SPELUNKING IN THE CAVES OF CLOYNE

The following excerpt from The Book of Cloyne by Pádraig Ó Loingsigh was sent on December 5, 1998, from Brendan Sisk, who lives in East Cork, Ireland. The introductory paragraph is in Irish; please scroll down the screen for the English text.

BRENDAN SISK'S HOMEPAGE

Copies of The Book of Cloyne may be purchased from the author, who may be contacted through Brendan Sisk. All material below copyrighted by Pádraig Ó Loingsigh.

Cian O Se (Caves of Cloyne)

TÁ OS CIONN mìle ceithre chead bliain anois ann óna bhunaigh Naomh Colmán a mhainistir ag Cluain Uamha agus seans go raibh an logainm úd ar an áit le mìle bliain roimhe sin. Mar sin féin is beag béaloideasa atá ceangailte leis na huaimheanna anseo. Tá scéal amháin i nGaeilge faoi Shéan O Maoláin, fear a raibh féith na taimgireachta ann. Nì rómaith a réitigh sé seo leis an sagart. Pé sceal é, Domhnach amháin gur thug an sagart faoi, sé an freagra a fuair sé ó Sheán nach maith a déarfadh sé aifreann trì Dhomhnach ina dhiaidh sin agus go mbeadh deireadh le haifreanntaí in Ardeaglais Naomh Cholmáin ón lá san amach. Trì Dhomhnach ina dhiadh san, le linn na seanmóire, chuir an sagart ceist an raibh Seán i lathair, 'Cad fút anois?' arsa'n sagart. 'Nìl an t-aifreann thart fós, a Athair,' arsa Seán agus le sin tháinig rabha go raibh saighdiúrì Chromaill ag teacht. B'éigean do na daoine dul i bhfolach sna huaimheanna in aice láimhe. B'shin timpeall na bliana 1650 agus sin an chuntas is túisce atá agam ar uaimh Chluain Uamha. Tá roinnt beag béaloideasa sa Bhéarla ach nì fiú trácht air. Is dócha gur cailleadh 90% den mbéaloideas leis an athrú teangan.

 

CAVE MEADOW

Cloyne is derived from the Irish word cluain, which means meadow. This of course is only half a name. The original second element was derived from the word uaimh meaning cave, hence Cluain Uamha may be fully translated as Cave Meadow. (Incidentally, any visiting cavers from any of the major caving areas in Wales may find it of interest that the Welsh word Orof and our Uaimh mean cave. Both are related Celtic words.) The town is situated on a low hill just 100ft over sea level. This hill is riddled with cracks and joints, some of which have been widened out by the process of erosion into underground passages and caves, only some of which are currently accessible. One of the mysteries of Cloyne is how it is that the major buildings such as the Cathedral, Cloyne house and especially the Round Tower, had foundations built on the solid' away from known cave passages? Were there cave explorers all those centuries ago? Or indeed was there a succession of cathedrals and round towers until solid ground was discovered by trial and error? History and folklore appear to be now silent on that point.

Eastwards roughly in line with Rock Street there is a low escarpment at about the 90ft contour. Here about 250 yards east of Cloyne House is the first or 'Dry' entrance to the known cave system. The second or stream sink entrance is another 100 yards or so further east. This cave is the most extensive in County Cork, consisting of a very complex series of mazes over an area of 7 or 8 acres, where in excess of 3300 metres of the main passages have been actually surveyed. As caves go, it is not particularly well endowed with calcite formations. There are clusters of straw stalactites in a few locations while stalagmites are few due to flowing waters.

In our explorations, we have detected 5 major stages of cave development. The first stage will be immediately noticed upon entering the 'dry' entrance to the Cloyne cave. One will see a whole warren of parallel rifts or passages and then a short distance in another series of rifts crossing these at almost right angles. It is almost like being in an American city with so many 'streets' running this way and so many avenues crossing them except that here the 'blocks' consist of limestone rock. In geological terms this is joint development formed by that most important element in caves; water. Now, unless you have been very lucky with the weather or the time of year you have chosen to visit this cave you will notice this element very quickly after going in the 'dry entrance'. You may well find yourself, literally up to your neck in it!

The fact is that the cave floods. The water level changes fairly slowly, depending on the weather, but generally speaking the levels are highest in he months of January and February and then levels go down over the following months until around August or September when one may find only shallow pools here and there, so unless there has been a prolonged drought, you will find water in many sections of the cave. At the first entrance the water appears to be fairly stagnant and unless you have a cavers wet suit or are naturally leather skinned, it will feel near to freezing. If you instead try the second entrance, you may find the running stream marginally more tolerable. At any rate this water has a major influence on the shape and development of the cave system.

If stage one was the joint development giving innumerable blocks of limestone between the passages, stage two involves the undermining of these blocks by the flowing water. This erosion generally occurs at the lower 2ft or so of the blocks, so that in many places we find huge limestone pendants weighting many tons suspended from the cave roof. Sometimes a whole chamber may have many of these pendants and this gives rise to one of the great challenges of exploration here because the nature of the cave appears to change each time you visit it. At times when water levels are low one can see the obscure outlines of a chamber with these suspended pendants hanging from the chamber roof but at other times when water levels are higher, the lower parts of the pendants are obscured by the water and the same chamber practically disappears and you find yourself in a maze.

