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Vale: Dave “Wig” Irwin. 1935 – 2007.

Dave sadly passed away in April this year. I had the honour of being asked to read a eulogy to him at his funeral and write an obituary to him for the BB. I spent a lot of time researching his life and writing and rewriting his eulogy until I felt it reflected what Dave had achieved in his 71 years. I have therefore printed below, in full, the transcript of the eulogy as my obituary of Dave.

He will be sorely missed not only for his knowledge of caves, caving politics and bibliography but also for his vast musical knowledge. As well as by cycling friends and post card collecting enthusiasts. With the committeeÙs permission we plan to erect a memorial tablet to Dave in Cerberus Hall in St. CuthbertÙs in recognition of his enormous contribution to the cave and particularly to the survey of the system. It is hoped that the official unveiling will be followed by a few drinks at the Belfry as a celebration of DaveÙs life.

Martin Grass.

A Tribute to Dave “Wig” Irwin.

I am told that there is a guide to eulogies that recommends that you concentrate on one subject of the deceasedÙs life, but in the case of Dave that is not possible as whatever he did he did it with passion, conviction and dedication. He was a member of the Somer Valley Cycling Club for about 16 years and was honored with life membership several years ago for his services to the club. He was also obsessed with his classical music collection and undoubtedly his favorite composer was Mozart. I remember fondly one incident when as teenagers Chris Hannam and I had convinced him he should widen his musical remit and he reluctantly let us play some heavy metal LPÙs on his beloved and very expensive sound system. He was not impressed with the music but was surprised how his windows rattled!

However I knew him best from caving and that I believe was the strongest of all his passions.

In fact in an email he sent to an old caving friend in Canada shortly before his death he actually wrote that he was “completely married to caving” and often said he was not interested in it, “just obsessed”.

Dave started caving in 1953 and in the early years was a member of the Westminster Speleological Group. However he soon joined the BEC and on the 10th.June 1963 became member number 540. Within three years he had become a life member of the club and over the years held many posts including librarian and Belfry Bulletin editor. 

Dave was a team member of the 1960Ùs trips the BEC made to the deep pits of Austria and was an inspiration and a source of much knowledge to the many trips that followed right up to the present day. In June 1967 he and his great caving friend Roy Bennett explored the Aille River Cave in Co. Mayo Ireland just before a team from the Craven were due out to look at it. I know when we went there twenty years later, and I went to him for information, he delighted in explaining that he and Roy had not bothered with boats or fins (as the Craven planned to) to explore around 3000 feet of swimming passage! 

St. CuthbertÙs Swallet was DaveÙs favorite Mendip cave and all those interested in the system would go to the “Wig” for information. He knew every part of the cave and was always willing to direct you to possible new dig sites or suggest passages that needed looking at. He was the driving force behind the high-grade survey of the system and with so many complicated and interconnecting passages he became famous for his “closed traverses”. These were never more than a degree or two out, quite a feat in pre computer days. After his first heart attack in 1995 he never went back down the cave but I know on speaking to him he had completed in excess of 750 trips into the cave and at the height of the surveying and digging in the Dining Room during the late 60Ùs and early 70Ùs he would clock up over a dozen trips a month.

Dave wrote many articles on numerous subjects for the Belfry Bulletin over the years as well as a number of Caving Reports. The long awaited publication of the St. CuthbertÙs Report in 1991 along with the very detailed survey was the culmination of many years hard work and will remain as a testimony of his dedication and love of the cave.

As well as his membership of the BEC Dave was a founder member of BCRA and contributed many items to them for publication including most recently “Cave Studies Series” on “SwildonÙs 2 & 3”. Articles were also regularly published in the Shepton Mallet CC journal and as a member of the University of Bristol SS he was a contributor of numerous articles, many on obscure caving related subjects, to their proceedings.

Dave was also an Honorary Vice President of the Wessex CC and had been editing their long awaited “History of SwildonÙs”. The final copy of which he had just sent out for proof reading.

