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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 23 September, 2014

Ancient skeletons and medieval ice skates… all in a day’s work for the Irish ‘tunnel men’ in London

Hundreds of Irish workers are involved in the 21 kilometre underground Crossrail project. Everything from the remains of Roman roads to skeletons belonging to the city’s Black Death victims have been uncovered in the course of the massive dig.

Image: Alastair Grant/AP/Press Association Images

FOLLOWING A MASSIVE drop off in capital spending in Ireland since the start of the downturn, it will come as a surprise to no-one that contractors tasked with carrying out the biggest construction project taking place in Europe have been quick to snap up hundreds of Irish workers who built up their skills working on major Celtic Tiger-era civil engineering projects like the M50 and the Dublin Port Tunnel.

The €17.3 billion Crossrail project has been ongoing in London since 2009. Due to open in 2018, it will run across London from west to east, with a central 21km section underground. Massive, 150-metre-long, 980 tonne tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are slowly snaking their way under the city, between the existing Tube network, sewers, electricity cables and underground rivers, at depths of up to 40 metres.

Some fascinating pieces of London history have been uncovered along the way – including jewelry, pieces of ships, and medieval ice skates. Earlier this year, the dig unearthed skeletons belonging to to victims of the Black Death, the plague that wiped out half of London’s population in 1348. The Museum of London is overseeing a number of archaeological digs that are taking place in tandem with Crossrail. Over 40 worksites are in operation across the city, and archaeological investigations are carried out at each location ahead of main construction works. One of the most significant of these is at Liverpool Street, where the remains of around 20,000 people were interred in the ‘Bedlam’ burial ground established in the 16th century.

39-year-old John Small – from Coolarty, Granard in Longford – has been working as a construction manager on the project for McNicholas Construction for the past six months. With almost 20 years years of experience under his belt in tunnelling and construction in Ireland and the UK, he is now helping other Irish construction workers “fresh off the plane” get their foot in the door at Crossrail as a sideline to his day job. The work may be hard but the money is good, he says, with entry-level workers, known as “miners” or “handmen” getting a basic wage of £210 per day. Bonuses are awarded based on the amount of progress made by each 20 man ‘gang’ of workers, meaning a labourer could come out with an extra £160 on top of that basic rate.

Several hundred Irish workers are employed across the Crossrail’s multiple sites, according to a spokesperson for the scheme. The total workforce has just passed the 9,000 mark.



(Youtube: CrossrailLtd)

In just the past six months, Small says he’s helped up to 400 Irish workers sort out their CVs, qualifications and CSCS cards, setting them up with experts who run courses in the area. “You can’t get into this tunnel work unless you’ve a CV right,” he says. “There’ll be lads coming over and finding you – to find out what’s going on. You’ve got to get your cards right – you can’t move without a card in London, and they might not know how to make the best of their skills when putting them into a CV.”

In this line of work too – everyone knows each other. Once a job starts I’ll be ringing you or vice-versa, and we’ll open a whole can of worms and we’ll know exactly who’s the boss and who you have to apply to for these jobs. We’ll have all the inside information. You’ve lots of boys from Donegal, Mayo, Connemara – other parts of the country too. When a job starts we’d all be aware.
imageWork continuing on the Crossrail site near Pudding Mill Lane
Station, east London this week  (Lewis Whyld/PA Wire)

John McNulty, from Donegal, owns and runs the ‘Lucky 7′ pub in Cricklewood, north west London – a hub for Irish construction workers in the city. A former ‘tunnel man’ himself (he worked on the Jubilee line extension in the 1990s), McNulty still gets regular calls to the pub from firms looking to hire qualified workers.
Just the other day the phone rang saying they were looking for four machine drivers. They’re looking for everything – everything from labourers to electricians.
McNulty says there’s a constant stream of young Irish men turning up in the bar to find out what kind of work may be on offer: “You even get guys coming back from Australia, parts of Australia where they find it may not have been as good as they expected, and taking up work here”.
The pub is full of workers. All the talk is about work – maybe a few pints in between but mostly work work. When they talk about back home the feeling is things may be picking up a bit in Dublin but not in Cork or Kerry or Donegal. But they’re more than happy to be here.
image
London Mayor Boris Johnson marks the breaking through of the TBM
‘Elizabeth’ into Canary Wharf station in May (PA Wire/Press Association)

The Crossrail project has been in the news in the UK in recent weeks as a result of the treasure trove of historical finds uncovered. Crews from the BBC and The Guardian, amongst others, have been on site at Liverpool Street to film the archaeologists at work.

In terms of what happens when workers come across human remains or historical artefacts, Small says there’s a strict protocol in place. The main contractors are called, and experts from the Museum of London are dispatched to the site to assess what has been uncovered. To an extent, the workers are inured to what they come across: “You know, we’re told in advance what we might see”.

There’s children down there. There’s every remains that you’ve ever seen.

image

Archaeologists dig at Liverpool Street (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

For the archaeological teams, some of the most delicate work being carried out involves the disinterring of about 4,000 people from the Bedlam burial ground. Over 150 years, thousands of Londoners were buried there, including patients at the adjacent Bedlam Hospital, the world’s first psychiatric asylum. Workers treat the remains with delicacy and respect, practices not always followed in the past. Most of them will be reburied anonymously. According to Small:

We’re told not to touch the remains. We know in advance where they’re likely to be. We’re not allowed to take photographs or anything. What happens is the Museum of London staff – they’re there full time – they come in and they take over and start doing the digging themselves.


(Youtube: BBCNews1606)

The tunnels are being constructed at a rate of 100 metres per week, and are due to be finished next year, with Crossrail due to open to the public in 2018. According to its Programme Director, Andy Mitchell, the system will “overnight, increase the capacity of rail in London by 10 per cent – the biggest single expansion ever”.

Once the massive project is complete, London has another monster construction effort to consider: Crossrail 2 is a proposed rail route for the city and the South East of England that aims to alleviate severe overcrowding that would otherwise occur by the 2030s. A consultation period on the project concluded earlier this month, with planning set to begin next year. Two options – an underground and a combination underground/overground rail system are being considered, with Transport for London billing it as “one of the key long-term projects needed to support London’s rapid growth”. In terms of whether the Irish tunnel men will continue on the next multi-billion pound project, Small says “we don’t know – we’ll follow the money”.

- This article contains additional reporting by AP

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