Caves and Caving in County Clare

A compendium of Pegasus’ Irish activities

"To Cave is to absorb sensory and physical experiences that eclipse all other; to Cave in Clare amplifies exponentially such passions unlike anywhere else. Individuals in search of new cave avidly embrace these consuming addictions".

Beginnings…
The Pegasus relationship with County Clare began in 1971 proving pivotal to many members. There followed regular trips, which for some resulted in multiple, annual visits. Thus began firm friendships with many locals, old and young. Relationships formed during liver crippling sessions of Drink, Dance and Music, yet endure. Potential for new discoveries were, and yet remain obvious; hence the level of Club activity. As time passed younger locals too welcomed the familiar faces regularly calling for pints across the bar and would delightedly accompany the Club on trips, which for many was their first. Genuine interest developed among local teenagers; Jim Shannon, Noel Shannon, Sean O'Connor, John Brown, Martin Droney, (R.I.P.), and Noel Walsh, to name but a few.

Jim Shannon in Pol-an-ionian Christmas 1971

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Sean O'Connor in Pol-an-ionian

To support their endeavours Pegasus members supplied, free of charge, ex-coal board cap lamps, lamp chargers, ladders, rope, and helmets. Now equipped the Doolin boys began to cave regularly, accomplishing some very serious trips; soon turning their attention to ambitious projects such as the remote, elevated Gleninagh South Cave. Further Pegasus support was dispatched in the form of cave rescue equipment; stretcher, ropes and karabiners, also (F.O.C); the equipment stored with Martin Droney. 

On a more practical level a reliable source of drinking water was desperately needed particularly during dry periods. The village pump would become a trickle, producing sulphur water. Piped, treated drinking water eventually arrived in the mid-1980s. Prior to this momentous event Pegasus were entreated to find a water source to alleviate the suffering of the inhabitants. This issue was exacerbated by increasing numbers of visitors to Doolin following the resurgence of Traditional Music; below an example…  

Eastertide 1974

from the start of the bank holiday and throughout the period queues waited outside a packed O'Connor's Bar, from whence music and laughter flowed. The queue wound beyond Fisherstreet Bridge, the waiting throng necessitating the bar door be closed. Meanwhile, between trips Pegasus were told to enter the Bar by the house kitchen; one of many privileges awarded for their services to the entire community. 

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 O'Connors Bar in the early 70's with Doll O'Connor and daughter   Terri  serving the pints

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Peggy Faulkner & Tony Jarratt outside O'Connors Bar , early 70's

Exploration
Pursuit of cave remains a fundamental tenet of the Pegasus. Members do so with a consuming passion that overcomes any obstacle, no matter how formidable. Eschewing conventional tourist caving members have consistently searched for new cave throughout the world. Such exploratory fervour and intimate knowledge of the subterranean realm, has resulted in a modest number of cave discoveries in counties Clare, Galway and Mayo, to mention just three. The varied landscape of County Clare often presents difficulties that impact upon regular digging sessions. Consequently some projects cannot be continuously pursued due to elevated stream levels or, in the case of Fraggle Rock, during periods of the Galway Bay tidal cycle. 


Time spent digging coastal caves, multiple times a week, over several years, (Recorded in the Pegasus Club Log Books), in all manner of tidal and weather conditions, has provided members with a wealth of experience; knowledge of how a benign sea can deteriorate compromising a Caver’s wellbeing; conditions that promised a safe trip will almost noiselessly inundate sites. Be warned, seek advice before planning a trip to either Fraggle Rock or Watergate.

Fraggle Rock Resurgence  issues from an exposed location to cascade into the Atlantic Ocean, a little above normal high spring tide level; consequently subject to flooding, though more often during neap tide periods. Flooding can reach beyond the “Burrow”; therefore it is unwise to enter during rough sea conditions. As the digging team normally comprized two personnel a suspended tramway was constructed along the sinuous passage some 0.6m above the floor, significantly increasing forward progress and overall digging efficiency.

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Showing part ot the Fraggle Rock suspended tramway

Poulnafearbui (Cave of the Yellow Men) is a stream cave situated east of, and some thirty metres above, Fraggle Rock, at the top of the obvious dry stream valley. A concerted dig entered a well decorated stream passage after expending less than twelve hours of hard effort. It presently terminates beneath an extremely unstable boulder area.

