CUCC Eire 1976

The stated aim of the trip was to find new caving areas waiting to be opened up, inspired by a spirit of unreasonable optimism by certain lawyers and accountants with no scientific background. In this aim we were unsurprisingly unsuccessful, since although a large part of the geological map of Ireland is blue, not all Carboniferous limestone is actually cavernous, and not all those blue bits are actually limestone. While there is a massive limestone (the Dartry) roughly corresponding to the Great Scar limestone at home, there is also a lot of older limestone which is rather impure.

We started out in Donegal, which has attractive scenery, and a very muddy limestone with perhaps a few thin beds of white stuff. In the only “entrance” we found, Julian found something living that seemed to take exception to his invasion. We concluded that we had a badger sett, not a cave, and Mr. Griffiths backed out in some haste !

We soon moved south to the Gleniff cirque, where the Benbulben range had somewhat grassy cliffs with clean white rock inside. We knew that caves existed in the Dartry limestone, reached by climbing up steep slopes of the muddier limestone beds below. There is little or no cap rock, so the shakeholes we found above the cliffs did not have concentrated enough drainage for open passage. However, in the cliffs, we investigated the impressive opening of Diarmuid and Grainnes Bed Cave (Dermot and Grania’s). Although only about a quarter mile from the road, it is almost 1000 feet above it, reached by very steep grass scrambling culminating in a short stretch over rock to reach the entrance. This did give us an extensive and spectacular view from the inside and the roof of the passage glows positively green with reflected light from the cirque. After changing, we set off into each of the four ways on from the bouldery entrance chamber. The left route led to a balcony in the cliffs with a similar view, whilst to the right we found a trench below an extensive bedding, leading directly to a main chamber which can also be reached by climbing down from the bedding. Off the right of the bedding is a lower series of some 300′, looked at only by Julian. Most ways from the chamber choke in a short distance, but one way led to a rift passage which emerges back into the entrance chamber behind some boulders. The farthest right exit led to a small chamber with a very greasy flowstone slope leading up to a choked passage. Both this and the main chamber are decorated with cauliflower-like encrustations of calcite in a soft watery matrix assumed to be some sort of moonmilk. We found nothing new, and took a few photos before ascending a rather exposed and loose scrambling route to the plateau. There are a few springs at the foot of the cliffs, but passable ways in to the underground seemed pretty unlikely.

On the 10th August, we split into two parties and looked at the Dartry hills, west of Gleniff. Julian and I headed north from Polldinna (a known cave which we didn’t descend) but found nothing we could enter.

We were obviously not the first group in the area, and on Wednesday we decided to go look at Carrowmore Caverns, the deepest cave in the Republic (approx 470′), explored by a Leeds University group. It took us some time to find the huge double shakehole entrance, and quite a while poking about to find water for our lamps. Once inside, the way on was far from obvious, but at roof level we found a crawl to a large boulder chamber at the far side of which a rift passage led off to two pitches of 15′ and 35′. The top hundred feet of the Dartry limestone (through which we were now descending) is very cherty, so the pitches were full of sharp, and in places loose, rock. The rift passage led on through a window to a parallel rift and then a crawl with boulders (another low crawl is believed to go to the same place) emerging at Bridge Hall, a fair sized chamber with two large holes separated by a rock arch onto which the crawl emerges. Various crawly passages diverge from here, and we did not initially find the key one, which turned out to be under the arch. A traverse (on sloping mud) past the right hand hole led to a further muddy crawl opening into a rift. Both are very cherty and the rift has a series of false floors of chert, with awkward holes. However, the rift is widest at the top, so we stayed high, eventually reaching a wide bedding which opened out into walking sized passage with knee-deep thixotropic mud. This seemed to be climbing higher in the limestone, and we eventually concluded that it was an upstream passage unlikely to lead to the way on down. We felt no great desire to push to the end of such a sordid passage, so retreated, finding that the rift was now very greasy. I managed to slip down into the slot and found myself unable to climb back up at this point. Trying to squeeze forward towards a widening, I was relieved as a big chunk of chert floor disintegrated, leaving me enough space to make progress and escape back to the top of the rift. At Bridge Hall (a bit more than half way to the bottom) we were not motivated enough to push any more low crawls to find the way down, as the cave had proven rather less than inspiring so far. We eventually emerged to the surface after four and a half hours underground.

On Thursday, we went back to prospecting in pairs. Graham and Julian worked their way south from Polldinna to Pollacaintrie, while Andy and I started at the south with Polldingdang. This proved to be a large double shakehole connected by a short length of passage, with a cherty climb/pitch down to a roomy but bouldery passage. We followed this to an apparent choke, but Andy found a small crawl leading on, and a little earth removal secured access. The crawl descended gently with loose fill to an unstable chamber. Attempting to climb down into this, a large piece of chert (by far the most obvious foothold) broke off, showering the floor in debris. There was little doubt in Andy’s mind that he was the first person to visit this section.