He was also a warden for the Mendip Rescue Organization from 1966 to 1982.

He co-authored four editions of “Mendip Underground”, the first two with Tony Knibbs and the later ones with Tony Jarratt. We all remember the phone calls and scraps of paper asking for final confirmation of a passage description or details on access. I even went underground at a very late stage in the completion of one copy to confirm some detail or other and to take a particular photograph that he wanted.

Like many of us Dave collected caving books new and old but his main passion in caving collectables was post cards. He literally had hundreds, we all bought them back for him from all around the world and he always wanted at least four copies of each one. The collection had a great number of Cheddar Caves and he even published a very large bibliography of them. I am sure he never knew how many he had but he did tell me once he thought it was around 50,000!

He chaired the Mendip Cave registry and in 1997 and again in 2005 compiled and published the two volumes of the Mendip Cave Bibliography

Over the last couple of years he also contributed monthly articles on Mendip Caving to the Mendip Times.

That is just a brief history of accomplishments for a man who did so much. I did not touch on his work life, but I do know he worked for a year in Los Angeles on the thrust reverses for ConcordeÙs Olympus engines. On his return in 1972 he purchased Townsend Cottage in Priddy where he remained until his death. He loved Townsend and had an open door for cavers old and young. Everyone went to him for information and 9 times out of 10 he knew the answer without looking it up. He was a mine of information and helped all who asked. You even got a cup of coffee if you could find a clean cup.

Being a youngster I did not know Dave as long as many of you here, only a mere 35 years, but as a fellow trustee of the BEC along with Nigel Taylor and the recently departed Barry Wilton, I know he always had the ClubÙs best interests at heart. He took me all those years ago on my first trip to sump one in SwildonÙs and we surveyed Wigmore together as well as a few other trips. We all have our own special memories of time with Dave and we will cherish these, and if there is a heaven, I am sure it will not be long before we see a high grade survey of it and all start receiving a collectorÙs pack of postcards from on high.

In true BEC style Dave throughout his life did EVERYTHING TO EXCESS, we will all miss him.

Farewell old friend.

An Ode to Wig on the Occasion of his Birthday (Opus 70)

to the tune of Brighton Camp, an 18th Century melody commonly known as “The Girl I left behind Me”

Words by Snab

(As sung at the great manÙs wake!)

Some men win fame and great acclaim, like Brunel or Charles Darwin
and their names grow big, for example Wig was once plain Dave Irwin.
Then he said one day, having lost his way, ‘IÙm off to the caversÙ purvey
IÙll get all the gear, my aim is clear; IÙll do the Cuthberts survey.

So with compass, clino and with tape, as far as I remember,
he mapped the underground landscape, from Whitsun to September.
For years and years and years and years, every crack and squeeze and streamway
and potential dig was checked by Wig, while doing the Cuthberts survey.

Now, for months on end, he would descend, to check, recheck or discard
until some friends driven round the bend would communicate by postcard.
He made an inventory of them till he got one from Chris Harvey,
saying, ‘this is Zot, Have you lost the plot? Have you finished the Cuthbert survey?

A curse did smite this Belfryite; he just had to list each item,
so locating nibs he began to write Mendip Underground despite ‘em.
The postcards then came flooding in, from Mulu, France and Torbay,
with queries from the Hunters Inn, ‘Have you finished the Cuthberts survey?Ù

The contents of his house did grow; he was trapped by books and postcards,
but was rescued by the MRO with the help of local coastguards.
The same age as the BEC he blamed, they blamed his failing memÙry,
as they pulled him out he was heard to shout ‘IÙve lost the Cuthberts survey!Ù

They searched WigÙs house all through the day, round Mendelssohn and Schubert,
while Swildons just got in the way, there was no sign of St Cuthberts.
Then a smile appeared across WigÙs face, and they cheered as he said ‘DonÙt worry,
ItÙs down at Tony JarrattÙs place, IÙve finished the Cuthberts survey!Ù