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Thursday, 29 August, 2002, 20:26 GMT 21:26 UK
Reunion for Mourne tunnellers
Slieve Binnian Tunnel
The Binnian tunnel is still regarded a engineering feat
Fifty years after they completed a two-mile water channel under one of the famous Mourne mountains in County Down, a handful of the surviving tunnellers have met up again for a special reunion.

The Slieve Binnian tunnel runs deep under the Mournes from the Annalong River in a straight line to the Silent Valley reservoir two and a quarter miles away.

It was built to literally move water under the mountains and remains one of Ireland's most remarkable engineering feats.

The miners were brought together on Wednesday - the 50th anniversary of the opening of the tunnel - with the help of BBC Northern Ireland's Sense of Place website which tells the story of this remarkable engineering feat.

Some of the workers who dug the tunnel
Many of the tunnellers had never worked underground

Between 1947 and 1951 a workforce of more than 150 men drove the tunnel through the base of Binnian.

It was officially opened on 28 August 1952.

To dig the tunnel, the miners used hand tools and dynamite but they relied on a simple household item to keep it straight.

"By using candles, and working from either side of the tunnel, both squads - about 150 people who worked on it - met in the middle, where I believe they were only two inches out," said Water Service manager Trevor Haslett.

'Big achievement'

Time has taken its toll on those who blasted their way 800 metres below Slieve Binnian's summit.

The reunion triggered many memories of their days underground.

Among them was Robert Stevenson who is now living with his wife in Australia.

Robert Stevenson: Miner who carved the Binnian Tunnel through the Mournes
Robert Stevenson: "I had a good team of men behind me"

He was in charge of the explosives used to blast the tunnel.

"I suppose it is alright when you know what you're doing - I had a good team of men and when you've good men of men you can do anything, so you can," he said

Robert spent two and a half years working on the tunnel before moving to Melbourne 50 years ago.

Like his fellow miners, he has received a plaque officially recognising his role in building the tunnel to the Silent Valley which brings water to Belfast.

Fellow miner Thomas Newell recalled : "The first thing I was asked to do as a nipper which was what the boy had to do to - make the tea for the men."

Reunited

It took the men four years to cut through the solid rock for a wage of just half-a-crown an hour - about 12p in today's money.

"We had a sense of pride in ourselves that we had achieved something and we were very lucky," said William Davey.

"It was a big achievement to people that had never really done the job and had not known anything about the job."

William Davey: Slieve Binnian tunneller
William Davey: "We had a sense of pride in ourselves"

The tunnel was needed to carry additional water from the neighbouring valley into the Silent Valley reservoir to serve the rapidly growing population in the greater Belfast area.

From old photographs carried on the BBC website, many of the tunnellers were identified and some were reunited for the celebration, hosted by the Water Service and the BBC.

The men were able to once again walk in the tunnel they had helped drive through the mountain.

Through the website, one worker who emigrated to Australia 50 years ago was located living in Melbourne.

The BBC has donated a graphics and audio display based on the information contained in the Sense of Place website, as a permanent display in the visitors centre in the Silent Valley.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC NI's Noreen Erskine reports:
"It took the men four years to cut through almost two and a half miles of solid rock"
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