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Doc on One

Mike Meaney, the Irishman who was buried alive for 61 days and survived

The Tipperary man got his 15 minutes of fame back in the 1960s.

Mike Meaney Buried Alive Peter Kemp Peter Kemp

ASK PEOPLE OF a certain age living in Mitchelstown, county Cork about a man called Mick Meaney and there will be a nod of recognition.

The Tipperary-born builder is somewhat of a legend in the town after achieving worldwide fame in the 1960s.

The surreal story, only of its time, saw the 33-year-old hobnobbing with the likes of Joe Louis, Luke Kelly and Diana Dors.

He burst onto television screens on both sides of the Atlantic for being buried alive… by choice.

His 61-day epic adventure, due to be examined in a Documentary on One programme later today on RTÉ Radio One, began in London in 1968.

Meaney, always searching for fame and a sense of achievement, decided that he could break the world record for the most number of days buried underground.

He then found the man who could make it happen, Kerry-born publican Butty Sugrue.


His daughter, Mary, remembers her father as a man with a very inventive mind.

Back then, he was called the human JCB. As a child, he could literally lift a tree and put it on his shoulder. One day, they were waiting for the JCB but he used his intelligence and thought to himself, ‘No you don’t need a JCB’. He dug a hole and then he dug around it and he pushed the rock. There was no need for the JCB.

Giving up on his dream to be a professional boxer, Mary says that being buried alive was “all the rage at the time” and he knew if he did it, he would be world famous.

It was a crazy, dangerous stunt but it captured the imagination of the locals in the Kilburn area of London, as well as the attention of the world’s media.

At the beginning of 1968, the record was held by an American who went by the name Digger O’Dell. He had survived 45 days buried alive under the soil. However, he had rival contenders other than Meaney. Corkman Tim Hayes and Texan country singer Bill White both had their own aspirations.

With the man and the plan coming together, Sugrue now just had to find a venue. He happened upon Mick Keane who owned a yard in the area which would see incredible scenes over the next few weeks.

Mike Meaney Buried Alive Peter Kemp Peter Kemp

First, Meaney had to prepare for the challenge. Following a workplace accident in which he was buried alive a few years previous, he knew he could train his mind to be still and not panic. However, he had to get his body physically ready for the task.

Over the next three weeks, he staged workouts in the Admiral Lord Nelson pub in an oversized coffin. He also fed himself on a diet consisting mostly of steak and cigarettes.

On 21 February 1968, he had his ‘last supper’ while journalists scurried around looking for more details about this blue-eyes, broad-shouldered and bushy-haired Irishman with a thick Tipperary accent.

That night, he was lifted out of the window of the pub, put onto the back of Mick Keane’s lorry and lowered. He was buried underneath seven foot of soil while famous Irish tenor Jack Doyle sang some tunes.

There were two pipe sticking out of the coffin – one for food and one for ventilation and conversation.

At the same time in America, Bill White was also starting his challenge and the world’s media got excited.

The BBC fixed a live satellite link between London and the States in order to broadcast a joint interview between the pair.

“It was like a boxing weigh-in,” recalls Mick’s son, David.

“It was on Sunday, before Songs of Praise. It was pretty hot. The newsreader had to say, ‘I do apologise for that’. There was some effing and blinding going on, and for 6.30pm on a Sunday. I remember there was cousins over from Ireland.”

British Pathé / YouTube

There was one complication with all this media attention, however. Mick had failed to tell his wife Alice about his plan.

“She found out through the radio,” Mary told documentary makers. “He probably knew the answer would be no. She left him be – I like that fact. She let him off, and said, ‘If he wants this’.

She was up there smoking away, waiting for her husband to come back from the world of the dead, as you would. She just took it in her stride.

While there was euphoria in London – along with some concerns cited in the House of Commons – there was more condemnation in Ireland.

“I’d imagine it was going against the grain of god, the work of the devil – being buried in the world of the dead,” added Mary, addressing Ireland’s still conservative Catholic society.

But he had faith that he would be safe. He believed in himself that he could do it.

Back in Kilburn, Mick was settling into an odd routine. He would wake up at 7am, do some exercises in the coffin, including partial press-ups, and use lubrication oil on his muscles.

He would then eat breakfast and read the newspaper or a book about boxing. People also came to visit the spot and spoke to him through one of the pipes.

Going to the toilet involved a hatch somewhere in the coffin, but not much detail was ever given about these necessary functions.

Mick found the heat the most difficult thing to bear during his time undergound. As a number of parliamentarians worried about his safety, there was one hairy incident at the depot.

A 10-tonne truck reversed into the yard and over his ‘grave’, putting huge pressure on the soil above him.

“He was going to come up but he said he’d stick it out,” says Mary. “He said that was scary. At least someone realised. It could have killed him.”

Four weeks passed. Five weeks passed. Six weeks passed. 

Despite one hoax that he was unconscious and dying, it was becoming ever-increasingly obvious that Mick Meaney would achieve what he set out to do.

On day 55, Bill White emerged from his hole.

Mike Meaney Buried Alive Peter Kemp Peter Kemp

Then on 22 April, 61 days after being buried at Keane’s Yard, Mick Meaney decided his time under the soil was over.

The media converged and onlookers were giddy with excitement. There were Irish dancers and other entertainers. According to today’s documentary makers:

Diana Dors, the Marilyn Monroe of British entertainment, jostled to have her picture taken with him and boxing icon Joe Louis was so taken by his feat, he reached out across the Atlantic to make contact.

David Keane remembers “complete and utter mayhem” that day. Undertaker Paddy Ryan said he experienced a career first, a man coming back alive.

“He was alive and well. Mike Meaney lives to be buried again,” newsreaders across the world told their audiences that night.

A high point

The stunt brought Meaney the fame he craved but it was not to be long-lasting. A supposed deal with Gillette and a world tour never came to fruition. His name also never made it to the Guinness Book of Records because no judge was present at the Kilburn yard, a fact that grated with Meaney.

I don’t know who to blame. They have not been fair to me. They could have seen 61 days were hammered out under worldwide television, radio and newspapers.

He moved back to Mitchelstown, where everybody knew his name, but the fame didn’t last despite his picture being hung in the local pubs.

“He was proud out when he came back because he was after doing it,” recalls one local.

But the rest of his life was tinged with sadness as he attempted to re-experience that feeling of re-emerging from the soil.

Mike Meaney Buried Alive Peter Kemp Peter Kemp

“It’s called the seed of God,” says Mary. “When you find something that makes your heart soar and eyes come alive. He’d go back to that time and place where he broke the world record. Sadly, he forgot to live out his own words – the control of his mind.

Part of him stayed back there, with the feeling and the emotion and the drama and the buzz. Part of him stayed back there.

Mike Meaney died on 17 February 2003. The priest saying his funeral Mass told the mourning congregation:

I’ve never buried someone who has been buried before.

“You couldn’t help but laugh,” concluded his obviously proud daughter Mary.

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