Joseph Gallagher: ‘It’s not about machines, it’s about the tunnellers’

Joseph Gallagher

The Arranmore man behind the Joseph Gallagher Group turned 70 last year. He tells Fiona O’Brien about a life in tunnelling in his first ever interview.

“People say to me that this game is over, but it isn’t. It will just evolve like it always has.

“Through the years people have predicted that technology would take over, but we’re still here, it’s just things change slightly,” says Joseph ‘Josie’ Gallagher. Josie has seen the world of tunnelling change vastly since first arriving in London in 1965.

“Back then it was all about production, how fast and how hard you could work to get a job finished.

“That’s changed now. It’s all about health and safety, as it should be, but it means that the working day is completely different to how I remember when I first started out.”

Joseph Gallagher: ‘It’s not about machines, it’s about the tunnellers’ - The Arranmore man behind the Joseph Gallagher Group turned 70 this year. He tells Irish World readers about a life in tunnelling in his first ever interview.

Josie, one of ten children, followed older family members and friends to Scotland to work on the tunnels there. His boss on the job was one of the men who had worked on the recordbreaking Perth job (see page 9). Josie, then and still now, had a huge amount of admiration for the men who had worked so hard before him.

“It felt like you were becoming a member of this elite club. Of a group of men who worked so hard together, it really felt special.

“If you met in the pub for a drink after work you felt like someone, nearly like I suppose footballers walk into places now!” he jokes. “Nobody else outside of us workers probably knew or cared about it, but we were all in a gang and would exchange stories about the day, or shafts we had worked on before.”

It is a sentiment that Josie still holds true today, often calling in to hang-outs of men he used to work for, to catch up on old times. And the respect he has of the men that went before him is still so evident.

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“I was fascinated with the recent news reports of the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ of 1955. I got in touch with the man organising the Dungloe tribute, and even though we haven’t met, it has become the start of a lasting friendship as we keep in touch so often.

“When I heard that there were only two surviving members from that gang it was only then that I realised how quickly the years rolled by.

“They were great men. It will never be repeated. They were the best of the best and hand-picked to complete that job, but work isn’t like that anymore.”

But the respect hasn’t diluted with the changing face of the tunnelling industry.

“Alongside me, on the board, are people I have observed prior to joining the business, work hard and are committed. We’ve worked together for years, and many have the same background as myself.

“If you were from any other county, you were likely to be brilliant because you’d have had to prove yourself.”

“With all the changes in how much machinery does as opposed to the man-power back in the 60s and 70s, one asked me ‘do you think these lads would have been able to hack it back in our time’.

“I said I didn’t know. They’re all great workers, but they just don’t have the opportunity now.”

It’s almost become folklore. When asked about the heavy links the industry traditionally has to Donegal, Josie doesn’t think it is because they were born with the tunnelling gene.

“Yes, I suppose there was always a high number from Mayo and Donegal, but that was because back then in remote areas on the west coast of Ireland, there wasn’t really any work.

“For us, our father was a fisherman, which was a highly dangerous job which he didn’t want us to get into. “Some men left to work on the tunnels and then when word of work spreads then it may go to a neighbour or a brother, which is why I think you see big numbers from similar areas. “I see it now in modern times with my workers. The biggest amount are probably from Eastern Europe and they get a start, and when there are new jobs they tell their friends and its just the way it goes. “But there were good tunnellers, great tunnellers, from all across Ireland.

“In fact if you were from Galway or Cork or somewhere the likelihood is that you were brilliant because you would have had to prove yourself.

“The chances were that if you are from Donegal or maybe Mayo, you may have slipped under the radar a bit due to your connections!” he jokes.

Joseph Gallagher: ‘It’s not about machines, it’s about the tunnellers’

Josie earned a good wage after following his twin brother to London, but when the job of a lead miner in Milton Keynes came up, with a salary two and a half times more, he jumped at the chance. It was a move that would shape the rest of his career.

“I remember my first day on the job I had an argument with the boss. “They wanted us to put in eight rings, and I remember thinking ‘gosh, let us settle in a bit, we can do that but we’ve only just arrived’, so said it was only reasonable to do seven. “My boss Tim Kilroe ended up being the person who influenced me most, and actually one of my best friends. Eventually I got offered the job as foreman, and I remember it being a huge thing to consider.

“First of all I was in a gang. We were a team and loyal to each other. But I was ambitious and Tim Kilroe talked me into it.

“I remember being a bit nervous going to tell the other boys that I wouldn’t be with them as lead miner anymore, but after a bit of persuasion, when I pointed out to them that they too would be getting promoted with a pay increase, for example the miner taking my place as lead miner, and so on and so on up the queue, they weren’t too unhappy for long!”


It was this relationship with the workforce that helped Josie during his career, learning a few more man management skills along the way. “When we were working for Kilroe there was a period when there was no work.

“At the end of the week when we went to check our pay packets I was surprised to see a full week’s wage and when I asked the rest of the gang they had too. The same thing happened the next week, and for the third and final week afterwards.