All the other entrances we found were already known, and none particularly pleasant. Our day ended at Ramson’s Pot which we could not descend as the first pitch was twenty feet longer than indicated by our CPC Journal report. With rather poor belays a long way back, our 120′ rope was not going to get us down.

Next day, we festered for a while in Manorhamilton before deciding that our best bet was to head for County Clare. But since there was a bank strike in the republic, we had to nip into the north to get some cash before heading south where we duly arrived in O’Connor’s bar at Doolin and set up camp in the field behind. This being Friday the thirteenth, it should perhaps have come as no surprise to find the two spectres of Steve Perry and Nick Reckert, supposedly on expedition in Austria, but who had cocked up getting their Green Card. They had all the gear needed for high alpine caving, including crampons, which were distinctly out of place in a very green and sunny Ireland – in a heat wave.

The next day, Steve persuaded us into a longish drive to Fergus River Cave. Tratman (“Caves of NW Clare”) said this was 1881′ long, and under this illusion, I set off into this resurgence cave. There is, in fact, nearly a mile of it, almost all crawling, and I took my ammo can and camera – probably an error. There is some nice stal in the first thousand feet, but as we were pressing on, I left this for later. The cave is a series of bedding developments at different levels with the occasional low chamber and some boulder obstacles. It is very muddy and route-finding is not straightforward, hence we managed a full mile of crawling and low stooping before finally a squeeze and short crawl emerged to a massive (5m diameter) passage for all of 30m to an enormous clean sump. The chamber rapidly steamed up, making photography impossible, so we refilled our lamps and set off back out. Although route finding went better, we really couldn’t find the motivation for photography on the way out. After a four and a half hour trip, it was at least nice to be able to go for a swim when we got back.

On Sunday, Julian and Andy Nichols had a festerous day at Doolin harbour while Steve and Nick attempted a mega-traverse of Fisherstreet-Catz 1, downstream to Aran View and up this to exit. Graham and I went for a more leisurely through trip from St. Catherine’s 1 to Fisherstreet, which is a genuine Clare tourist trip. There is a bit of crawling just at the sink, but this gets bigger, and following the water quickly led us into the much bigger Doolin streamway. The drought meant that it was not as sporting as it can be, though a few boulders fallen from the walls made it a bit more effort than a stroll. As we passed under the consistently flat bedding plane roof, one of these fallen slabs displayed wet footprints from the other team. It’s all pleasant enough, with just the odd scramble over blocks or short section of stooping, with interesting shelving in the walls which are a particular feature of this area. Eventually, the water runs into a low bedding to the left and a short muddy crawl leads to the Great Oxbow. This is supposed to be the only navigational difficulty, but it would be hard to miss – we just noticed that the water had gone, and carried on. There are a few bits of calcite here (generally very little) and a roof passage which we looked at which led to a window over a streamway where the water seemed to be flowing the wrong way. We assume that the stream is crossed and then rejoined on the opposite side. At the end of the oxbow, the stream soon developed into a very high, narrow, smooth-walled canyon. I decided that I had no idea how to go about photographing a passage that shape, so didn’t try.

All good things come to an end, and soon enough, the passage lowered, widened and began to bed out, reaching stooping height and then a low canal for a while. Aran View comes in on the right as a stooping streamway which we ran up for 100m or so before deciding that it was perhaps pretty monotonous. Downstream, the main way got bigger, then a noisy warm torrent entered – the Aille Cascade. The warmth of this water from the surface river above causes a fog for some way. Not far beyond, in lower passage, we passed under the daylight of Fisherstreet Pot. With the drought and low tide, it was quite a lot further on, in some very slimy passage, to the eventual sump. Back at Fisherstreet, we climbed out after three hours for our two mile trip.

On Monday the 16th, Julian had an idea to do Cullaun 3, but in the forestry, this proved difficult to find and identify. Thus, our first trip turned out to be Cullaun 4, which had lots of unroofed canyon for a while before lowering to a very sharp crawl. Julian persisted for a while but soon had to admit we were not in the right cave. Exitting via the first bit of daylight was an error too, as this was in a prickly thicket…

