An Irishman with a dream in 19th century Germany

Back in mid-19th century, an Irish engineer named William T Mulvany, had a dream. Travelling through the then underdeveloped Ruhr area of Germany, he saw great potential in the mining of coal and came home in an attempt to raise finances for his project.

A century or so later a young Limerick man named John O’Sullivan went to Germany as part of the IDA taskforce enticing German industrialists to set up here at a time when jobs were scarce and emigration high.

Both were successful beyond their dreams, Mulvany eventually being awarded a gold medal from the Kaiser for his highly acclaimed entrepreneurial enterprise, with streets being named after him in four cities in the Ruhr.

The establishment of the lifesaving Krups factory in Limerick was one of the fruits of John O’Sullivan’s and his team’s labours.

John, a former employee of the Limerick leader and later reporter in Radio Eireann, eventually settled in Cologne and became fascinated when he came across coal mines named Shamrock and Erin.

Curiosity got the better of him, his journalistic training took over, and he uncovered the story of this extraordinary Dublin man named Mulvany who had the temerity to travel to Germany and show this great nation how coal mines could be established, it’s product brought safely and economically above ground, and at the same time instigate a whole network of innovative infrastructure.

John decided to put into print the astonishing tale of this hitherto unknown Irishman, and the result is Breaking Ground. The author’s research took him seven years and his labours have been well rewarded with a finely written and fascinating story.

Mulvany was only 18 when he assisted in the first ordnance survey of Connacht and went on to supervise the drainage of the Shannon and then planned the Shannon / Erne waterway. He went on to play a huge part in the alleviation of distress during the unspeakable horrors that was the famine, directing thousands of workers in relief schemes all over the country.

In Clare alone, he helped create no less 25,000 relief jobs, which encompassed work on roads, and boundary walls along the great demesnes, most of which can still be seen to his day.

There is a Limerick connection. Mulvany spent five years in Limerick as inspector of fisheries, supervising the building of new weirs in the Shannon River area and the repair of those which had fallen into decline. Evidence of one of his works can still be seen; the Lax Weir in Corbally where many of the connecting piers of the weir are still extant.

Despite his very successful career in the Board of Works, in which he played a huge part in the Griffith’s valuation and contributed greatly to famine relief, that great tragedy was in its own way to finish his work ingloriously with that body.

Landlords, with little by way of income following the famine, objected to what they maintained were excessive charges they had to pay towards drainage on their lands, and found in Mulvany the scapegoat. Most militant was the highly influential Earl of Rosse, and despite being exonerated by a board of enquiry of any wrong-doing, Mulvany had enough and eventually resigned on pension.

Ireland’s loss was to be Germany’s gain. In London, Mulvany met up with an Irishman born in Slane but brought up in Belgium. This was to be a fateful meeting. Michael Corr van der Maeren had a small interest in coal mining in Germany. He invited Mulvany to have a look, and the engineer found one of the major problems was with ingress of groundwater.

He discovered mining methods and infrastructure in Prussia were primitive to say the least, those in England being way ahead. So bad indeed, that it was more economical to import English coal to Germany than to buy the native stuff.

Mulvany, seeing the tremendous natural resources from geographic charts, was highly impressed with the huge potential of the rich coal seams but dismayed with the backward nature and poor infrastructure surrounding the existing mines.

Comet the hour, cometh the man. Mulvany returned to England and studied the superior mining methods of the English, particularly the tubbing system developed by William Coulson, a major contributor to safety and water control.

Skilled miners were recruited in Durham and over succeeding years three hundred miners from England and Ireland were brought over to Dusseldorf, the majority of them eventually settling down there with their families.

Mulvany’s vast experience in draining Irish bogs and rivers stood him in good stead and he was convinced of the viability of opening mines in the Ruhr. Coming back to Ireland, he persuaded a group of investors on the potential, the Goodbody family, associated with Limerick milling, eventually to become shareholders.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1856 the coal mine named Hibernia was opened in Gelsenkirchen amidst great pomp, and two more, the Shamrock and Erin, were to follow, all highly successful.

It is hard to credit that it took an Irishman to show the Germans, above all people, how to mine coal successfully, but as the author points out, Germany in those days was anything but industrially advanced, the English being streets ahead.

Not satisfied with the success of coal mines, Mulvany, a European before his time, travelled the Continent observing infrastructure on river and land, and headed several industrial motivated bodies that put many of his observations and suggestions into practice. He was the first to be awarded the freedom of Gelsenkirchen for his endeavours.

The author points out another interesting Limerick connection. Mulvany built a fine mansion with rolling parklands near his Shamrock mine in Herne, and on the front door there is a carving bearing a remarkable resemblance to the ancient carved oak stalls (misericords) in St Mary’s Cathedral.
He suggests that Mulvany, having worshiped in the cathedral, may have recalled the carvings from memory and had them inserted on the door of his mansion.

Mulvany died in October 30, 1885, aged 84, and the Irish Times: “It is a suggestive commentary on our system that long experience and abilities of high order, which should have been devoted to the amelioration of this country, and the development of its resources, were more highly prized and rewarded in a foreign land.”

Breaking Ground, the story of Wiliam T. Mulvany, by John O’Sullivan, available in local bookshops, £14.95.

Courtesy of the Limerick Leader
November 2004