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Culm + Yellow Clay = Culm Balls

September 4, 2021
April 25, 2022
Culm + Yellow Clay = Culm Balls
Culm or Duff + Yellow Clay + Effort = Culm Balls
Removing Culm (graded coal) from a bunker under the Gantry at Gurteen
Removing Culm (graded coal) from a bunker under the Gantry at Gurteen

In Gurteen the miners extracted the coal and it came to the surface. Before it was sold it was cleaned of muck and stone and graded or sorted by size.

The coal came to the surface in the big skip and was emptied in one of two silos under the tracks in 'The Landing' (a big shed) and fed onto the first of three conveyor belts. It then moved onto the second belt to the 'Washery' where stones were removed by hand and the coal washed . On the third conveyor belt it traveled along the 'Gantry' to the 'Crusher' and on to the 'Grader'. The coal was graded by size.There were six bunkers for the graded produce- the first was for the few stones that had got past all the sorting and cleaning, then Culm or Duff, next the Grains, bigger Peas, bigger again- Beans and finally Nuts- the biggest coal.  

The smallest produce culm or duff has a special history of use in household fires in the Slieveardagh area when made into Culm Balls.

In our blog about Mardyke Colliery 'duff' was mentioned in one of The Mining Company of Ireland's Reports from 1849. Seán O'Brien who grew up in Killenaule, read the blog and it reminded him that culm was marked on the dockets from Killenaule Creamery as duff. He wondered where the word duff for culm came from....

The Oxford dictionary states that duff is 'Coal in the form of small particles and dust: small coal, slack. Also duff coal.', it is not an Anglicised version of dubh (black) as it was also being used in Colliery reports in England.

Two references to Duff from the time of the working mines are:

  • In 1887 the Pall Mall Gazette informed the readers that 'One ton of common duff coal has generated as much steam as two tons of good bituminous coal.'
  • In 1925 H M Cadell's book The Rocks of West Lothian. An account of the Geological and Mining History of the West Lothian District. stated 'The mixed coal from the pit is now cleaned, washed, separated out and classified into round coal, 'nuts' of various sizes, 'pearls' and 'duff'

 Collecting Coal from Ballynonty by Horse or Donkey and Cart
Collecting Coal from Ballynonty by Horse or Donkey and Cart

Seán shared his memories from the 1940's and 50's of the Slieveardagh coal mining area.  He recalls purchasing Culm at Killenaule Creamery where it was marked on the docket as Duff, he also made 'a few trips for culm' directly to Ballynonty mine with a donkey and cart loaned from Hanlys of Killenaule', and as he says 'Better still, with the same cart I went to the Ballinastick/Acres (?) area for Culm also, produced from a verticle shaft called a 'Basset''

Does anyone have a photograph of or more information on Hanleys of Killenaule or of anyone working the bassets in the Slieveardagh Coalfield

Locally Duff or Culm could be sourced from the collieries, collected from the streams and river banks where it was washed out from the mine workings and was also was a product of the much smaller Basset or Bell Pit Mines. There were basset mines across the Slieveardagh coalfield, they were usually family enterprises, much of what they mined was used in their own households or sold locally.

The duff or culm was mixed with Yellow Clay to make Culm Balls.Yellow Clay was found across the area, if a farmer had yellow clay on his land he would often allow other families to bring a cart of good clay to his land and exchange it for the useful yellow clay.

Most of the recorded history of mining and fuel production in the area is of the men who worked in the mines.

Culm ball were usually made during the Summer by hand or using a culm ball shooter. Families made the balls for their own use treading the mix, making the balls and drying them to store for the winter. If a horse was available a large quantity of culm and clay could be prepared by walking the horse on the mix.

After our early blogs Geraldine Healy commented 'as with every Heritage Project women have been airbrushed out' and I know they didn't go down the mines hacking away at seams but in Cornwall they had an important  role in grading and sorting the product.' So unlike Cornwall there were no women working with coal at the mines in Slieveardagh, but many woman worked hard converting the otherwise nearly useless culm into Culm Balls.

Local Women spent the summers making culm balls for the next year. They would make them for their own use, and also work for other people. Presentation Convent in Ballingarry used Culm Balls as their main fuel and annually a large group of local women spent two full weeks making culm balls for the next year. Local landowners and big farmers also employed groups of women making culm balls.

Adding Yellow Clay to the Duff or Culm Heritage Week 2016
Adding Yellow Clay to the Duff or Culm Heritage Week 2016

From Culm and Clay to Fuel: 'Dancing the Culm'

  • A ring of culm was spread on the ground and trampled down.
  • The yellow clay was dried and broken down to dust and added to the culm.
  • Water was gradually mixe into the pile to act as a binding agent.
  • The pile was 'danced' to mix the culm, yellow clay and water together.
  • The dancing continued till the mixture was very sticky.
  • Then it was made into culm balls, either by hand or using a culm ball shooter.
  • The balls were then fully dried in the open or beside the fire and stored.  

Single, Double and 4-Ball Culm Ball Shooters
Single, Double and 4-Ball Culm Ball Shooters

Finally today we have an excellent film made in 2017, Roisin O'Grady, Tipperary Heritage Officer is pleased to share this Story from the Slieveardagh Landscape .

Michael 'King' Cleere  visits Slieveardagh National School, now known as 'The Old School' where he was a pupil, Lickfinn Mine where he worked, and finishes up in Glengoole at  Buddy Brennan's Dancing the Culm.

Stories from the Landscape - Michael Cleere from Heritage Office Tipperary CoCo on Vimeo.

This film is one from the series 'Stories from the Landscape' and was funded as an action of Tipperary Heritage plan by Tipperary County Council and the Heritage Council.

If anyone has any names of the women who worked making the Culm Balls for the Convent or others, or information or memories about their own basset mines or experiences of making Culm Balls please share them with us to add to our important mining history of the Slieveardagh Hills.

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