I have been trying to get myself on a caving trip to Ireland for some time now, so I was interested to hear that Royal Holloway and Bedford New College Caving Club had some places left on their 1987 annual (they went last year, too) trip to The Burren, County dare. Despite a few minor organisational problems, by the time all the last minute details had been sorted out, a team of six remained. However, only three of these were actually members of RHBNCCC, Croydon seeming to have somehow procured a free minibus for themselves.
The trip was for two weeks leaving Thursday 25 June and returning Thursday 9 July. Those present were Pete Conolly, Cohn Hawke, Kevin Jones, Chris Crowley, Martin Hatton and myself. This was basically a tourist trip, although we did do some more "exploratory" work on which this article concentrates.
The Burren is an excellent example of karst scenery and the caves typically consist of immature river passage which is often well decorated. During our stay at the Kilshanny Caving and Outdoor Centre, the following caves were visited:
Friday 26 June Pol-an-Ionain
Saturday 27 June Upper Poulnagollum
Sunday 28 June Cullaun Five
Monday 29 June Lower Poulnagollum
Wednesday 1 July Cullaun Three
Thursday 2 July Cullaun Two
Friday 3 July Coolagh River Cave
Saturday 4 July Poll-na-gCeim & Polldubh
Monday 6 July Aillwee Cave & Pol-an-Ionain
Tuesday 7 July Doolin Cave
A full trip report will be published by RHBNCCC.
Whilst in Ireland, Chris and Martin were keen to pay Cohn Bunce a visit, and this proved very fruitful for the expedition as we met a number of the more active cavers in Clare. Colin offered us a trip down Poll-na-gCeim in return for "a little work" and invited us to the weekly meeting of The Burren Crawlers where we managed to get permission to go down Aillwee Show Cave. But our prospecting started elsewhere.
Cullaun Three has an estimated length of 3.5km; the first 1.5km are described as being of an "exceedingly tortuous nature". Larger passage follows for 1km and then suddenly decreases in size, becoming exceptionally well decorated. This is Gour Passage. The formations, which include some fine gour pools, continue for some time, gradually dying out before a 3m pot is met. The cave carries a fair amount of water by this time which flows only a short distance beyond the bottom of the pot before disappearing into a boulder choke.
Traversing over the top of the pot, a short crawl leads to a second dryer pot from which several passages lead into a muddy boulder choke. Both of the pots are free-climbable.
The water from Cuhlaun Three has been proved to resurge 2.4km away. Despite this fact, Martin assured the rest of us that the size of the entrance Passage has detered much serious digging. Not being one to turn down a challenge (unfortunately) the "Main Underground Geology Section" of the team (which, incidentally, was noticeably lacking in Croydon members) was formed. Digging aside, the entrance section is well worth enduring just to see Gour Passage. It was somewhat frustrating to realise that, having squeezed through a distinctly unpleasant mile of passage to emerge in a glorious array of speleothems, no-one had brought a camera.
The passages beyond the second pot were investigated first. These are formed by boulder collapse and all head into the choke for varying short distances. The most obvious lead was initially attacked and some mud and small boulders removed. Work was, however, stopped after a couple of feet when two fair sized slabs were encountered. These looked like they could be persuaded to move with a crow bar which we had unfortunately neglected to bring. The other passages were also investigated and the two least unpleasant dug. Both appeared less bouldery and were much tighter so were soon abandoned. The conclusion was that the most obvious passage may yield to some determined digging. It is encouraging to note that all of the passages dug contained cavities within the in-fill.
On the way back out, we descended the first pot to have a quick look at the other choke. This appeared very solid but did, however, provide a good place to wash off the mud acquired from our earlier activity.
The entrance to Cullaun Three is a little difficult to find but worth the effort. My suggestion to anyone who does decide to visit it is to take a crowbar and a camera. However, please note that because of a high flood risk due to rapid surface run-off, this cave should not be attempted in wet or unsettled weather.
