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Saturday 10 December 2016

The Week in Radio: Mining of the memory

Miner Eugene McPartland, whose picture hangs in the mining museum
Miner Eugene McPartland, whose picture hangs in the mining museum

It’s easy to casually dismiss Sunday Miscellany as a cosy space where wistfulness regularly snuggles up to nostalgia.

A space where sentimentality and all things Alice Taylor-esque clasp hands before gambolling tweely through the rose-tinted fields.

I know it’s easy because I’ve done it myself. Dissed the show along said lines, I mean. But that was back in the spunky days of my sneering youth. Now? Well, now I find myself occasionally seduced (soothed might be a better word) by its miscellaneous charms.

A change in attitude that might just be down to the inexorable depletion of my spunk reserves (happens us all). Or maybe not. Maybe Sunday Miscellany was always good, and always spunky, and always there, waiting patiently and indulgently for me to cop on and change my tune. Which kind of makes it sound irritatingly like a smug “told-you-so” parent. Which it clearly isn’t. It being a childless radio programme and all.

Sunday’s special edition — produced to mark the 25th anniversary of the closure of the Arigna coal mines — featured “a selection of writings and music connected to the mines and to those who worked there”.

The first essay, by regular contributor Brian Leyden (who grew up in Arigna), opened with Leyden explaining how hard he still finds “giving directions to the Arigna Mining Experience” (a visitor centre built on the site of the defunct mine). When tourists ask the way to “the mining museum”, it’s harder still — that phrase painfully evoking images of industrial death.

The second piece, by Caroline Wynne (a “coal miner’s daughter”) was a more conventionally nostalgic and emotive childhood memoir. One that acknowledged the “long history of strife between miners and mine owners” while suggesting  that “our small mine somehow avoided all of that”. More on that anon.

Charlie McGettigan (pictured left) contributed both a tune (Life of a Miner) and an essay (the splendidly titled My Life in Power) to the show. The latter recalling his days as “the clerical officer at the Arigna coal-burning power station” and the “characters” he worked with. Pleasant enough stuff that found Sunday Miscellany drifting comfortably into its comfort zone.

A welcome edge was introduced by Yvonne Woods, who spoke warmly of “the pillars” of her “childhood world”. The local women who were, Woods said, “as indispensable to us and to the community as the coal mines”. Women whose work went “largely unrecognised”. Women who “had no downtime”. Women who never got to enjoy “afternoons of minerly camaraderie” in the local pub.

Best, however, was left to last. With Vincent Woods reflecting on his 2009 radio documentary The Long Strike, which examined Arigna’s “bitter strike” of “40 years earlier”. A strike that, said Woods, created “deep division” and “cracked the community”.

Woods (whose uncle was a strike leader) spoke of “250 men and their families struggling to survive... without wages, without work”. He spoke of a “local clergy” who “sided with the mine owners”. The parish priest, after calling to Woods’ grandmother and denouncing her son as a communist, asked her to persuade him to “call off the strike”.

“Devout and all as she was,” said Woods, “she ran him.”

Woods’ uncle, who died earlier this year spitting up “deep black mucus” in hospital, “never set foot in the mining museum”.

“The true story,” Woods concluded, “was too hard to warrant reminding of it.”

Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, Sunday

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