Graham and Andy decided enough was enough, but, rather than hang around for Julian to return to his car, I joined him in what proved to be the right cave this time. Cullaun 3 has a reputation for destroying caving oversuits, but our wetsuits seemed to cope with little damage. A nasty muddy crawl for 10′ led to a squeeze down into a crab-walk streamway which is clean-washed all the way. Apart from the occasional crawl under a flowstone blockage, this is consistently straightforward sideways walking for 4000′ (in flood the flowstone blockages can cause backing up, filling this section to the roof – not an issue in the current drought). There are sharp cherty flakes and some stubby helictites which do slow progress. The first meander maze involves a small amount of crawling and traversing before a short section of somewhat larger streamway leads to the second meander maze. Navigation though these is fairly easy and a telephone wire gives a useful hint in some sections. The main streamway is now easier, but very meandering. Parts have a false floor of chert with random holes to water, which again slows progress somewhat. This continues for another three quarters of a mile before, at last, the well-decorated section is reached. Stalactites and flowstone cover not only the walls but the roof bedding and go on for another quarter mile before the passage gets lower and contains a long series of gours. A stalagmite grille obstructs the way before a low bedding pops out at Surprise Pot. Although only ten feet deep, the walls overhang wildly, and cannot be freeclimbed. We traversed over, but knowing that the muddy low crawl beyond leads in a short way to a thirty foot pitch, we decided to retreat. Back at the decorations I picked up my temporarily abandoned can, and started to take some photos. This was quite sporting where the gours made for chest-deep water. The strong downstream draught cleared any steam very quickly, so I was able to take eight photos over the half mile of decorated streamway, and this was the end of my film. This game over, we now made very fast time upstream to the meander mazes. A stinky gonk held us up briefly, followed by somewhat slower progress through the narrow canyon to the entrance. We were out in under four hours which we reckoned a good time for four miles of narrow streamway, plus photography.

Andy opted for another festerous surface day, so Graham and I joined Julian who wanted a photo trip into Coolagh River Cave. Using the Polldonough South entrance, we entered an egg-timer shaped passage with boulders occasionally blocking the bottom section, so we traversed along on sloping ledges. Julian and Graham went fast and fell down quite often, whilst I went more slowly and didn’t, but I did have a carbide crisis for a while which didn’t help. The climb down from the traverse is quite greasy, and as I followed the sounds of the others, it transpired that the low bedding I was in was not was easy as the hands and knees crawl to the right that I should have been in. I caught up in Gour Passage which has a series of pools which are held up by the remains of a very thick flowstone floor, not true gours.

We soon came upon a five metre drop into the fine main streamway, rigging a handline. More cascades, and a large oxbow took us to an extensive area of boulders after which a low bedding over shingle and sand to us to a deep pool with low airspace. Once we were swimming, Graham and I assumed we were at the sump, but on our return Julian (been there, done that) told us the sump was some way further than we’d got and a glance at the survey later confirmed this.

The return was slower, with lots of photography, and we soon had Graham holding flashguns in chest-deep water, parked in waterfalls for long periods, and generally abused as a caving model. Beyond the rope climb, we went upstream a way to an excellent example of a chert-topped waterfall. When we met team Austria on the way out, they suggested we might like to exit via Polldonough North since this was a much finer route, but fortunately, we were aware that this was a con, as there was a nasty crawl, so we took the same route out, pausing for a bit more photography. Despite a bit of jostling for position in the traverse, we were out in two and a half hours.

Bob Mathews (an older CUCC caver of Julian and Andy’s vintage) reckoned that Polldubh ended in a bedding plane with a large boulder which just needed a bit chipping off it to gain access to a continuing passage with a strong draught, so Julian and I decided to go see. We got changed only 100 yards from team Austria, who were off down Pollballiny, resulting in much merry banter before we headed into a typical linear streamway cave. We used the B1f entrance, and found ourselves in a multi-level meander complex with several choked levels and it took us a while to find the right level to go on. Once through, we were in a walking-size streamway with chert projections at shoulder and groin level and the occasional out-of-phase meander which made for awkward progress. After about 2000′, the passage got lower and was down to stooping height when we saw daylight ahead. This came as a surprise, as we had failed to notice the existence of this entrance, B3a.

Continuing downstream, the water left our passage through an unusual window into a large streamway, and following an oxbow led us to a climb down to this new stream. Except where greasy cobbles caused the odd slip, we made much faster progress in this bigger passage. As the passage got lower, a canal developed and then the passage bedded out completely. A very long greasy grovel ensued, and part way along, I waited in a small chamber while Julian looked a few yards further. He decide that the passage choked quite conclusively and the presence of a moth suggested that we were just under the surface anyway, so we retreated with evil thoughts about the Mathews clan. Once back to the canal, we had a long wetsuit cleaning gonk before heading on. We followed the main passage past our point of entry and followed the largest tributary to the surface at B3, leaving quite a long walk to the car.

Julian and I now returned to survey Polldingdang and Polldinna, stopping off in County Mayo to do a CPC discovery, the very aqueous Aille River Cave, on Thursday the 19th.

We were fortunate enough to stop outside a bar which was mentioned in the CPC account of the cave and, enquiring within, we found that the owner seemed to know about half the Craven. We were directed to the cave whose entrance lies in a large doline behind a hug Mossdale type sink, where the Aille River flows under a large white cliff.