“Years later I asked him why he had paid us for essentially doing nothing. He said that he knew that on our return to work we would have burst through a brick wall for him. “It is all about how you manage people. He paid extremely high wages but that meant he would get the best workers, who could get the job done.

“It was a great way to run a business. And singling out those with a great work ethic is something I have always maintained since then.”

Josie started the Joseph Gallagher Group in 1982, as a 37- year-old with a young and growing family. Now, 33 years later it has expanded into the largest tunnellling subcontractor in the UK. Josie has handpicked personnel he has brought into the business, to ensure none of the original drive or technical capability, which has always been the hallmark of the business, has been diluted.

Joseph Gallagher: ‘It’s not about machines, it’s about the tunnellers’

“One of the things I am proudest of is we have never had a client leave us.

“We may have decided not to work with certain people again, but no one has left us and it is because we deliver what we say we will.”

Now as part of a £100million turnover Group the Tunnelling Division remains the core business around which the rest of the Group has been built. The group operates internationally, with offices in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Dubai.

The Joseph Gallagher Group consists of a number of businesses that complement the core activity of tunnelling:

• Specialist Plant Associates: acquired in 1994 specialise in the hire and sale of tunnelling equipment, including compressed air equipment.

• NRC Plant: purchased in 1997 the second largest crawler crane hire company in the UK. They are the sole agents in the UK for Hitachi Sumitomo in Japan and Link-belt in the United States.

• Iseki Microtunnelling: joined the Group in 2009 adding 30 plus microtunnelling machines for rental and sales business globally which further enhanced the Group offering.

• Johnston Trenchless Solutions: was purchased from Carillion in 2010 adding additional directional drilling equipment and expertise to the Company.

The companies, and Josie’s hands-on expertise, mean that they can offer a specialist technical knowledge that arise on varied projects whether working as a labour only supplier or a package contractor.

Joseph Gallagher: ‘It’s not about machines, it’s about the tunnellers’

The 21st century has also seen Josie invest a huge amount of time and money into keeping up with the health and safety environment essential to working today.

“I remember giving a presentation recently and saying ‘you won’t get sacked for being a bad worker, but you will for being an unsafe worker’.

“It would have been laughable to have said that back in my time, and I still couldn’t believe that I was saying that a bad worker wouldn’t be sacked!

“But it is true, safety is paramount now, and it is how you have to evolve in the business.”

Part of this is the investment into their LIFE (Living Incident Free Everyday) behavioural safety programme, which was trained from the senior team right down to the workers on site. Launched last year the aim is to ensure that they send all workers home safely everyday.

“We ask them to think of their families when they put on their work gear, and how they should want to get home to them, what more can a person want than that?

“The changing culture also means that now, a lot of our interviews for staff are based more around health and safety then their work background.

“People have to commit to the LIFE programme in order to be taken on.”

Josie himself drives on the LIFE project and spends a large amount of his time on site and at the health and safety presentations.

“We need to make sure that everyone knows the importance of making the right choices and ensuring that we are listening to any concerns that our people have.

“On every site there is a poster with my number the Group Managing Director Steve Harvey and the Civils Managing Director Matthew Warren.

“If anyone sees anything unsafe on site they can call us anonymously and one of us will attend the site personally within a few hours and address the issue, wherever it is.”


It is a huge commitment, as is the financial side of things.

On top of LIFE Josie commits to helping workers when they are injured at work.

“A lot of the time these people cannot work due to injury, and often being the main breadwinner at home, they can fall on tough times while they wait on a tribunal to pay out, perhaps up to two years.

“We have committed to paying a person as soon as they can’t work for two years while they wait on the result. Whatever happens.”

Joseph Gallagher: ‘It’s not about machines, it’s about the tunnellers’

It is obvious that Josie has learnt from his bosses before him. Josie himself is still up every morning for work.

“My wife wonders will it ever stop, when I first started the business I remember saying that it meant I could retire at 50! That obviously never happened!”

He and his Tipperary-born wife Agnes have seven children, two of which sit on the Board. His son Paul is Deputy Managing Director, his daughter Claire is a Senior Quantity Surveyor, his son-in-law John O Dwyer is Contracts Director and his daughter Sinead is the Office Manager.

“It is imperative to have a female presence on the board. A group of men may only talk for an hour at meetings, but women bring a whole new perspective and different ideas. The meetings go on a lot longer but we get a lot more out of it.”

Claire has a huge amount of respect for her father: “Dad is so committed to his work.

“I took over the wages a few years ago, but at that time he managed it all himself, and out of 800 workers he knew all of their names.”

Josie still ensures he maintains a working relationship with all of his staff. “As I mentioned earlier, it’s funny because a lot of our workers are from Eastern Europe.

“So I will recognise a Stanislaw from the pay-roll and then get confused when everyone starts calling him Stanley until I realise that’s his ‘London’ name!

“It’s nice, and I don’t talk about work. I like to know who is into their football, or get to know about their family life.” Josie is also heavily active in the community, both here and at home.

He likes to go back home to Arranmore as often as he can find the time. “He recently spent two weeks there attending the 100th anniversary of his school.

“He enjoys spending time with old friends there reminiscing about the old days.

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