Beneath the emerald hills of County Roscommon, a darker and more sinister world has existed for centuries. The coal mines of Arigna, renowned for having some of the narrowest and most difficult mining conditions in the world, were Ireland’s only source of coal beginning in the 1700s. To chip away at the black bituminous rock found here, miners were forced to work by lying on their backs or sides in tunnels as narrow as 51cm (20 in.)—and you thought your cubicle was small. The mines have been closed since 1990, but the Mining Experience Centre—winner of a Rural Tourism Award—gives adventurous visitors a taste of the life of a working miner.
The Arigna Mines are nestled within the lush Arigna Valley, and can be reached by traveling the Arigna Scenic Drive, a 60km (37-mile) loop that begins and ends in nearby Boyle. Look for the brown signposts with the word Sli, meaning route, indicating the course of travel. The narrow road leads visitors past verdant hills, blue loughs (lakes), and lush river valleys until it reaches the Arigna Mines and its Mining Experience Centre, a modern architectural stunner that resembles a large, angular block of coal.
The 45-minute mine tour begins at the mine’s rocky entrance, crowned by a statue of the Virgin Mary—often the last thing the miners saw before descending into the dark, stony depths. Tours into the mineshafts are led by former miners, who are able to provide an authentic, first-hand insight into the daily life of a coal miner. Lights and recorded noises replicate the conditions of an operating mine, as do the hardhats visitors must wear when underground. Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes are also recommended.
Mining has been an important part of this region’s history for over 500 years, due in part to the discovery of local iron ore deposits—nearby Slieve Anierin, in fact, translates to “Iron Mountain.” Coal was used as an energy source in local iron foundries after nearby forests were clearcut. Though the iron industry didn’t last in this area, coal continued to be an important source of fuel with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The Arigna coal mines stayed open and active until 1990, when the local power station—the coal mine’s main customer—closed down.
Energy continues to play a part in the local economy, though from a more environmentally sustainable source; nearby hills are dotted with wind turbines that feed electricity into the nation’s energy grid. If you can’t get enough of underground adventures, you may also want to visit other caves in west-central Ireland, including Aillwee and Doolin Caves (www.aillweecave.ie, www.doolincave.ie) in County Clare and the Glengowla Mines in County Galway (glengowla.goegi.com). The region is also home to Ireland’s only tree canopy walk, located in Lough Key Forest Park (www.loughkey.ie). —ML
When to Go: Apr–Oct; prices higher July–Aug. Tour open year-round.
Shannon (135km/84 miles).