Beyond the Blarney

Caving Subterranean Ireland
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The Speleological Union of Ireland offers training, guided expeditions, a newsletter, and other caving publications; see: for descriptions of various caves through the country.

Unlike hiking across Ireland, caving beneath the Emerald Isle—known as "potholing"—has experienced no financial boon nor much modernization.
There are a handful of touristy caves, with gift shops and tea houses, such as Ailwee cave in County Clare and Crag cave in County Kerry. Mostly, however, venturing below Ireland's turf remains a quaint, quirky, and largely self-guided experience.
Discovered in 1952 outside Doolin in County Clare, Poll-an-Ionain cave (it means "the ivy hole") is home to a sparkling 20-foot free-standing stalactite that, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is the world's largest. Access to the cave is normally via the land of a local farmer, then a tight quarter-mile crawl through a shaft that drops 150 feet below an ivy-covered Burren cliff. However, entry to the cave is currently denied on account of plans to develop it into a showcave.
Reaching the limestone pools deep inside Kelly cave, outside the County Mayo town of Cong, is more self-propelled and non-commercial. You have to pick up a key from the Quiet Man Coffee Shop, in order to open the gate at the mouth of the cave.
Despite the modesty of Ireland's caving industry, potholing is an ancient and mysterious pastime. Cavers tell mythic stories of the two fairy trout still living in Pigeon Hole cave, also outside Cong. Another nearby cave is where centuries ago a madman stashed his victims' murdered bodies. Note that, with Ireland's prolific rainfall, caves can flood quickly and dangerously. The Speleological Union of Ireland can help provide guides or books and articles on caving techniques.
Most of Ireland's caves are in the west, in and around the Burren, a surreal and ancient pale-grey limestone plateau that is often shrouded in a thick and spooky mist. The bizarre landscape of the Burren (in Gaelic, it means "the rocky place") was formed by Ice Age glaciers, wind erosion, and overgrazing. Its underbelly is absolutely swiss-cheesed with limestone caves, known locally as the "karst."
Philip Chapman, a British caving expert and author, describes the Burren's caves as "sinuous underground canyons, with their glistening water-sculpted walls echoing the sound of rushing water, representing the nearest thing to paradise on Earth."
Probably the most spectacular of the Burren's caves is Pollnagollum ("the hole of the doves"), its 100-foot shaft only accessible by rope ladders. The waters of nearby Slieve Elva empty into Pollnagollum's 35 miles of passages (about nine of them navigable) and at one point create a 25-foot waterfall. Other caves on or near the slopes of Slieve Elva include the 90-foot dryshaft of Pollaphuca and the Cave of the Wild Horses, in Kilcorney, a complex catacomb filled with many pools of water. Elsewhere in Ireland is the country's deepest cave (Reyfad Pot, in County Fermanagh, at 300 feet) and the largest underground river (in the Aille River cave, in County Mayo).

Neal writes for Outside magazine, Men's Health , and the Washington Post Magazine . He is currently finishing a biography of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, and is starting a second book on moonshine, bootlegging, and the early days of NASCAR. Neal lives in Asheville, NC, with his wife and two sons.

Published: 6 Dec 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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