William John Irwin, known as John, was born in 1905 in County Tyrone, Ireland. His mother died when John was just a young boy. His father was a seagoing man so John was brought up by uncles and aunts and was “farmed out” (a form of bonded labour) when he left school at the age of 10.
John did a tour of India with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. He came to Campbeltown in the 1930’s on one of the “Kelly” boats that shipped coal from Kintyre to Belfast and carried soil from Northern Ireland, as ballast, to Kintyre. According to Donald, John’s son, many of the parks around Campbeltown, such as Quarry Green, Kilkerran Road, were made with Irish soil.
John worked at the Drum farm, Kilkenzie, near Campbeltown. He a married local woman, Marie Docherty and they had 9 children. The family lived in Drumlemble. Three of his children, Donald, Jimmy and Margaret, still live in South Kintyre. In 1941 John joined the war effort and went to sea, serving with the Royal Artillery Maritime Branch.
It was on his return to Kintyre that he started to work at Argyll Colliery, Machrihanish. The colliery, which was was driven in 1946, was originally called the Lady Lithgow mine, after the wife of the owner, Lord Lithgow. The mine was nationalised in 1947. John did his underground training in Fife and worked as a shotfirer. In 1948 the family moved from 16 Front Row, Drumlemble to a Pre-Fab house in Rhudal, also in Drumlemble.
Donald, John’s son, remembers visiting the colliery on pay days, where his dad treated him to a roll in the canteen – he recalls both Flo Docherty and Cathy Greenlees, the women who worked there. In 1963, just after he left school, Donald had to go to collect his Christmas present at the canteen, an Airfix model of a B52 plane. Miners’ children all received good Christmas presents back in those days.
Donald also remembers miners’ gala days at Macharioch, Southend and at Clachan, and says the bus journeys were highly entertaining thanks to sing-songs led by Hamish McNeil, who worked at the mine.
John Irwin suffered from work related health problems so stopped working as a shot-firer and got a job working at the switches in the mine. He finally left Argyll Colliery in 1963.
We have John’s son, Donald, to thank for providing the project with Coal Mining in Kintyre – a history of coal mining in Kintyre compiled by former mine manager David Seaman and the late Father Webb.