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Pat Cronin surveying in Cave of the Yellow Men

The discovery of Poul Eich Oíta (Drunken Horse Hole) a possible pre-glacial truncated remnant, is one site which allowed digging to be pursued whilst severe weather assailed the Clare coast. Of particular note are the igneous and metamorphic glacial erratics found therein, similar in size and form, appearing contemporaneous with those encountered in Fraggle Rock prompting a review of the accepted cave formation period of North Clare.

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Digging out the compacted silt infill of Drunken Horse Hole

Uisce Geata (Watergate Cave) is a fine example of nature exercising access control; a casual approach to exploring this cave must be avoided at all costs. Located at the lowest practicable limit of the inter-tidal zone, this resurgence cave should not be entered unless the sea is still, no swell, mirror like. It is important to clearly understand a safe exit can never, ever be assured; this warning is based on actual, personal experience! Watergate however, does offer the opportunity to study how rising sea levels have inundated a phreatic system. Whilst the problematic entrance may be compared to Otter Hole this is an error as nowhere along this longer, slippery passage are there any hand holds whatsoever that would allow a caver to force an exit against an incoming tide.


Entering Watergate exposes the explorer to an elevated risk of harm.

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Tony Boycott standing beside the flat out entrance to Watergate Cave

During the original exploration of Pollaillte (Cliff Cave) by Michal Marek, (R.I.P.) and Jim Warny, submarine decorations were observed. June 2018 Jim Warny recovered a stalagmite; since very kindly examined and dated by Frank McDermott of University College Dublin, who identified its growth period as being between 8000 - 11000BP, during which time the cave could not have been inundated and clearly establishes the local sea level, at the very least, some ten metres below today’s level. To put this data in context; at the beginning the stalagmites 3000 year growth period, the sea would have been in the order of eight hundred metres off the coast of Fanore Beach, and a kilometre off the coast of Ballyhagline, Doolin. This data also contributes to understanding recently excavated Mesolithic settlements along the north Clare coastline; alas all three sites experience erosion from wave action. Research continues.

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The cut & polished stalagmite from Cliff Cave ready to undergo dating

A brief dig in Pouldubh discovered almost six hundred metres of passage, the limits of this extension was surveyed as encouragingly close to Poulbeagnacoillte (Little Hole In The Wood); another project. Of interest within Pouldubh is the re-deposition of cave sediments in the area of the 1970s terminal choke and also in the Figg-Brigg extensions.

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Barry Sudell and Cheg Chester re-surveying the main Pouldubh streamway to gain a more accurate relationship with Little Hole in the Wood (Poulbeagnacoillte)

Poulbeagnacoillte (Little Hole In The Woods) is situated within dense forestry on the north river bank where the Glenaruin River turns south, some two hundred metres downstream of Blake’s Bridge. It has a challenging entrance and daunting bedding that enters a small collapsed area. When connected to Pouldubh, it will produce an excellent through trip particularly when traversed from Pouldubh North. The bedding is quite tight.

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Connor McGrath attempting to extract himself from the constricted entrance of Little Hole In The Wood

Poulfaoicaislean (Hole Beneath The Castle) is a concluded project that could have intercepted the lower section of Coolagh River Cave. The area potential yet remains as the site is now closed in compliance with the present owner’s request.

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The timbered access shaft to Poulfaoicaislean; Castle Dig

Of particular import is Poulacapple Pot, situated at an elevation of 270 metres. It has been dug and pushed to -32 metres in the northern, immature series, to a choked conclusion. The bottom of the entrance shaft is the present dig site. If 20th century water tracing data is to be believed the stream resurges near/off Ballyvaghan.

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The excavated entrance pitch to Poulacapple Pot

Poulbanbeag was thought to bypass the eastern margin of the Aghaglinny depression, a massive collapse. Regrettably it does not. Further research suggests the Aghaglinny depression is a significant catchment area, the likely source of the impressive, intermittent cascades which occur after heavy rainfall, issuing from beddings on the mountainside opposite Gleninagh Pier and located between Black Head and Ballyvaghan.