Poll-na-gCeim was recently discovered by Colin Bunce and is unusual in being one of few vertical systems in Clare. It comprises several pitches, including a very impressive 34m one, but exploration has been slowed by sumps. When we arrived or the scene divers had reached sump 5, sumps 1 and 2 having already been cleared. Sump 2 has been transformed into a duck by removing the far mud bank, and sump 1 has been drained by use of 3/4" and 4" plastic tubing and concrete dams (see Descent No 76).
Cohn's idea was to clear sump 3 in a similar manner to sump 1. This would involve carrying all the building material down the pitches and through the constrictions of sumps and 2. One end of a suitable length of 4" pipe had already been lowered down the big pitch and was already held in place by a short length of rope attached to a bolt at the top of the previous short pitch. All that was needed was a willing group of volunteers to provide the necessary man-power. Once again the "Main Underground Geology Section" to the rescue!
We were joined by Brian Judd and Dave Scott plus diving gear, Nicky Johnson plus camera, and Colin Bunce plus 3Om of 3/4" plastic tubing and 3 bags of cement. That's not including personal SRT kit! Fortunately, the cave had been left rigged.
The first major problem involved lowering the 4" plastic tubing down the main pitch. Although it was already half way down, it showed an understandable desire to cling to any ledges it might encounter on the way. After several unsuccessful attempts to pass these obstructions, Colin was sent down the pitch to coordinate the operation from the bottom. Things improved for a while and the pipe descended until we realised that we were running out of rope and it was still 20-30 ft off the ground. We soon decided that it was too heavy to hold and would have to dropped the rest of the way. This unfortunately presented a small problem since Colin was underneath it. Some hasty messages were exchanged followed by a loud crash as we let go of the rope. A few more timid messages were eventually answered and the plan continued.
The rest of the building material was accompanied down the pitch and escorted to sump 1. From this point onwards, the cave becomes smaller and pulling the large pipe through required considerable effort. Nicky was left to take photos whilst the rest of us played tug of-war. Passing sump 1 was particularly difficult since it is already half full of pipes! However, all the gear was eventually dumped next to sump 3.
Whilst a dam was being constructed, Brian and Dave dived the sump armed with various lengths of pipe. After finishing the dam, we decided to make our exit, leaving the rest to the divers. This is the only SRT trip I've been on where coming out was easier than going in! Total time underground was 7 hours.
When Brian and Dave eventually caught up with us in the pub, we were informed that they hadn't taken enough pipe through the sump for a venturi, so had set up a syphon instead. I have yet to hear whether this worked. Several further trips will be needed to reinforce the dam and set up the venturi, although these may have taken place by now. Martyn Farr was in Ireland during August and was proposing to look at sump 4. I await further news.
One last thing: a report in Caves and Caving No 36 on the attempts to lower these sumps states ". . . by means of dams and FLEXIBLE 4 pipes". Having participated in the installation this pipe, I dispute the accuracy this statement!
About l00m of new passage was found in Aillwee last February by Brian Judd, and we were lucky enough to be allowed' a poke at some of the more interesting leads. Brian reckons it is the old main river passage, being a phreatic tube about 8ft in diameter. The first l5m or so have been cleared, but most of the passage is around 90% full of glacial fill, and this doesn't leave much space to move around in!
The passage runs east-west and connects with the show cave (see Descent 75). There are four obvious leads off this passage; one to the north and three heading south. Of these, we looked at the three on the south side. The one nearest the show cave appears to be fairly well under control with an extension cable running it's length to provide electric lighting at a wet dig. The other two are more difficult to get to, involving a certain amount of crawling. These were both dug for a while with the conclusion that they didn't hold much promise and it would be better to wait for the rest of the main passage to be dug out before attacking them seriously. Apparently this conclusion had already been reached by Brian and the others soon after having found it!
In conclusion, this was a good introduction to caving in Ireland for me. Although nothing new was found, several loose ends still remain to be pushed. I am now looking forward to the inevitable return trip.