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Poll Na G Ceim

Until very recently Irish cave exploration, particularly in County Clare, has in the main been made by visiting British cavers with UBSS being in the fore as explorers and recorders.  The scene is now changing and increasingly in the future I think we will find that the really significant finds will be made by local cavers.  This is due to the presence of various “ex-patriates” who have settled in the region and stimulated interest by the local population.  Cave training schemes have helped to develop the skills of the embryonic cavers.  Among many of the new sites being dug and explored was one called B5a on the side of Knockauns Mountain.

Originally dug by Colin Bunce (ex-Aberystwyth U.C.C.) B5a was a small choked hole near an active swallet. It was excavated to reveal a pitch reached only after a very tight squeeze had been passed (since fortunately by-passed).  The pitch was only 4 metres deep and led into a small circular chamber.  At the far end was a distinct surprise - the deepest underground pitch in Clare.  This magnificent semi-circular shaft dropped a free-hanging 31 metres to a large ledge and a further series of shorter pitches past an inlet passage to a final rather grotty sump at the depth of 74 metres.

At this point a digression is worth while.  Some of you may have been at a BCRA conference a few years ago when Oliver Lloyd and Charlie Self presented their paper on the Balliny depression.  This paper was stimulated by discoveries a few years earlier in Poliballiny a system only a kilometre from B5a.  Pollballiny had a foul reputation for many years as being a long rather monotonous passage with much stooping and crawling which led to a sump.  When the "sump" was visited in the late '70's it was found to be only a very wet crawl and the cave was pushed considerably further down some much roomier passage through a rather nasty choke to a sharp crawl.  At the end of this the explorers were staggered to find themselves in an enormous passage unlike anything normally seen in County Clare.  Initially 6 metres wide and 20 metres high it descended past two pitches and became a canyon 3 metres wide and 30 metres or more high.  Sadly it terminated in a huge roof to floor collapse and the stream dropped away down a very immature passage.  The terminal passage lay under the near Balliny depression.  This depression is really rather spectacular being cliff girt on all sides and 10 or more metres deep.  It covers an area of thousands of square metres.  The theory to account for its origins is that it was originally the site of a huge river sink draining a much larger area than that of modern caves. It eventually became choked and a large lake formed at the same site  overflowing at one end to allow Its waters to reach the sea 250 metres below. The presumed resurgence for this system lies under the sea as does that for the modern caves.  The terminal passage in Pollballiny may only represent an inlet into this mega system.  Digging in the depression has revealed it to be pretty hopelessly choked.

Poll na g Ceim (cave of the steps) as B5a was dubbed offered a new route into the Balliny system.  It lies on a fault line which intersects the depression and approaches from the opposite direction to Pollballiny.  With all to play for, the sump at the bottom of Poll na g Ceim had to be tackled.  Sumps in caves in that part of County Clare are not noted for going and in general cave diving in this region has not produced the spectacular results seen in Fermanagh.  Furthermore there is a lack of native cave divers in this part of the world. Nothing daunted Brian Judd (ex-BPC and now living and working in the area) rose to the challenge.  Without any real previous cave diving experience he decided to tackle the sump.  His first attempt in August 1985 ended in failure when the unsuitably large bottles he was using proved too bulky.  It must be realised at this point that Brian was conducting the whole venture on a shoestring budget without the back up of a local branch of the CDG.  Undeterred Brian returned with smaller bottles and successfully passed the sump which although constricted was only 12 metres long and 3 metres deep.  Thirty metres of passage led to the inevitable sump 2.  At this point Brian roped in another non cave-diver, Dave Scott, and the two of them examined Pollnagame 2 without being able to find a bypass.  Brian dived sump 2 and found it to be a very muddy low bedding plane which he failed to pass.  In October Brian and Dave returned with Tim Fogg and Kevin Woods.  After an initial unsuccessful dive by Tim, Brian got through on a base fed line.  Although the sump was originally 12 metres long, destruction of a chert dam (features of all the sumps) reduced it to only 6 metres.  Divers had problems with the sumps on the way out.  The next trip was done solo by Brian Judd with Colin Bunce as sherpa.  Sump three was separated from sump two by a high rift and proved to one of the easiest sumps. After a 6 metre dive Brian surfaced in Pollnagame Four and followed 37 metres of well decorated crawling to sump four.  Using a single bottle Brian examined sump four for 4 metres.  A second solo attempt an sump four was frustrated by large bottles and, in desperation, Brian sent an urgent order to caving supplies for a 15 cu. ft. bottle via a friend in Aer Lingus.  At the end of February of this year he passed the sump on another solo trip.  This was an impressive feat; the sump was so tight four metres in that the only way to pass it was to push all one’s kit including the bottle in front.  Aqua flashes have to be removed from helmets to get through the squeeze!

