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Stretching Time In County Clare

by Jane Clarke

After three days of good caving and general mirth and merriment the South Wale Easter meet was brought to a close.  The B.E.C. still had its white ensign, the Beaufort Arms still had beer in their barrels, the Boy Scouts had retrieved their latrine tent, and Gooff Crossley's tent resembled a chicken's latrine.

A small group of us (Martin & Glenys, G.W-J. and myself) had decided to extend the Easter holiday and so arrangements were made to visit County Clare. With visions of Guinness and Bailey's Irish Cream before us we left Crickhowell camp-site heading towards Fishguard.  As we were travelling on a middle of the night ferry there was plenty of time to visit a few sites on the way.

The first stop was Carreg Cennan Castle, a superb ruin set up high from the surrounding countryside on a large limestone outcrop.  A short drive from the castle we reached Llygad Llychwr, having planned to do a hasty en-route caving trip.  Eventually we found all four of the river chambers after plenty of swimming and wading in quite a strong current.  I kept an eye out for the Lewd Letcher but was disappointed.

The ferry arrived in Rosslare and a few hours later we were brewing up and cooking breakfast by the roadside.  Sometime later, having visited Kilkenny Castle on the way, we pitched tents in a field on the outskirts of Doolin and spent the evening foot-tapping and glass raising in O'Connor's Bar.

The first cave we visited was just up the road from the campsite; the Doolin Cave System.  St. Catherine's 1, the entrance, to Fisherstreet Pot, the exit, is a 3 km long through trip, and is considered to be a County Clare classic.  Having first tackled Fisherstreet Pot, we were then driven by Glenys to St.  Catherine's 1.   After a partly wet crawl we dropped into the stream way,  where there very good examples of limestone shelving. Climbing up into the Beautiful Grotto we stopped for some good photo's of straws and stal.  I was very impressed by the Main Streamway, named the Great Canyon, and described by the guide book as being “high, wide and handsome.”  The stream covered the floor of the passage and, in some places, was quite deep.  Apart from the cave entrance and a short distance in bedding cave much of the trip is in large walking passage.  Although there do not seem to be many decorations the passage shapes and rock sculpturing definitely make this a worthwhile photographic trip. Another point in its favour is that the trip begins in a field in the middle of nowhere and comes out not so far from O' Connors Bar.  Who is to say that the first visitor to Doolin Cave was not a Burren peat-digger escaping from his nagging wife to O'Connor's for a quick Guinness.  Cunning folk.  Wednesday evening saw us foot-tapping and glass raising yet again, this time in the company of a mixed bunch of D.B.S.S. and Cerberus.

On Thursday we drove the short distance from the campsite to see the Cliffs of Moher which, in some places are up to 700 feet high and face straight out into the Atlantic.  It seemed that every horizontal surface was occupied by some type of nesting bird. Kittiwakes, gulls, fulmars, cormorants, shags, sea-duck and puffins were either bobbing below us on the water or flying aimlessly around the cliffs.  Wandering aimlessly with both feet firmly on the ground was yet another familiar face - Mike Cowlishaw.

Sitting in the nearby information centre, writing postcards and drinking coffee, we chatted to Mike Russell, a well known figure in Irish folk music.  At the mention of caving he told us all about a concert tour made by himself and his late brothers.  This tour included meeting with Durdy and playing at the Pegasus dinner, which he had obviously enjoyed.

Driving east from Lisdoonvarna, which was our main food-shopping town, we spent some time at the Kilfenora Burren Centre.  Various displays showed the flora, fauna, geology and archaeology of the area - well worth a visit.

As the weather was so good, with not a cloud in sight, it seemed a good opportunity to visit the most flood-prone of County Clare's caves - the Coolagh River System.  The flood warning in the guide book was enough to keep the adrenalin flowing in my system for the whole trip:

"The Coolagh River Cave has a very large catchment area (approximately 6 sq. kms) and responds both quickly and violently to rainfall.  During a major flood the cave fills to the roof and water fountains out of the surface holes around the and of the cave under a 40 metre head of water."

We entered the system via Polldonough South, following the stream into the low entrance.  Crawling over pebbles we soon passed daylight - the small B 9a entrance.  The stream soon cuts a channel in the floor and the passage takes on he appearance of an hourglass.  Traversing along the top section  of Double  Passage,  as it is known,  we soon reached an ugly  flowstone column after a rather slippery climb down.  There appeared to be lots of vegetation stal-ed into the column, presumably flood debris.  Another short crawl leads into Gour Passage, particularly notable for a series of cabite dams, remnants of an old false-floor.  A 6m pitch drops down into the Lower Main Drain, where we met with the Main Stream and continued to follow it downstream over several cascades. Looking up some 20m. to the roof of the high, sheer-walled, scalloped canyon we were constantly reminded of the flood potential of the cave by the debris draped around the ends of stal and the foam way above our heads.  The Terminal Bedding Cave, with its walls covered in slimy sump mud, was our downstream limit.  Back upstream, just beyond the Gour Passage climb, we stopped for a few photographs of Balcombe's Pot, a 5 m. deep pool.  To avoid the cobbly, wet entrance crawl we exited via the B 9a entrance, amidst brambles, and walked back to the car.  As the weather was still good we crossed the road and went for a short romp into the beginning of Polldonough.  After passing a couple of very dead farm animals, definitely not smelling their best, we returned to the sunshine.

