235 – Kilkenny Coal

I think Thomas Large worked in the coal mines. Let’s make the case.

The Wandesforde Estate was smack in the middle of the Castlecomer coal fields. Coal provided Castlecomer’s wealth from the mid-1600s until the mid-1900s.

Castlecomer colliery – late 1800s

Iron ore was discovered on the Castlecomer plateau in the mid-1700s. The digging of iron ore exposed a rich seam of coal, which surpassed the iron ore in economic potential. The original “three-foot” seam was mined until around 1800.

The Jarrow Seam

By 1800, the original coal seams had been mined out. The Wandesfordes hired geologists, who located the Jarrow seam. The Jarrow would be the primary seam mined from 1800 to 1915.

The Jarrow seam followed a large oxbow shape, stretching seven miles long by 200-300 yards wide and reached a thickness of four feet. It contained top quality anthracite and ran under the townlands of Clogh, Loan, Moonenroe and Coolbawn.

The Development of Mining in Castlecomer, Ireland 1640-1969

The coal fields were just northeast of Castlecomer town. They extended a few miles northeast through Castlecomer parish and into adjoining County Laois.

Jarrow Seam – Castlecomer coal fields – 1800s

Thomas Large’s occupation

We have citations for Thomas and Bridget Large’s family living in four townlands – Ardra, Coolbaun, Moneenroe, and Gurteen. You can see on the map that these are the exact locations of the collieries and coal pits.

Ellen’s baptism record listed Thomas as a laborer, so he wasn’t primarily a farmer.

Based on where Thomas lived, it doesn’t seem like he worked in Castlecomer town or on the Wandesforde Estate.

I think Thomas worked in the mines or collieries.

Jarrow Pit – late 1800s

The coal

The coal was high-quality anthracite.  Anthracite coal is harder than bituminous coal.  It’s harder to ignite but it burns much cleaner and longer. It produced less smoke, which was desirable because many houses didn’t have chimneys.

Anthracite, also known as hard coal, and black coal, is a hard, compact variety of coal that has a submetallic luster. It has the highest carbon content, the fewest impurities, and the highest energy density of all types of coal and is the highest ranking of coals.

Anthracite – Wikipedia

The Castlecomer and surrounding Leinster fields were the only anthracite coal fields in Ireland.

The colliery

Jarrow Colliery – 1917

A colliery refers to a mine and its associated buildings and equipment.

The present collieries are situated two miles north of Castlecomer … in the plain westward from Cooleban.

More than 700 men are constantly employed.

Kilkenny Collieries – 1837

There were 16 to 20 surrounding pits with aerial ropeways to transport coal to the colliery.

700 men were employed in 1837. That’s a lot of workers, and those workers probably lived nearby. Here we have households from four or five townlands that must supply 700 workers. That’s a lot greater density than we saw in Donegal where there were 60 or 70 households in a townland. That’s circumstantial evidence that many of the residents of these townlands worked in or around the mines.

I think Thomas worked there too.

The work

Working in the coal mines was considered one of the hardest jobs in the county. Miners worked long hours and rarely lived past the age of fifty, as the coal dust caused lung diseases. It was common for the mines to collapse, as there were practically no safety measures in place.

Mining in Castlecomer – Ask About Ireland

In the early 1800s, there was a “master collier” system. A prominent miner would function as a middleman. He would lease a pit from the Wandesfordes and then hire the workers to mine the coal. The Wandesfordes had to deal only with the middlemen, and not hundreds of individual workers.

One crew would be about 50 men: 20 clearers, 20 cutters, 6 breakers, 2 hurriers, and 3 thrusters.

  • Clearers would clear away slate, rock, and soil from the seam
  • Cutters would make incisions into the seam with pick axes
  • Breakers would break the cut into smaller rubble and put it into a cart
  • A hurrier would drag the cart or sledge out of the mine
  • Thrusters would push the cart from behind

The coal seams were quite narrow, about one meter high. So much of the work was done lying down or crouching.

A breaker removing coal from the seam. A coal cart pulled by a hurrier and pushed by thrusters.

Since Thomas Large was a laborer, he wasn’t a miner (cutter or breaker). So if he worked in the mines, he had a more menial job. If he worked in the colliery, there were probably lots of laborer jobs.

When Thomas’ sons reached 12 or 13 years of age, they would have begun working as slate pickers, then hurriers and thrusters. As they gained experience, they would have become laborers and/or miners.

When Thomas’ sons emigrated in their late teenage years, they settled in anthracite coal country in Pennsylvania and got jobs as miners. That’s circumstantial evidence that they were familiar with and maybe even experienced at mine work. That’s because they lived in the midst of the Jarrow coal fields, and their father likely worked there. They probably did too.

The workers

Wheaten bread is the principal food of the colliers, which they take down with them into the pits, and a twopenny loaf serves for a meal.

Their earnings are generally consumed in the purchase of spirits; this ruinous habit, to which their mode of labour in some degree leads them, is the cause that though their pay is higher than that of any other workmen, yet in appearance, they are the most wretched persons in the county. Their houses are ruinous, generally built as well as covered with sods, upon which heavy stones are sometimes laid, to prevent their being blown off: chimneys and windows are luxuries deemed unnecessary.

The children are numerous, but usually quite naked, the parents dirty and ill-clad, and what is worse, the colliers are, independent of accidents, unhealthy and short-lived; they seldom arrive at fifty years of age. A consumption of the lungs is the disorder of which they usually die; for a year or two before which event, they often throw up continually a black spittle.

Statistical observations relative to the county of Kilkenny, made in the years 1800 & 1801 – Royal Dublin Society – 1802

Health Conditions

The Royal Commission for inquiring into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland was an initiative to investigate the causes of widespread destitution in Ireland at the beginning of the 19th century. The Commission conducted its extensive survey over three years, from 1833 until 1836, during which time it published various reports of its findings and recommendations.

Royal Commission on the Poorer Classes in Ireland – Wikipedia

Questionnaires were sent to health workers and priests to report on conditions in their districts.

In Castlecomer, George Hartford answered the questionnaire. He was an M.D. and proprietor of the Castlecomer dispensary. His answers give a contemporaneous look at conditions around Castlecomer, and especially in the coal pit areas.

Past is prologue

Thomas Large may have come to Ireland from England. Or maybe he was born in Ireland and had parents or grandparents that lived and worked around the mines.

Bridget Kavanagh Large’s father probably worked in the Castlecomer mines or collieries.

In the early 1840s, Thomas and Bridget’s four sons probably began their own work around the mines. It was unlikely they would be able to break the cycle.

Fate would intervene.


2 thoughts on “235 – Kilkenny Coal

  1. deborahlargefox0764 August 24, 2022 / 5:47 pm

    Another excellent Large post! Thanks! You make a very strong and thorough case for Thomas’s occupation as a miner. I agree that he was mostly likely a miner in Castlecomer. I sometimes wonder if he came to Ireland as a soldier then settled there and worked in the mines? Thanks again for adding so much to the Large family history!


    • Mark Jarvis August 24, 2022 / 9:06 pm

      We’ve made so many guesses and assumptions. As we said last week, we need next gen researchers or DNA matches to break this brick wall.

      Liked by 1 person

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