Coal mining in Ireland? You might think you missed a bit of industrial history, but as the Arigna Mining Experience in County Roscommon vividly shows, the extraction of fossil fuels from the mountains was not unheard of. Though it became unsustainable a few decades ago, when cheaper imports and dwindling reservoirs killed off the mines. Devastating local economy ... which has only managed to recover a part of the income source by opening a mine for visitors and employing ex-miners as guides.
Arigna - End of the World
County Roscommon itself is known to most tourists by the "Welcome" and "Goodbye" signs you see when speeding (or not, there are many tractors on these roads) through. It is not a hotspot. And Arigna, though blessed with a grand view of Lough Allen, is tucked away in a remote corner of the county, not easily found and (unless you follow the signposts to the Arigna Mining Experience) bypassed by most. Just a few decades ago this would have been a bustling industrial hotspot, with lorries loaded with coal trundling down to mountains to the railway station, long goods trains carrying the profitable mass away.
Today, the lorries, the trains, the coal mines and most of the coal are gone. What remains are heaps of stones, the inevitable by-product of coal mining, dumped carelessly, but by now forming an integral and almost natural-looking part of the landscape. Under one of the heaps you find the entrance to the Arigna Mining Experience, a modern visitor centre that manages to blend harmonically in, despite its dramatic, leaning structures.
The Arigna Mining Experience Step by Step
Upon arrival, you will notice that the bulk of the Arigna Mining Experience is open by guided tour only - thankfully these tours run at regular, frequent intervals. A ticket will come with a start time, peruse the small museum (which doubles as a waiting area) or the café while you wait.
Artefacts and old photographs are plenty, giving a good first impression.
A guide will then pick you up at the mine entrance and (after donning a "shower cap" and a hard hat) you are given a talk about the mines around Arigna. Informative, not too detailed, more than often tinged with some regret that the mining days are over. Which will, quite frankly, become a stranger notion the more you learn about the actual mining and the conditions the workers had to endure.
Today, the Arigna Mining Experience has made the mines "visitor-friendly". Health and Safety has provided you with a hard hat, but chances to bump your head are few. The corridors are wide, moderately well lit and high enough for everyone. In fact, you could almost drive through them. And admire those little fissures in the rock in passing ...
... until the guide points out that those little fissures are the actual seams he and his colleagues had to work in, for hours on end, paid by a number of cartloads they were able to hammer from the rock. With the help of unwieldy, yet hand-held tools. Breathing dust all the way. Suddenly your office job seems to be a slice of heaven. Especially if you consider that in the active mines the timber holding up the whole hill was rotting away at a dramatic rate.
During the tour, you will see the tools used, learn about the plan behind the tunnel system, see the underground railway (a trolley system) in operation ... and even witness the blasting of a new tunnel. Well, the simulated blasting. But the total darkness for a few seconds can be quite oppressive.
Arigna - Worth a Detour?
With Ireland having a number of highly attractive show-caves, from Aillwee Cave in County Clare to nearby Marble Arch Cave in County Fermanagh, going underground is becoming a more and more common experience for tourists. And in those caves, it is charming, natural. The Arigna Mining Experience is a stark reality, totally different. Yet utterly compelling and certainly worth traveling a bit for. Maybe combine it with another piece of industrial heritage at the Cavan and Leitrim Railway in Dromod (County Leitrim), where the coal trains from Arigna met the mainline.
Visit the Arigna Mining Experience's website for current pricing and hours.