In Pollnagame Five the fun started.  After 30 metres in a rift passage an 8 metre pitch was found and Brian had to return.

Reinforcements were now needed - as was tackle.  This was never going to be an easy task.  In early March the Judd, Scott and Fogg team arrived at sump four ready for a big assault. Unfortunately Sump four proved to be a tackle-eater and hung onto the bag containing bolting kit and SRT gear. The rope got through so the team scrambled down the 8 metre pitch but were thwarted after 45 metres by another pitch which just could not be climbed using hand line tactics.  At that point the cave was 26 metres high but only 75 centimetres wide and dropping steeply.

A month later Rick Stanton, myself, Mark Vinall and co. arrived in Ireland having heard tales of this fabulous cave. Brian was overflowing with enthusiasm at the sight of some well equipped cave divers.  Unable to contact Tim Fogg or Dave Scott he decided the opportunity was too good to miss and an instant Anglo-Irish caving expedition was set up. It was eventually decided that Rick and Brian would do the pushing whilst I tried to get some pictures of the cave with Mark.  On the surface Colin Bunce would fix positions using the Molephone transmissions from the explorers.  The night before Rick could be seen with the jitters.  Were the sumps incredibly desperate he speculated; only non cave-divers had passed them and might not know what was considered impossible.  His unease was amplified by the events that occurred prior to the trip.

Mark Rick and I arrived at Brian's house at the appointed hour to find preparations still going on. After a lot of idle chat we were about to head off for the cave when Brian asked where my rocket tube was.  It appeared they assumed I was bringing it for the molephone.  A twenty minute there-and-back dash from Kilmoon East to Kilshanny produced the rocket tube and it seemed like we were ready to leave.  Halfway to the cave Brian stopped his car to chat to a neighbour. Only a few yards behind I ploughed into the back of Brian’s car turning his tow bar into a wishbone.  My Volvo looked singularly unaffected apart from a funny whirring noise which turned out to be a headlight wiper motor jamming. We all climbed back in and set off again.  All were changing near the cave entrance when Brian announced he had left his helmet and lamp at home.  Colin disappeared gnashing his teeth.  Two of the Burren Crawlers went off and rigged the cave.

Once underground Brian became Action Man, sorting out the rigging and taking firm charge of the proceedings.  This was as just as well because the over enthusiastic pitch riggers had gone in for a bit of overkill with the rope deviations.  Rick Stanton nearly came to grief when one of the deviation belays to allowed him down a 4 metres pitch after coming unstuck from the wall.  At the sump Rick kitted and dived whilst Brian reported to the surface.  A swish of bubbles and he, too, was gone.  Mark, myself,  Gerry and Ben (the two Burren Crawlers) headed slowly out as I took photographs.  Back on the surface we changed and went to see how things were going on underground.  Halfway between the Balliny Depression and the entrance to Pollnagame Rick and Brian radioed in that they were about to forge into the unknown.  I witnessed a new spectator sport above ground caving via the mole phone!

After passing the last pitch of 8 metres they traversed high up along a narrow rift until they met a big black space.  A bolt was placed and the pitch descended 7 metres to a ledge and a further drop of 10 metres into a much larger passage.  This was a superb canyon 3 metres wide and 20 metres high which led to a duck under a huge block.  An inlet could be seen cascading in from high in the roof.  Sadly soon after the roof of the passage descended into the almost inevitable sump 5, 128 metres below the entrance but 114 metres above the sea and 78 metres, below the terminus of Pollballiny.  The Balliny saga is not yet ended.  After a resuscitating meal from a HOT CAN the explorers made the long 3 hour Journey out, Rick having to pass sump four 3 times to retrieve a tackle bag. Colin Bunce and Dave Gibson came in to help them de-tackle before they returned to Brian's home and a welcome meal and shower.  Watch this space.

Peter Glanvill May 1986


Pollnagame five has been revisited by Tim Fogg and Brian Judd.  The aim was to dive sump five but at the final pitch a bottle was dropped. It landed next to Tim Fogg the pillar valve bent at 45 degrees.  Tim has lost enthusiasm for Pollnagame.