Tunnel Tigers – record breaking Irish labourers

A group of Irish emigrant workers that made history by tunnelling their way through 170m of (557ft) in just seven days have been honoured 60 years later.

The group of about 45 Irish workers became known as the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ because of their superhuman feat whilst working on the Breadalbane Hydro Scheme in Perth, Scotland.

Tunnel Tigers

SSE, Scottish Renewables and Historic Scotland. A group of workers pose outside the St Fillans tunnel in 1955, moments after they set the world rock tunnelling record – 557 feet in just seven days

The tunnel network enabled the transfer of electricity from the power stations around the dams of Loch Lyon, Loch Earn and Loch Tay.

At one point, there were more than 12,000 people were employed in hydro development in the north of Scotland. Many labourers came from Ireland, but the crews also included prisoners of war and displaced people from Germany, Italy, Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as native Scots.

The development was key to the rollout of electricity across Scotland in the 1950s and 60s.

The Tunnel Tigers were responsible for one of the most remarkable contributions to the scheme. In 1955, they worked seven long, exhausting days each received a £20 bonus for their tireless work (the equivalent of about £2,000 today).

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Only a few of the workers are still alive to see their work celebrated.

Colm Gallagher, 84, was one of the men involved. He now lives back in his native town of Dungloe in County Donegal. He told the BBC: “It was dangerous work, there was no safety going. You could wear a helmet or you could go without the helmet. It wasn’t safe in the tunnels.”

Mr Gallagher’s brother Patrick was one of the workers killed working in the tunnels.

Another Irishmen who worked in the tunnels was John ‘Gonna’ O’Donnell. He arrived shortly after the record was set and knows first-hand how tough and dangerous it was in the tunnels. He was full of admiration for the Tunnel Tigers, saying: “It’s just unreal, it was never done before and never, ever, in the history of mankind, will it ever be done again. It was a superhuman effort, what they achieved. To me, they were supermen.”

Now, six decades later the efforts of the team is being officially recognised. A commemorative plaque is to be installed at the site of the tunnel, owned now by Scottish and Southern Energy.

Gillian O’Reilly, SSE’s head of heritage and community programmes, said: “The achievement of the Tunnel Tigers is an important chapter in the story of how SSE brought electricity to the Highlands and it is important that their tireless work and sacrifice is not forgotten.

“We know there will be many people in Scotland with their own stories and memories and we would encourage people to get in touch and share those with us as we celebrate this historic milestone.”

The Tunnel Tigers will also be honoured at a new £4m SSE visitor centre overlooking a renowned dam at Pitlochry, set to be open by autumn 2016.

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