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Going underground

OUR ANCIENT ancestors saw them as portals to another world, with all manner of monsters lurking within their cavernous bounds.

Gerry Woods of the Clare Caving Club admiring stalactites. Photographs by Colin Bunce

By John Rainsford


Although mindsets have changed, ironically the Burren, as one of the world’s great limestone landscapes, has had, until recently, very few local cavers involved in its exploration.

In fact, over the past 50 years, the discovery process was largely the purview of just one enthusiastic body,  the University of Bristol Speleological Society (UBSS).

Colin Bunce is another enthusiastic visitor. Having studied geology at the University of Wales, he discovered the desolate beauty of the Burren in 1979.

“After moving to the area in 1985 I became involved with the Speleological Union of Ireland (SUI), particularly in its training programmes. Then, in 1996, I teamed up with Ernest and Audrey Lawrence, both teachers at Wilson’s Hospital School, in County Westmeath, to form Youth Cave Romania,” said Colin.

He continued, “On our last expedition, in 2005, there were just four young people from Clare involved and back then, there was little opportunity for them to continue on in the sport. To fill this gap, the Clare Caving Club was established, with the assistance of local cavers, notably John Sweeney and Terry Casserly. From then on, a larger group of cavers began to assemble in Lisdoonvarna each month, to explore some of the 200 caves existing in the region.”

Recently, Clare Caving Club discovered a completely new cave near Carron. The discovery was the result of several months’ hard work, which involved digging gravel and rocks from the entrance of a very old cave system that had become blocked. They found a series of large chambers and waterfalls inside, reaching a total depth of 90m below ground.

All such discoveries are recorded, mapped and photographed. The information is then published in Irish Speleology, an occasional publication produced by the SUI. Presentations on new caves are also made at the annual caving symposium, held every October Bank Holiday weekend, which this year will assemble at Hotel Doolin.

Dr John Duncan, chairman of the SUI, who lives near Ennistymon, wants to see greater public involvement. “Most people get involved in the sport of caving because of a desire to explore the unknown,” he says.

“Ireland can boast over 150km of underground cave passages, which compare favourably to those found in other countries.

“Caving provides the possibility for original exploration, something which no other sport in the country can offer. Additionally, there is the prospect of unique skill development, the camaraderie of club involvement and the chance to be involved in expeditions to some of the least visited parts of the planet.”

In the early days of cave exploration, in the 1950s, it was relatively easy to find new caves by just following a stream until it tumbled down a swallow hole. However, these caves are often blocked by large rocks and debris, while older cave passages may be filled with mud and sand from the Ice Age.

“The cave environment is a harsh, unforgiving place,” stated Colin. “It is dark, cold, wet and muddy, progress can be difficult and with visits lasting up to six hours, stamina and fitness are important. The club is vital, as it holds a store of specialist caving equipment and many years of knowledge, which ensures that all cavers are kept as safe as possible.

“There are still mental challenges, however. Fitting yourself through a tiny space can be a major test for some people and you can, very quickly, find yourself isolated from the world outside. Experience, therefore, is vital to moving safely through a cave without injuring yourself or damaging the environment. The best way is to learn from experienced cavers.”

According to Colin, being the first person to see inside a new cave remains one of life’s great pleasures. The Burren has over 80km of underground passages, which form a veritable parallel world, largely unseen by terrestrial visitors.

Being underground is dramatic with spectacular waterfalls and sculpted limestone walls shaped by thousands of years of water flows. Geological features, can be very beautiful with delicate stalactites sparkling brilliantly beneath the light of a torch.

Amazingly, Doolin River Cave is home to a healthy population of trout, first reported in the 1960s. Indeed, this is one of only two reported cases of fish existing in Irish caves – the other being in County Antrim.

In a few caves in other counties, blind fish have also been found. These have lost their eyes completely following years of evolving in the dark. The trout in Doolin Cave still have eyes but they are very pale in colour, due to the absence of light. Learning to protect these unique species is a vital aspect of club training and SUI policy.

“The pleasure of caving is sometimes marred by the presence of pollution and rubbish that has been washed into them by rivers flowing down sinkholes. It is not a major problem in the Burren but there are some black spots. For example, the Doolin River Cave is over 10km long and attracts cavers from all over the world. In recent years, however, it has become badly polluted by what seems to be the run-off from a septic tank. The danger is that a very rare population of Irish cave fish could be wiped out as a result,” he observed.

Colin continued,    “Sadly, this is now a worldwide problem in karst areas, mirroring the trend towards a disposable society and increased refuse charges. Caves are often seen as mere ‘holes in the ground’ and convenient rubbish dumps. The real problem, however, is that, these underground rivers often emerge, elsewhere, as springs and water supplies, which may become badly polluted over time.

“In Ireland, about 50% of drinking water comes from karst springs. One of the SUI’s vital roles, therefore, is to increase awareness of such issues.”

Colin referred to the age and complexity of the caves in the Burren.

“For example, Poulnagollum, near Fanore, is the longest cave in Ireland. It was formed by several rivers carving their way through the rock over a period of 100,000 years. Gradually changing course and meandering through time, they have now formed a network of passages over 16km long. Several groups have become lost in this cave system, simply, as a result of not following basic safety procedures. If you do end up lost, find somewhere safe to rest up and wait for a rescue team.

“Emergency rescues are organised through the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation, which can be contacted by calling 999 on your mobile phone. It is important to carry survival equipment, emergency bags, whistles, spare lights and food, with you at all times when going underground.”

For information on the Speleological Union of Ireland see the website: www.caving.ie For more information about Clare Caving Club, see clarecavingclub.wikispaces.com.

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