Beneath the topsoil in the southwest corner of Lough Neagh lie seams of coal which have been mined since the 17th century if not before. The first record of coal in the Coalisland area was mentioned in the Civil Survey of 1654, which referenced a mine being opened in the townland of Derry, parish of Tullyniskan. Nothing is known of this mine and it may have been nothing more than a ‘bell shaft’, a shallow shaft so called because of its shape, which were dug by individual landowners for personal use. At the beginning of the 18th century Francis Seymour leased land in the area and produced a pamphlet in 1729 about early mining practices. He stated that the seam at Drumglass, 3 miles west of Coalisland had been discovered in 1692 and initial workings here were undertaken by merchants from Dublin. Coal was an expensive commodity imported from Britain and merchants were eager to find a more local source. However, transport of the coal to Dublin proved more costly than the imports as it had to travel first to Newry by cart and then to Dublin by ship. Seymour was enthusiastic in his estimate of the extent of the seams, claiming that they extended from Mountjoy to Charlemont. His initial estimates were perhaps the stimulus behind the construction of the Coalisland Canal which would in theory allow for cheaper transport of coal to Dublin via the Newry Canal. Work began on the creating a four mile long canal between Coalisland and the River Blackwater in 1732.
A partnership between the Lord Archbishop of Armagh, the Archbishop of Tuam, Arthur Hill, Charles Caulfield and Thomas Staples was formed in 1749 to extract coal at numerous mines in the area, the new mines being known as the ‘Primate Pits’. The partnership, which would later become the ‘Tyrone Mining Company’ in 1765, was reasonably successful, however the cost of mining soon exceeded the price it fetched at market. One problem was the location of the collieries being some three miles to the southwest of the Coalisland basin and situated on much higher ground. The building of a road between the two was financed by Parliament but never completed. The solution to the problem was devised by a young Italian engineer named Daviso de Arcort, known locally as Ducart, whereby a system of rollers on inclined planes or ‘dry hurries’ would move lighters up towards the pits without the aid of water. Ducart was granted money to test the plan and in 1777 the first dry lighters arrived at Coalisland. However the commercial success of the collieries was not forthcoming and at the beginning of the 19th century British coal was being brought into Coalisland via Newry and Belfast for distribution there. Despite this a second mining company, the Hibernian Mining Company, was established in 1829, after which a period of peak production occurred (1830-50). However, during the late 19th century the output of the mines declined and by 1910 mining operations had ceased.
Investigations undertaken in 1918 by Samuel Kelly of Belfast located a potential new seam in the townland of Annagher, to the northeast of Coalisland. Two hundred trained miners from Cumberland and Scotland were employed at the new colliery which mined from 1924-1927, and their families were housed in a purpose built development on the outskirts of Coalisland known as Newtownkelly. Although 36,000 tons were mined between 1925 and 1926 by 1927 the seam was exhausted. Mining was revived in 1956 when the Derry Road pit, located to the west of Coalisland, was opened, providing employment for 40 men. However, it closed in 1970. (Image: Pit at Annagher, 1924)
Coalmining spanned just a little over two centuries. It was hoped that the output would rival that of the British mines in terms of quantity and quality but this was not to be.