Last Tuesday, just as has been done for over a hundred Augusts past, a small ceremony took place in an English mining town. For it was over a century ago that Lancashire’s worst mining disaster wreaked havoc on a tightly knit community and sent shock waves that crossed the Irish Sea.
Seventy-five miners lost their lives in the Maypole colliery at Abram, five miles from the town of Wigan, when an explosion ripped through the mine in the late afternoon of an August day. It was an explosion that rocked the village and the town, causing houses and buildings to shake, and sending plumes of dust and debris a hundred feet into the Lancashire air.
The first shift of 600 men had completed their rota and had returned to the surface at 3pm, when a second group of 78, mainly shot firers and maintenance men, commenced their descent. Two hours later came an explosion that ripped through the mine, causing an underground fire, which in turn meant that the mine had to be flooded, thus sealing the fate of the trapped workers.
Of the 78, only three survived by making their way through underground workings to finally reach another mine a quarter of a mile away. There, the frantic knocking was heard by a team of neighbouring miners, who broke through the coal face to haul them to safety. Of the three rescued, two of the men were Irish.
A large number of those who died were emigrants who had settled in Wigan, with 13 of the dead coming from Mayo, mainly from the Kiltimagh, Knock, Charlestown area. Press reports tell of harrowing scenes as distraught relatives rushed to the lamp office to ascertain whether their husbands and sons were among those entombed in the pitch black darkness, nearly half a mile under the ground.
Seven bodies were recovered quickly, but it was not until over a year later that most of the victims were recovered. The last body was not brought to the surface until 1917, nine years after the disaster.
Only a few bodies were identified and buried in private graves. The fire that had swept the mine made it impossible to identify the others. A common grave was prepared in Abram, a few hundred yards from the colliery.
A high stone cross, funded by public subscription, was erected in their memory. The names were inscribed in panels set into the broad base, the flower of Irish manhood, young and strong and fearless and hard working. Many had been active in Gaelic cultural circles in Wigan, retaining a link with home which meant so much to them.
Thanks in great part to the efforts of the Mayo Emigrant Liaison Committee, the 13 Mayo victims of the tragedy are remembered today in a room dedicated to their memory at Hennigan’s Heritage Centre in Killasser. The brainchild of Kevin Bourke, tireless advocate of the Irish emigrant community, the room was officially opened in 2008 to mark the centenary of the disaster, by the Mayor of Wigan, Rhona Winkworth, who led a deputation from Lancashire.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a specially commissioned painting depicting the family of James McGrath, a native of Kilgarriff, Charlestown, who left behind a widow and eight children.
And most poignant of all is a boot made at the old Parsons shoe factory in Bellaghy, Charlestown, and which was among the mementos of home brought to Wigan by a departing emigrant many years before the Maypole tragedy struck.