Almost immediately inside the entrance we could hear the river rushing along inside, despite the obviously low water conditions, and we found the stream below the boulder slope, flowing over shingle. Guided by the old CPC telephone wire, we went with the stream until this disappeared into a sump. A partially abandoned passage with deep pools at different temperatures led over sharp rocky beds. The sound of a stream guided us to another active passage with a series of rapids over the dark cherty rock. The Main Canal was next, looking innocuously easy with deep water and about four feet of airspace. However, large, sharp, submerged boulders and various slippery underwater tree trunks made progress very slow, the water being just too shallow to actually swim. We looked at the sump at the far end, where the water was much deeper. I investigated a low muddy crawl on the right which went for much further than the survey showed, but eventually an impending duck determined me to retreat. From Telephone Corner, we climbed up to dry passage, but this dropped into Cold Canal, with much chillier water, and all swimming. The next section of dry land is at Trashcan Aven and there is supposed to be an alternative entrance here, but we could not find it, and continued into Warm Canal, also swimming, but less unpleasant. This is obviously phreatic type passage (presumably flooded much of the time) and lowers to 3″ of airspace over 14′ of water. Julian (with electric lamp) MASU’d his way to Six Ways Chamber but then didn’t find a way on beyond.

On the return, the warm canal was feeling cool, and the Cold Canal was very chilling. Once back in the main canal, we noticed odd effects in the temperatures of each passage. In passage isolated from the stream, the water is cold, but those connected to the active river, the water is warm(-er). In some passages, like the Main Canal, the water is warm at the surface, but cold at depth. In these static canals connected to the stream, we could tell by the temperature distribution where the water went on into the sump.

Back at the rapids we tried to climb into the dry passage seen on the survey, but while we could see into the passage from an ascent of the opposite wall, we could not get up the overhang to enter it. We now investigated the upstream sumps before heading into the fossil passages. A high level passage had some rotting stal and this obviously floods, despite being thirty feet above the stream. Returning to the stream, we washed off before checking out the downstream sump. Exitting after two and a half hours, we had still missed out several parts of this quite complex cave.

Back in the Dartry Hills, we started by rigging the pitch in Polldingdang and took the surveying gear down the crawl to the chamber. We managed to get down into this carefully, and while Julian investigated a couple of leads at roof level, I dropped down to the deepest point to find it choked with mud. We started surveying from the large boulder in the middle, and Julian sketched while I measured. Then a large boulder collapsed with Julian stood on it and all the surveying gear fell about. Julian had gashed his finger, so I took over recording since blood was making the detail illegible. We surveyed out through the crawl, checking out side passages and drawing cross sections. More detailed sketch plans of the entrance passages and a boulder chamber were drawn and the shakehole surveyed. We got a total of 194m of survey, of which 85m were in our extension.

Back down the hill, we drove round to Polldinna. This proved to be a 30′ shaft which we both descended to find a dead sheep and a huge pile of rusting tins of “Asthma cure”. Julian poked about in the depths, but I was very glad to get out of this rather unpleasant hole.

Next day we headed for Larne and the ferry, but passing the border at Blacklion into Belcoo, we realised that the Bush Bar was behind us, so we walked back into the republic for a pint. It’s only three miles to Marble Arch on the unapproved road, but we took the safer twelve mile route. We were a bit short on documentation at this stage, so walked up the track, missing out Marble Arch itself, and heading for the obvious cave entrances. We changed and entered, swum around in deep cold water for a while and realised there was no way on here. We searched the boulders and the cliff face. Failing again, we had another swim, but as this is the resurgence sump (as we later learned) got nowhere. Gave up and got changed, then went for a walk around in the woods.

The first thing we came across was a huge doline with a sixty foot wall and a large cave entrance. We felt silly and got changed again. Inside, the canal led upstream to a similar doline and here we found the true entrance, one wet and one dry. The dry led to a passage turning right and climbing down to the river. We followed this in a massive passage to a chamber where two tributaries united over a sandbank. We chose the right hand one and followed this through some deeper water, but mainly as a meandering stream over sand and gravel banks until it lowered over deeper water again. A draught enticed us onwards and the roof rose again into a rocky streamway with some rapids. A huge sandbank (climbed or skirted) gave on to another huge doline. Through jungle we fought our way to a hole among boulders and back down to a streamway where we continued to a definite sump with an orange diving line. Back at the confluence, we tried the other affluent, where the water seemed to be rising through the gravel floor, or possibly a sump on the right. Beyond, muddy boulders led to a muddy pool and another definite sump.

Heading on back, we now went downstream beyond where we climbed down, and a large passage led towards daylight at a wet entrance. More casting about failed to reveal a way to the Skreen Hill section of the cave, so we eventually gave up and changed, after about an hour and a half of actual caving.

We now headed back to England, hitting Bernie’s at about 6 pm on Sunday.