Grey Water Hole appears unique in the Burren, if not Ireland, situated in the actual bed of the River Aille; the confined rift drops into impenetrable beddings, along which runs another subterranean stream, north to south, draining toward the Doolin River Cave system. An upstream, flooded site awaits investigation.

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Ken James at the base of the entrance pitch, which is Grey Water Hole

Pegasus Pot is another site in the lower section of the Coolagh River valley; here a cautious approach removed several large boulders at the base of the unstable entrance slope to access a superbly decorated section of cave, comprizing two pitches, a key hole passage, and a beautiful grotto. Work continues.

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Cathal Mullane in the lower North end of Pegasus Pot

Considine's Cave is an open rift similar in form to Pegasus Pot. It is also situated on the shale margin, though fed by two intermittent streams issuing from natural springs. Digging operations divided the rift in half, North End and South End, each separated by a cleft narrowing with depth. The constricted Northern shaft was dug to -26.5m where the stream flows into a small vertical joint heading south. The South End is much larger in cross section, its depth -17.5m, (15th August 2019). Digging is three sessions a week, removing an average of one metric tonne per session. The substantial shoring installed to support the gradually exposed southern face down to a depth of -14m; has since been entirely removed as the South End has deepened.

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Looking up the once filled South shaft of Considine's Cave from minus 16m

Potential New discoveries
Encouragingly, for those who seek new cave, unrecorded sites yet remain. Recent examples being Walsh’s Cave; a diggable depression situated in the front garden of a house and examined following an encounter with its owners in the Roadside Tavern. Another is in the wilderness that is Oughtdarra; a very nice depression that takes an intermittent stream. Yet another is Gregg’s Hollow, a large active sink fed by the stream issuing from an adjacent Holy Well. After granting permission to dig Gregg insisted taking Pegasus to an area where three collapses indicate a hitherto unknown line of drainage toward the west end of the Kilcorney depression.

Industrial archaeology
The realization that abandoned mines existed around Doolin and the fact that many ex-miners also resided locally, galvanized the desire to record their experiences and history of the Phosphate Mine. After the collapse of the main adit a dive was conducted in 1979 via an adjacent adit into the southern workings.The pillar and stall workings appeared stable being unchanged since their abandonment in 1947. An audio tape interview with Jack Garahy, (1997), recorded events leading to the development of the phosphate deposit in Toomullin townland and how, as a child out fishing during the 1930's, Jack encountered Judge Michael Comyns, an amateur geologist, prospecting the banks of the Aille River assessing the extent of the phosphatic occurrence. Other non-ferrous mining activity around Doolin raised Fluorspar, Silver, and Calcite. Gus O’Connor once described a small silver mine trial as being close to the Cliffs of Moher and another on the coast at Fanore.

The Pegasus actively pursues its passion for recording industrial archaeology. Exploration and survey of the Lead mines and associated infrastructure among the valleys of Glendalough, Glenmalure and Glendesan, Co. Wicklow has resulted in a greater understanding of conditions miners were up against from the engineering evidence abandoned. Van Dieman’s Mine is a particularly remote site located at the head of Glendalough. Surface evidence points to a minor operation, yet adjacent evidence suggests otherwise. Adjacent to the adit and shaft are substantial remains of a wheel pit and associated features. Excavation in the area of the run-in main shaft, revealed the dressed masonry lined pit that once held a Balance Bob associated with the flat rod drive from the water wheel.

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The partially excavated Balance Bob Pit adjacent to the run-in main shaft at Van Dieman's Mine, Glendalough, County Wicklow

The Copper mines of Avoca too offer fine examples of engineering achievements solving the difficulties of winning ore. Evidence of early mining technology may be found along the Avoca River often protruding from mine spoil. On the steep mountain sides fine examples of Cornish Engine Houses stand sentinel over the river valley.

