Boran, Nicholas (Nixie) (1903–72), trade unionist, was born in 1903 at Massford in the colliery district north of Castlecomer in Co. Kilkenny, the second in a family of four born to George Boran, a small farmer and coal carter, and his wife, Mary (née Maher). Nicholas attended national school locally, from where he was recruited by the Presentation Brothers, a catholic teaching order, for their juniorate in Castletown, Co. Laois. By 1918 he was back home working underground, ‘gunning a tram’ in Modubeagh colliery. This involved hauling trams of coal from the coalface to a staging point from where they were transported to the surface. It was the traditional initiation of young men into a lifetime of work in the collieries.
Boran's involvement in the war of independence is unclear, but he saw action with the Republican side during the Munster campaign phase of the civil war. Captured by Free State forces in the Glen of Aherlow, he was imprisoned in Clonmel jail, from where he escaped. Family tradition suggests that he was on the run until 1927, when he returned home and resumed working in the colliery. Influenced by the socialist ideas of James Connolly (qv) and the left-wing element in the IRA, Boran immediately began organising his fellow workers in an attempt to improve their almost feudal working conditions. It was at this period that he initiated contact with the British Communist Party, and these contacts led to his visiting Russia in 1930 as a delegate to the Red International of Labour Unions. While in Russia he visited coal mines and collective farms, and these experiences were to shape the most turbulent years of his life.
Determined to replace the almost moribund ITGWU with a radical organisation that would promote worker solidarity throughout Ireland from its base in the collieries, in 1930 Boran invited Bob Stewart, communist leader of the Scottish Miners’ Union, to visit the collieries to advise on strategy. Subsequently in December that year the Irish Mines and Quarry Workers’ Union was launched, with Boran as its first chairman. At the same time a political wing, the Revolutionary Workers’ Group (RWG), was established and the Irish Workers’ Voice newspaper was selected to publicise the new organisations. In February 1931 a branch of the Mine and Quarry Workers’ Union was formed in Castlecomer town, the core of the Prior-Wandesforde estate. Boran's political ideology was in line with that of Saor Éire, and he was particularly attracted to the ideas of Peadar O'Donnell (qv) for an alliance between small farmers and workers to shape the new republic. He was elected to the national executive of Saor Éire in 1931.
Boran's union had its first success when he was elected checkweighman, an important position traditionally reserved to one of the miners in order to ensure that the coal weights allocated by the company clerks were correct, in a contest against the long-time secretary of the local branch of the ITGWU, Thomas Campion. Campion had overseen the collection of some £6,000 as the miners’ contribution to the building fund for the new catholic church in Moneenroe and was the favoured candidate of the priests. Enthused by his victory, Boran, writing in the Kilkenny Journal (28 Mar. 1931), proclaimed the principles of the union as ‘class against class, workers versus capitalism with its ultimate ambition the overthrow of the capitalistic system’.
Such a revolutionary programme was unlikely to remain unchallenged, and the catholic clergy, fearful that the historically cohesive mining community would present a fruitful target for the dissemination of atheistic communism, began its counter-attack. Fr Coleman, a Dominican priest attached to the Black Abbey in Kilkenny city, organised a series of public lectures on the sufferings of the catholic church in Russia, comparing the fate of catholics under communism to that of Irish catholics in penal times. ‘Sagart’, in the Kilkenny Journal (18 July 1931), divined that, ‘However hard the lot of our poor, they have the grand Catholic faith to sustain them’. Fr Coleman directed his scornful words against the colliery agitators, describing them as ‘practically illiterate or semi-illiterate men’ who were deluded pawns in the international conspiracy of the communists for world domination.
Economic recession reduced demand for coal, and in late 1932 the miners were placed on a two-day week. Attempts to secure wage rises were dismissed by management, and Boran's union called an all-out strike in October 1932. He linked the struggle of the miners to that of the tenant farmers: ‘Their enemy is an imperialist mineowner, a planter for whom Castlecomer is but an economic pocket borough: he owns every sod of it’ (Irish Workers’ Voice, 12 Nov. 1932). Intervention by local politicians helped secure a minuscule wage increase and a return to work in late November. Forbidden by the catholic clergy to use the local halls or schools for their meetings during the strike, the RWG now decided to build its own hall in the collieries. This proposal was anathema to the catholic authorities, to whom control of halls and schools was a vital component in their guardianship of faith, morals, and politics.
The threat was regarded as being so serious that Bishop Patrick Collier, catholic bishop of Ossory (1928–64), visited the collieries in December 1932 and preached on the evils of communism in Moneenroe chapel, where he denounced the RWG and its advocates as agents of the devil. Later came the formal denunciation in a pastoral letter issued by Bishop Collier in the unseasonable month of January. Claiming that Soviet agents were posturing as labour leaders, he made it clear that one could not be a communist and a catholic at the same time. He solemnly proclaimed the edict of the church: ‘Wherefore it is my duty to tell my people plainly that the Revolutionary Workers' Group, also all and every local union, cell or “contact” which is Communistic in aim and object has come under the ban and censure of the Church’ (Bishop Collier's pastoral letter, archives of St Kieran's College, Kilkenny). Exhorting the miners to join the ITGWU, a ‘lawful union for Catholics’, Collier's fierce reaction silenced the radicals and broke the RWG.
Boran, however reluctantly, entered into negotiation with the ITGWU, and the miners became a separate branch of that union in 1933. In 1935 he became its chairman. Henceforth he concentrated his energies on improving working conditions, and one of his most satisfying achievements was negotiating in 1939 the provision by the company of baths and clothes-drying facilities at Deerpark colliery. The Second World War made Castlecomer collieries a crucial component in the state's drive for self-sufficiency in energy supplies. Production of coal reached record levels in 1941 but wages were restricted by government order. Tensions persisted after the war as the miners sought to benefit from higher market prices in accordance with a complicated payment structure established in 1881. Management now sought to introduce a system whereby workers would be paid for what they produced regardless of market prices. This proposal was rejected, and one of the bitterest, most protracted strikes in Irish labour history began in Deerpark colliery in March 1949, with Boran maintaining miner solidarity over the succeeding eleven difficult months. The focus of miner discontent was now firmly directed at the big house and the mine owner. Gone was the heady language of international socialism and the struggle against capitalism so redolent of the early 1930s. It had become a local conflict. Intervention by the Labour Court failed to produce a settlement, and it was not until February 1950 that an improved offer by management secured a return to work.
Now began one of the more peaceful and profitable periods for the coal-mining industry in North Kilkenny, but it was short-lived. Under-capitalisation, diminishing resources, and competition from oil dimmed hopes. Geological surveys made it clear that under the prevailing economic conditions there were no prospects of a long-term future for the collieries. In July 1965 the once showpiece colliery at Deerpark closed, with the loss of 340 jobs. Boran, like many of his peers, refused to believe the surveys, and an unlikely alliance of government, Wandesforde proprietor, and workers was formed to save the industry. The colliery was reopened with a reduced workforce and Boran was appointed as a workers’ representative to the board of directors. Deerpark colliery was finally closed in January 1969, bringing to a conclusion some three hundred years of coal-mining in Castlecomer district.
Boran died 5 November 1972. Nothing remains now of Deerpark colliery save a grotto in honour of Our Lady of Fatima erected by the miners. There is only one man's name on the plaque, which reads: ‘In grateful appreciation to the miners of Castlecomer who contributed to this grotto and to the memory of their deceased leader Nicholas Boran R.I.P.’