced no methane gas, there was no danger of explosions and naked flames could be used for light.

For those men working in the coal mines, life was often difficult. Pay and housing conditions were very poor and for many years the miners did not have coal to burn in their own fires. Instead, they used the coal dust which was known as ‘culm’ and mixed it with yellow clay to burn in the fire. Until 1939, there were no washing facilities at the mines so miners would have to walk home in their dirty and often wet mining clothes and try to dry them by the fire at night. There were no toilet facilities so miners would have to use the disused mine roads which were known as the ‘gobbin roads’.

The mines were also full of rats. Because of the rats, most miners used to keep their lunch in tin boxes known as ‘piece boxes’. Although the rats could spread disease, they were also useful in cleaning out the ‘gobbin roads’ by eating the human waste. The rats would leave the mine in advance of a water leakage or other disaster, thus alerting the miners to the danger.

In The Shadow of the Mines
‘In The Shadow of the Mines’ by Joe and Seamus Walsh tells the inside story of the Castlecomer miners, blending the historical with the anecdotal, to give an insight into these men who were a ‘breed apart’. This fantastic book can be purchased in our gift shop. Orders can also be taken over the phone on +353 (0)56 4440707.

ADULTS:                         €5

CHILDREN:                     €3

STUDENTS/OAP:          €4

FAMILY: 2+2:                 €15 +2€ pp