Our days were beginning to take on a pattern of sight-seeing in the morning and early afternoon followed by caving.  Evening meals were, on occasions, early breakfasts.

On Friday morning we followed the coast north towards Black Head, and then on to Ballyvaughan.  The countryside was very rugged and barren, most of the hillsides being bare limestone an with the occasional glacial erratic.  The edge of the sea cliffs were littered with dead sea urchins and, nearer to the road, spring gentians grew from seemingly bare rock.  Having stopped to look at a well preserved 16th century castle, Gleninagh Castle, and a roadside Pinnacle Well, we drove through Ballyvaughan to see a turlough, the Irish equivalent of a polje.  Two miles from Ballyvaughan is Ailwee show cave, discovered by Dave Drew and opened to the public in 1976; the entrance buildings well deserved their architectural award and could certainly teach Cheddar Caves a thing or two.  Aillwee is famous for its bear hibernation pits.  Driving across country, away from the coast, we passed many archaeological remnants, particularly stone ring forts and the odd dolmen.

As we had spent much of the day sight-seeing we decided to do a few, short caving trips that evening. Pol-an-Ionain seemed a good idea as a first trip.  Having heard all kinds of tales of farmers dumping animal carcases and rubbish down the hole I was not looking forward to the crawling sections, anticipating oozing bags of giblets and mammoth sized maggots, none of which we found. However, there were some very suspicious looking black poly sacks, tied up with string.  I was very careful not to trend on any.  The Main Chamber, one of County Clare's biggest, was quite unexpected after the grovelly and uninspiring entrance. In fact, the only justification for doing the trip at all, in my opinion, is to see the very impressive Pol-an-Ionain stal.

Emerging hot and sweaty from the cave, we set off to find Faunarouska, carefully following the guide book.  After some time wandering over the moor land ferreting down many other holes we returned to the car and to a rather bewildered Glenys who, having seen us set off, then watched as helmets bobbed up and down and dark figures hovered on the skyline. We did not find the cave.

The campsite had all that we heeded in terms of loos and water supply.  The only thing missing was a shower.  Although it bore no resemblance to Chamonix in summer the cold water stand pipe that stood, caressed by Atlantic gales breezes, in the corner of the field served its purpose.  Not only were we much cleaner and less smelly but Martin had a batch of action-packed, good entertainment value slides.  (For the information of those of you privy to Mr. Grass's slide show, I was grabbing for Graham's towel).

On Saturday we crammed in yet more sight-seeing.  The Craggaunowen Centre has some excellent reconstructions of an Iron Age lake village and ring fort.  Quin Abbey is a well preserved monastic building with a ruined village clustered round its walls and now buried by grass.

To get to Cullaun 5, our first caving trip of the day entailed a drive across peat land and through coniferous forest.  The entrance was in a small collapse on the forest boundary.  Memories of this trip are of stooping, crawling and black, sticky mud.  On reaching the final bedding crawl of 80 metres there were plenty of pine needles in the roof, indicating that these sections must flood right up.  It is not often that I have come eye to eye with a frog but in part of the cave we met four.

In Cullaun 2 we followed the main streamway to the sump.  Although not as large as some of the caves we had visited Cullaun 2 still had a canyon-like main passage.  Chert bands and nodules were in abundance, as was iron staining in the stal, one of which was called The Bloody Guts.

Our last day, Sunday, was to have been a gentle drive back to Rosslare for the evening ferry. However, Graham in particular was very disappointed at not finding Faunarouska, and so we decided to visit the cave and then hurtle for the ferry.  It did not take long to find the entrance, going on directions from Tony Boycott, whom we had met earlier in O'Connor's Bar.  After ¾ mile walk we came to the large entrance.  Once again the passage was canyon like, but very narrow, twisting and turning for much of the way.  There are a few crawls and ducks under flowstone, with some quite pretty decoration.  The stream has exposed ledges and nodules of chert which, in a few places, have formed small cascades.  Eventually the cave changes to being phreatic.  Having reached the Letterbox we turned back and made a rapid exit, saving the rest of the cave for our next visit to County Clare.

A speedy change and an even speedier, but pleasant, drive across Ireland, squeezing in a visit to Dunratty Castle and Folk Park on the way, got us to the ferry just on time, which, in turn, got us back to England just in time for work on Monday morning.

We had been absolutely exhausted by five days of intensive caving, touring and pubbing.  As a first time visitor to County Clare I was very impressed by the scenery, the caves and the friendliness and generosity if the people, particular Gussie O'Connor and his wife, and Arthur the fisherman.

County Clare -  Easter 1983

We are currently planning a trip to Ireland for next year, visiting over the whole of the Easter weekend as well as the week after.

We are considering staying in a cottage, perhaps McCarthy's Cottage, although the campsite by the strand is perfectly good, provided that the weather is reasonable.

If you are interested in coming along - perhaps you have not yet visited County Clare or maybe you would like a change from Crickhowell at Easter, then contact Martin Grass ( Luton 35145).