Thursday, 13 October 2011

Patrick Colbert (c1845-1901) of Bunmahon & Whiterigg

A few days ago I discussed a photographic portrait coloured in oils of a middle-aged man. Diana Burns has sent me the rather harrowing tale from her husband's family history and, rather than summarise it, I've decided to present it here in full, in her words and partly illustrated with some of her own photographs.

Image © Copyright Hector Davie and courtesy of Geograph.co.uk
Mahon River and Bunmahon, Co. Waterford, 2006
Image © Copyright Hector Davie and courtesy of Geograph.co.uk
Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Bunmahon is a quiet village in Co. Waterford, Ireland, lying in an area still called the Copper Coast. Copper was discovered there in the 1820s, transforming the former holiday resort into a major industrial region for much of the nineteenth century. However, a series of crises – deterioration in the quality of the ore and its increasing inaccessibility, famine, transatlantic migration and strikes – led to the decline and ultimate closure of the mine in 1877.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns
Patrick Colbert (c1845-1901) of Bunmahon & Whiterigg
Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

Against this backdrop were two families, the Colberts and the Hurleys. Patrick Colbert was born to James Colbert, foreman at the mine, and his wife, Catherine Flynn, around 1854. Mary Hurley was born to Timothy Hurley, the mine’s paymaster, and his wife, Julia O’Sullivan, around 1856. Patrick and Mary married in 1875 and their first child, Bridget Mary, was born in Bunmahon in 1877.

Image © Copyright Philip Halling and courtesy of Geograph.co.uk
Tankardstown Mine, Bunmahon, Co. Waterford, 2007
Image © Copyright Philip Halling and courtesy of Geograph.co.uk
Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The conditions in Bunmahon following the mine closure had become appalling. At the 1877 half year AGM of the Mining Company of Ireland, it was reported, “It was as if an angel of death had swept over Bunmahon… [The mining area is] now deserted and the misery and wretchedness of the people who survived painful almost beyond description… They are in a state of destitution to amount almost to starvation.

The Colberts were one of the last families to leave, along with the Wheatley family whose eldest son, John, went on to become Minister for Health in the first Labour Government in 1924. Both families headed for industrial Lanarkshire in Scotland. Although the reason behind their choice of destination is not clear, it is likely that recruiting agents for the Scottish coal and ironstone companies had come over to Ireland.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns
The Road to Whiterigg, January 2010
Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

The Colberts moved into Airdriehill Square, Whiterigg, a custom-built village erected in 1874 by United Collieries Ltd. 49 single storey, brick houses were laid out in rows to form a square. The walls were damp, there were no sinks in the homes and sanitation took the form of open privy middens in front of the rows. The Colberts had seven more children. Their only son, James, died aged seven after a building had collapsed on his leg and necrosis developed.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns
Whiterigg Moorland, January 2010
Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

The remaining children grew to adulthood, and Bridget Mary married William Burns, my husband’s grandfather. William reportedly served in the Black Watch. He was a Pioneer Socialist and ambivalent about WW1. In 1915, he obtained compassionate leave to go the funeral of Keir Hardie where he was an honorary pall-bearer. When he returned, his colonel sent for him and said that “Keir Hardie was a Socialist who should have been shot, and we won’t miss you!” Reputedly, this reached Ramsay McDonald, who was to become the first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. McDonald was a pacifist in WW1 and the Government was anxious to keep the Labour Party and the British trade union movement onside during the war. He intervened, with the result that William was shipped out to India instead of to the Western Front and almost certain death. William went on to become John Wheatley’s election agent in Lanarkshire East in the 1920s.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns
Signpost, Whiterigg, January 2010
Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

In the spring of 1901, two of the seven girls were bringing in a wage. The family also had a boarder, in a house that probably had three rooms at the most. On 29 December 1901, Patrick Colbert died aged 47 from acute pneumonia. The conditions under which he worked almost certainly led to his death - damp, poor ventilation and the constant inhalation of coal dust. I cannot imagine how his widow managed to raise seven children aged between three and eighteen, but I have found no evidence of her applying for poor relief.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns
St David's School, Whiterigg, September 2009
Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

Little remains of Whiterigg now, at least on the surface. All the houses have long been cleared from the site. Only the old school remains. I visited the area last February, a very unforgiving time of the year to view a lost village, and was left with a deep impression of the bleakness of the landscape and the bitterly cold wind blowing across the deserted moorland.

References

Cowman, Des (2006) The Making and Breaking of a Mining Community: The Copper Coast, County Waterford 1825-1875+, Grannagh, Waterford: GK Print.

Lucas, H., Devlin, E. & Reilly, J. (2001) The Lost Villages: Whiterigg, Darngavil, Arden, Ballochney, Craigmauchen, Meikle Drumgray, North Standrigg, South Standrigg, self publ., Glasgow: Craig & Stewart Printers Ltd.

5 comments:

  1. What a moving story, thanks for sharing it in it's entirety.

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  2. I've just been told that great granny Colbert made ends meet by running a 'shop' (probably from her Whiterigg house) selling groceries and homemade potted meat!

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  3. The St Davids School picture posted by Ms Burns is not the correct school, I went to St Davids from 1940s to 1950s. so I know what it looks like standing alone in the Whiterigg wilderness.

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  4. Merry Christmas, James, and thank you for pointing out the error. I will see if I can find a photo of the correct school on the net and change it.

    Regards, Brett

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  5. school is still there,stands at top of meadowhead road plains on a corner next to a scrapyard

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