A dig to gain access to a partially closed off adit under the mine dumps from Tigroney Mine revealed sections of the flat rod drive which originally ran from a water wheel on the banks of the Avoca river to intercept the main shaft which was serviced by the Williams Engine House. (The iron flat rods in this case are actually two inch diameter)

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Clearing debris from around the flat rod which rests on a pulley situated between the two upright wooden supports

Cave Diving
Exploration of sumps, particularly in the Gort lowlands, began as a single dive site project that grew as other sites were discovered. This continues today. Initial diving operations at Poulawee, (Quinn’s Cave), Co. Galway, observed a curious flood event. Further research found the rising water level was not in response to rainfall on the Slieve Aughty Mountains but in sympathy with the tidal cycle of the Atlantic Ocean, albeit some two kilometres away! Contemporary derision of the original explorer’s observations proved ill-informed. Eventually the voluble critic’s knowledge, promulgated as encompassing all matters subterranean, was exposed and seen as limited in both scope and breadth. The significant effects of tidal influence have been repeatedly experienced during diving operations since 1981 at dive sites up to three kilometres inland. Sites include Pollaloughabo, Skelpnahooey, Poulbehan, Poulnadirk and Moran’s Cave. The flow is considered to have a far greater impact upon the drainage conduits beneath the limestone plain surrounding Gort, County Galway, than had previously been imagined. Research into correlating factors surrounding the tidal delay, to mitigate risk factors whilst diving, identified a number of variables that need be taken into account for a successful exploration. The Pegasus flood survey project, April 1995, visited numerous sites recording evidence of widespread flooding. Extensive surface deposition of sediments was observed over a significant area; flooding over five metres above normal conditions, at numerous sites was recorded. Simplifying the extent of flooding, the water level closely followed the fifty foot contour throughout the area. Galway and Clare County Councils were forwarded this data. Recent dive operations by Jim Warny has pushed the dry passage in Pollaillte, (Cliff Cave), and also recovered a stalagmite for dating. Exploratory dives, during the 1970s, in Poulnagrai, Poll an Ionian and Coolagh River Cave disappointed the diver as their confined sumps offered little potential. One present exploration continues to push Fergus River Cave.

Underground archaeology
Souterrains are artificial underground or semi-underground constructions: protracted debate suggesting their usage as storage, a place of refuge, a living space, or perhaps all. Souterrains in the west of Ireland tend to be of dry stone construction as this construction medium allowed builders the flexibility to incorporate a variety of internal obstacles and features. One site which offers an insight into souterrain construction is within the stone cashel of Caherdoon, (CL004-0270080)*, located on the southwest of Knockaunsmountain, north of Doolin. Here the souterrain has had its roof covering of flagstones removed to enable the observer to admire the structure. The souterrain project has identified one particular site of interest, (CL008-001003)*, also near Doolin as it raises questions regarding the reason and effort undertaken to put it beyond use by back filling most of its twelve metre length with well compacted stone debris to within, at one point, eight inches of the roof. It is this purposeful act of back filling that appears, thus far, to be unique among the souterrains examined; research continues. The study of several souterrains among the landscape surrounding Finavarra intimates the area was considered important enough to construct several substantial ringforts situated around the small bay, which offers a sheltered anchorage, that dries out at low water, sea food cultivation, and access to two ancient routeways across the Burren, and also control of the adjacent fertile valleys.


A survey of Clooncoose Cave by Pegasus, recorded evidence suggesting its usage during the Early Medieval Period, (E.M.P.), (432AD-1169AD). The thirty metre long, natural passage has a number of artificial features further suggesting its preparation as a refuge. Enslavement of individuals was a common enough occurrence so non-combatants could elude capture by seeking, albeit temporary refuge underground. Inhabitants of the two adjacent enclosures, (CL010-100001, & CL010-100002), may have commissioned the features; which include a drop hole creep, water reservoirs and in a small chamber a raised floor area above the local water table.

The small cave of Poulawillin may be dismissed as little more than a rock shelter. It’s unlikely it was used as a permanent, or even temporary place to live as the place becomes very wet even after light rainfall, though sentinels may have been posted there to watch over cattle in the pastures below. A visit by Dr. Michelle Comber and Dr. Noel McCarthy, 2018, proffered an alternate view, the possible use of the cave as a mine to obtain the light coloured chert formed as a bed about a metre above the cave floor; a survey is in progress.

* This reference number relates to the Irish National Archaeological Database; www.archaeology.ie

NB.
Please be advised under Irish Legislation it is illegal to dig a route into a souterrain unless as part of a licensed archaeological excavation. Metal detectors may not be used whatsoever within fifty, (50), metres of a recorded archaeological site, or with the intent of locating archaeological items.

Compiled by Pat Cronin with additions by Cheg Chester. 2019