The 3rd stage happens when the pendants become detached from the roof and the result gives wide, low, boulder strewn chambers such as mud hall or any of the chambers in the far west of the system. In the case of Emma's hall towards the eastern sections In the cave you have a 4th stage where the active stream erodes away the fallen boulders, leaving a clear but silt covered floor. The 5th or final stage of the cave occurs along the periphery of the system, where you have the final collapse roughly corresponding to the 100ft contour of the Ordnance Survey map.

Suggestions for Exploration:

Before doing anything, I can guarantee two things:

1: You will get lost.
2: You will get covered head to foot in the caves' characteristic heavy, glutinous, glorious mud.

As to the first point, I would remind you that you are dealing with a maze many acres in extent. The most logical approach is to go down with someone who has a fair idea of the system (which to all practical purposes mean members of the Cork speleological Group). We will be glad to help. It is not club policy to encourage people under the age of 15 years to go caving. Neither is it a matter of policy to encourage groups to go underground without at least two experienced cavers as instructors. Groups should be neither too big nor too small, 5 or 6 being the optimum. At all events one should never go caving alone.

In a cave such as Cloyne it is best to proceed in stages, memorising one land mark, then another, looking backwards from time to time, because even in the most straightforward cave, the passage going in may look quite different to the same passage on the way out. With Cloyne more than one visit will be necessary to build up a mental picture of the system. When you do get lost, head in one general direction until you reach a recognisable landmark and then, using your compass you should find one or other exit. Westwards of the Stepping Stone Chamber, route finding is relatively easy. In the rest of the cave, going North by compass bearing should bring you either to Emma's Hall or the Grand Canyon, from which the exits are easily found. Your first visit will be a landmark seeking one.

If you go in by the 'dry' entrance, you will be faced with a number of passages from the entrance chamber. Immediately ahead (or south) is a rift about a yard wide but which widens out after a short distance into a sort of double passage. It leads on to an inevitable maze, but members of the surveying team developed a sort of knack or instinct of sliding into the angled side step slot on the rift which led to one of the cave's major landmarks -- the Sphynx. Perhaps an easier way to reach the Sphynx is to follow the Grand Canyon immediately on the left from the entrance. Follow this to the end. Your way will be partially obstructed by a mud bank (a surface intrusion) on your left Turn right at this point and follow the Main Drain (meaning the largest and most obvious route) roughly in a southerly direction and you should soon reach the Sphynx Chamber.

From the Sphynx all can be revealed. Following the main passage south-westwards only a short distance should lead you to the twins. These are two fat calcite pillars perched on a shelf on the right well above usual water level. From here skirt around the large stony surface intrusion on your right and you should see the Stepping-Stones - large boulders leading across the chamber of the same name. At the right or northwest comer of this chamber is a passage leading to another similar chamber at the end of which is the Bridge. Beyond this point the main route is fairly clear to the far west of the cave system. In the far chambers, which are low and boulder-strewn, route finding may again become confusing especially as condensation builds up within a short space of time. One handy trick here is to leave lighted candles on the way out of each chamber. Another item to bear in mind. If you think there may be an Earthquake coming have no fear, it will probably mean that there's a lorry passing along the public road which is almost immediately overhead at this point.

Returning to the Sphynx, a short distance to the east of it lies the mud slope with Fionn Mac Cumhaill's table perched on top of it Next to that is one of our main triangulation points for our years of surveying, just a black piece of timber sticking in the mud, do not disturb, we may want to finish the job some day! This mud barrier is a major physical feature in the cave. Waters to the east of it are generally fresher whilst to the west they seem to be older, more stagnant waters which have been in the cave for a longer period and consequently are often noticeably colder. Another way of reaching the mud slope is via the second entrance.

This 'Stream sink Entrance' is a short but deep nettle filled ditch leading to a limestone face about 8ft high. Here you will have to get down on your hands and knees and crawl in along the stream in a zig zag fashion for a short distance. In the short space where daylight penetrates are many different varieties of spiders the study of which might shed light on Ireland's Lusitanian fauna. A short distance further in, one finds oneself in a low wide chamber called Emma's Hall. The stream here flows in a trench 2ft deep crossing the mud floor to the chamber. Here you will have about 4ft of headspace between mud floor and the roof. A definite place for a helmet as there as scores of dangerous stalactites jutting down. If the current is fairly strong it may bring some mats of waterweed or other vegetation with it. Do not be alarmed if you see black shadows swimming away in the clearer sections, they are only eels (not congers). The more squeamish can tie string around the end of your boiler suits! The current may be noticed continuing westwards beyond Camp Hall but it tends to disappear in impenetrable cracks along the left-hand side before the Voice Connection. If you turn right here you can make your way zigzag fashion to the Mud Slope. Once you become familiar with these major landmarks, further exploration becomes a little easier, but don' t forget your compass and extra back-up light.

Cave Conservation:

Alas, we have discovered some beautiful formations in caves only to find afterwards that they have been smashed or 'souvenired' by senseless vandals, so pleas, leave cave-formations as nature intended. At this point I would like to express my sincerest thanks to the hardcore surveying team Messrs Billy Cremin and Peter Sammon who spent many visits over 5 Summers between 1977 and 1981 surveying this system, ably assisted from time to time by Jerry Aherne, Brian Murphy, Margaret Ring, Pat and Peter Barry, Martin Stanton, Denis O'Connell, John Sugrue, John and Tom Devoy, Pat Geary, Liz Anderson and Neil Mac Partalain. Finally, may I express my deepest thanks to the MacCarthy's of Cloyne House, whose hospitality along with endless patience and forbearance, allowed us finish the main elements of the Cloyne Cave Survey.

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