Shane Cochrane unravels the mystery of
the 1906 Coalisland coal mine hauntings
Every night at midnight, in 1906, an apparition of a lady dressed in white would appear at a coal mine near Coalisland. She would walk along the country road to the old chestnut tree in the Mass Garden, the place where Mass was celebrated during the days of Penal Law. And each night, shortly after she reached the tree, she would disappear.
James Hughes and Joe McMahon, who both worked at the mine, were the first to see the apparition. According to Joe, it was dressed in white and had a white cover over its head. “You could not see the arms and legs on it,” he said at the time, “but nevertheless it was distinctly the form of a human being.”
The following night, Hughes and McMahon were in a cabin at the mine with two other men, Joe Hararan and Bernard Quinn, when the apparition appeared again. At about 1:30 am, the men became aware of an eerie figure near the chestnut tree. At first it was moving, but it stopped as the men watched.
Hughes and Hararan went outside for a closer look – before quickly returning to the safety of the cabin. They both agreed that the figure was either a man or a woman.
After about five minutes, the ghostly figure began to move again. It passed over the ditch, into the next field – and disappeared.
The men fell to their knees and prayed.
On the third night, the ghost was seen walking past the homes of the miners and their families. After passing the priest’s house, it just stopped and remained motionless for about five minutes. It then walked directly to the chestnut tree – and disappeared.
Witnesses said that the ghost looked different on this occasion. They said it had the shape of a four-legged animal, was about the size of a sheep, and had a two-foot long tail and ears that were 18 inches long.
The other strange thing about the third night was that the ghost was seen again after it disappeared. However, during its second appearance of the night – in the middle of the road near the coal mine – the ghost was in human form and dazzling white.
The ghost continued to visit the mine every night. And though it appeared to some witnesses as an animal, people began referring to the ghost as ‘the lady in white’.
But, lady or not, the people were terrified of her. According to the Belfast Newsletter: “Youths and maidens, and even those of riper years, were afraid to move out of doors after sunset.”
The miners were particularly affected. They would avoid looking in the direction of the site of the apparitions and would work with their backs to the chestnut tree. Priests were called to the mine to comfort the men. “They all say the apparition would terrify the strongest-nerved man in Ireland,” reported the Derry Journal. So, what was going on? Had the miners disturbed a sacred site or released an entity previously trapped in the earth?
Coal mine hauntings were common in the 1900s. In 1902, some 300 Welsh miners refused to enter the mine in Glamorganshire because they were convinced it was haunted. Many of the men had encountered a mysterious figure waving a lamp, while others had been tormented by a woman’s screams in the darkness of the pit.
And in 1907, in Liege in Belgium, the figure of a young girl dressed in white would appear every night at 1am to haunt the miners.
But in Coalisland, not everyone believed that something supernatural was happening. And the two local papers were far from convinced by the reports they were receiving.
The Tyrone Courier, for example, believed the whole thing had been invented by the mine owners to dissuade thieves from stealing their coal. “Surely it is time grown people should have put away the idea of ‘ghosts’ in such an enlightened age,” it said.
And not everyone was frightened. In fact, some brave souls were holding nightly vigils in the area in the hope of solving the mystery. And it was one of those brave souls who finally discovered the identity of the lady in white.
So, who was she? Well, it’s often said that the truth can be stranger than fiction. And that was certainly the case here, because the lady in white was a donkey.
The donkey – which belonged to local man John Corr – was a particularly pale colour, and it liked nothing more than roaming about the mine at night.
How the donkey came to be mistaken for a ghostly lady was never explained. Nor was its ability to appear and disappear. But it seems that everyone was happy to accept that the lady in white was really just John Corr’s donkey.