Donegal’s Tunnel Tigers

Black and white image of a man in a dimly lit underground train tunnel

The Donegal Tigers are a group of young north-west Donegal men who travel the world constructing tunnels. They worked in the 1940s and 1950s on the subways of New York, Britain and elsewhere to dig the tunnels that provided important infrastructure. The 1990s saw them work on the Channel Tunnel between England and France, and they are currently being courted to work on the 17 billion euro expansion of the London subway network.

Back in the 1960's and 1970's, Neil Mulholland was one of the famed Tunnel Tigers. He took a lot of pride in the accomplishments of the Donegal men who did the work noting that before his time, Donegal men broke the world record for tunneling in the north of Scotland: "They beat the Yanks," he chimed with a grin. Neil spent about 17 years at the work, travelling between his Rosses home and north Scotland, western Wales and the English midlands to dig tunnels and mine coal. The young men went to wherever the money was best. It was among the best-paid work in Britain. The work however would bring later life health complications for many men including Neil who at 45 was diagnosed with silicosis, the degenerative lung disease.  

Neil first left his home place of Mullaghdearg Mountain, near Kincasslagh, in 1959, when he was 17. He followed his brothers, Patrick and Francie, who had gone to Scotland to work earlier. Both have died of lung cancer. There was no protective gear or ventilation in the deep tunnels, no warnings of the danger of the work or the dangers of the asbestos used in construction. Over the years Neil also worked in the coal pits between Scotland and north Wales. Though the projects were different, the work remained largely the same: "The tunnels were full of dust," he recalled, "When you set off the explosives – you called that a firing – sometimes, when you would go back into the tunnel again to put up the lights you could barely see the man beside you because there was so much dust".

Because everyone knew someone who was working there, the work came largely through word-of-mouth. The men would stay on the job for months, coming home to Ireland for two months at winter, then heading back. Glasgow was the place to go on weekends for the Tunnel Tigers working in Scotland: "We drank our fill and would have the craic and go to Irish dances," Neil recalled.

Neil's mother died in 1975 and he returned to Donegal to stay with his father. He and Nuala, a Rann na Feirste woman, married the following year and had three children: Sally Ann, Brian and Martin. Neil passed away from his health complications in April 2009.

Belfast-born novelist Maria Fusco is working on a new book about Ben Cruachan hydro-electric power station in Scotland. As part of her research Ms Fusco would like to talk with any Tunnel Tigers from the Donegal area. She wishes hear about their experiences working on the hydro schemes, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. Anyone who wishes to share their experiences with the author can contact her by email at or by post:

Maria Fusco,
Chancellor's Fellow
School of Art
Edinburgh College of Art
Lauriston Place, Edinburgh EH3 9DF.