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
A century or so later a young Limerick man named John OSullivan
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 OSullivans and
his teams 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, its 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 authors research took him seven years and his
labours have been well rewarded with a finely written and
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
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 Griffiths valuation
and contributed greatly to famine relief, that great tragedy
was in its own way to finish his work ingloriously with
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.
Irelands loss was to be Germanys 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.
Mulvanys 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. Patricks 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
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 Marys 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
OSullivan, available in local bookshops, £14.95.
Courtesy of the Limerick Leader