If you have ever visited the magical, mystical Burren in Co. Clare, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that there’s nearly as much going on in places beneath the karst landscape as there is above ground.
One such place is just north of the village of Doolin on the Wild Atlantic Way. In 1952, two young men who were visiting Ireland with an expedition from the Craven Hill Potholing Club in England’s Yorkshire Dales discovered a cave while exploring the Burren.
While most other members of the group stayed in a hotel, Brian Varley and J.M. Dickenson camped out on a hillside. In the morning, they decided to explore the area around a cliff they had seen the previous day. They followed a small stream that seemed to disappear under the cliff, struggled to move several large boulders aside, then crawled into the narrow passageway. The rest is history. After a long, dark, difficult crawl, their lamps lit up the main chamber of the Doolin Cave and they looked upon the Great Stalactite, reputed to be Europe’s longest free-hanging stalactite. It had formed over thousands of years from a single drop of water.
The men are quoted as having said, “Scrambling over boulders, we stood speechless in a large chamber of ample width, length, and impressive height. As our lamps circled this great hall, we picked out a gigantic stalactite, certainly over 30 feet in length, the only formation in the chamber and set proudly in the very center. It is really majestic and poised like the veritable sword of Damocles. With our headlamps inadequately floodlighting this huge formation, we tiptoed … to the bottom of the chamber, not daring to speak lest the vibration of the first voices ever to sound in this hall since the beginning of time should cause it to shatter.”
In 1990, local restaurant owners John and Helen Browne bought the land where the cave was located, did the necessary preparation work and finally opened the cave to the public in 2006. They have since added a farmyard nature trail and a visitors’ center with a café and gift shop. The center is dedicated to Helen’s longtime friend, the late journalist and author Nuala O’Faolain.
The Doolin Cave and its amazing stalactite are truly worth a visit, as is that entire area of Clare. There’s so much to do and so much natural beauty to see there. Be sure to visit the Cliffs of Moher and spend time in one of the great local pubs for a rousing music session.
Doolin Cave is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, see doolincave.ie.
Outside the nearby village of Ballyvaughan is Aillwee Cave, discovered in 1944 by local farmer Jack McGann, who followed his dog as it chased a rabbit into the cave. He didn’t go too far inside and didn’t tell anyone about the cave for almost 30 years.
In 1973, he told some cavers about his find and that summer Aillwee Cave was explored as far back as a boulder blockade that was removed in 1977 when access was gained to the rest of the cave.
A tunnel was finished in 1992 to give visitors a circular trip through more than a kilometer of passageways where they can view an underground river and waterfall as well as large stalactites and stalagmites.
Remains of bears have been found inside the caves and some claim that Aillwee was the last bear den in Ireland. The cave is older than most others in Clare and originally had a large stream, which is now filled with glacial material.
Formations seen on tours led by Aillwee’s guides are rarely more than 8,000 years old, but samples from the deepest recesses of the cave were tested and are said to be more than 350,000 years old.
Down the hill from the cave is the Aillwee Cave Farmshop, where award-winning Burren Gold Cheese has been made since 1985. The cheese is similar to Gouda and is really delicious. We bought the Garlic and Nettle and the smoked cheese the last time we were there and can attest to its excellence.
Across the way from the farmshop is a great attraction, Aillwee’s Birds of Prey center. We have also enjoyed and taken guests to these amazing shows several times. The Birds of Prey Center is home to various birds including eagles, owls, hawks and falcons and they are so much fun to watch as they perform, although I always wonder if they will really come back after soaring off into the distance.
For the younger set (and maybe the older set), a Santa’s Workshop sets up at Aillwee every Christmas season and sounds like a lot of fun. See email@example.com for more information. For details on the cave, see aillweecave.ie.
The Irish are most proficient at promoting tourism and have created a Burren Discovery Ticket that gives tourists extra value during the season when they visit Aillwee Cave, the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Experience, and the excellent Burren Centre in Kilfenora within two to three days. For information, see: getyourguide.com/cliffs-of-moher-l4550/wild-atlantic-way-burren-4-ticket-t45011/.
As with all attractions in Ireland in this shoulder season, be sure to check ahead to be sure they are open and whether they have curtailed their hours. The Burren Centre, for instance, closed in October. The Cliffs and Aillwee are open all year except Dec. 24, 25 and 26. Aillwee Cave is also closed New Year’s Day.
MARBLE ARCH CAVES
Also on your agenda for cave visits might be the Marble Arch Caves in Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. These caves open from mid/late-March to September, are in a National Nature Reserve and have a souvenir shop, restaurant, exhibition area, and free audio-visual presentation. The caves open at 10 a.m. but prospective visitors are advised to call ahead - 044 (0) 28 6634 8855 - or email: firstname.lastname@example.org ) to make sure the caves are accessible on the day they plan to visit as heavy rain can close them.
The caves are part of a Geopark area that stretches from the northern shores of Lower Lough Erne in Co. Fermanagh to the lowlands of Lough Oughter in Co. Cavan. All Geopark areas except the caves are open all year.
For more information, see marblearchcavesgeopark.com.
BEER, CIDER FESTIVAL
If you’re a beer or cider fancier, you might want to make note of the 19th Annual Belfast Beer & Cider Festival in Ulster Hall from Nov. 8-10. More than 100 ales and ciders will be offered. Sample the various brews while listening to music and chowing down on dishes from Northern Ireland’s culinary capital.
For more information, visit belfastbeerfestival.co.uk.
No matter when you visit Ireland, there is always something new and interesting to see and do. If you’ve been before, then you no doubt have favorite spots that were fun and are well worth another visit.
Enjoy the island whenever and wherever you go. For more information on events, accommodations, attractions, and more, visit Ireland.com.