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Exploration

Top 10 caving destinations in Ireland

Delving deeper underground provides countless rewards for potholing enthusiasts and caving newcomers
Written by Daragh O Conchuir
6 min readPublished on

The Burren, Co Clare

One of the best known karst landscapes in Western Europe, The Burren is on what is known as the Tentative List for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also one of just 140 UNESCO Global Geoparks in the world.
It boasts more active stream caves than any other part of Ireland and they have existed for thousands of years. On the western side there are numerous swallow holes in the shale/limestone boundary. These are wet canyon caves liable to sudden flooding so care is needed. The Pollnagollum/Poulelva (Poll na Gollum/Poll Elva) system is the longest cave on the island of Ireland at 16km. The Doolin River Cave and the Coolagh River Cave are also popular but all carry significant flooding risks.
Caves on the High Burren, to the east, are mostly inactive except in times of major flooding. The shale cover has been completely removed by glacial activity but the karst scenery remains breathtaking. Ailwee Cave showcases a frozen waterfall and the bones of a now extinct Brown Bear.

Pollskeheenarinky, Co Tipperary

One of three excellent caves in South Tipperary, the others being Old Desmond and Mitchelstown Cave. It comprises a series of large, abandoned chambers that are reached via a number of muddy crawls. Access to the entrance is by rope or ladder and the initial large decorated chamber contains a multitude of splendid phreatic tubes. Pyramid Chamber possesses a definite ‘wow factor’, with blue limestone and calcite on the walls that make the distinctive shape from which the chamber gets its name. Egg Chamber, Castle Gardens and Quinlan’s Hall offer more of the same and are worth the testing crawls.

Crag Cave, Co Kerry

Kerry has a little more than eight kilometres of cave passages. The longest and best known is Crag, which was discovered by cave divers in Castleisland in 1983 and is believed to be more than a million years old. Now a show cave, it is an ancient fossil cave system. It was once filled with water, which moulded the limestone rock into the maze of tunnels and chambers that exists today. The surrounding area contains a number of other caves and potential sites ripe for further exploration.
Further west, the Ballymacelligot cave system contains some large passages with a number of different entrance points. Cloghermore Cave has produced some notable archaeological discoveries.

Marble Arch Caves, Co Fermanagh

There are around 200 caves at Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, which is recognised as one of only 140 UNESCO global geoparks worldwide. Marble Arch is considered one of the most attractive show caves in Europe, with a natural underworld of rivers, twisting passages and lofty chambers. Stalactites shine above steamways and chambers, while the walls are covered in calcite.
There are numerous systems for experienced potholers too, such as White Father’s Cave, with a wide range of geological formations. There are some testing climbs and river crossings of various depths that will require swimming at times.

Pollatoomary, Co Mayo

Located in the Paltry Mountains, just outside Westport. This is the deepest explored underwater cave in Ireland. First discovered in 1978, it was explored to a depth of 103m by Artur Kozlowski 30 years later, where visibility was reported to be unsurprisingly poor while swimming alongside surprised eels in cramped confinement, until a cave opens up into a passage and a further drop in complete darkness.

Carrowmore Cave, Co Sligo

Considered the best caving expedition in Sligo, with a 45m rope climb before descending a further 100m via crawls and free climbs around deep layers of chert bedding and past a number of small waterfalls to the sump at the bottom. The total surveyed length of Carrowmore is 540m but previous visitors have suggested that there are opportunities for further extension. At 145m, it is the third deepest cave on the island of Ireland.

Reyfad Pot, Co Fermanagh

At 193m, it is the deepest cave system on the island of Ireland. Measuring 6.7km in length, it is described by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as “arguably the most important underground karst site” in NI due to the quality of geomorphological and geological features. It contains an extensive system of passages containing a large amount of underground glacial and post-glacial clastic sediments.

Pollaraftra, Co Fermanagh

The most northern cave of significance in Fermanagh, it is 3.5km long. Very popular with potholing beginners as it provides a range of tests at just the right level. These include extended tight crawling, wading in water and exposed stream crossings. The active phreatic parts can only be explored by divers but the nonactive relict cave is relatively easy to cross and includes many speleothems.

Maghera Caves, Co Donegal

Found below Slievetooey Mountain on the stunning Maghera Beach, just past Assaranca Waterfall outside Ardara, the 20 caves, eight arches and five tunnels of Maghera Caves can be accessed by kayak or other small sea craft. Some of them are accessible at low tide from the strand but be aware of the tide times. There are some eye-catching rock formations but in truth, it is the phenomenal beauty of the surroundings that marks this attraction out.

Dunmore Cave, Co Kilkenny

First mentioned in the ninth century Irish Triads, where it was described as one of the three darkest places in Ireland, Dunmore Cave was the site of a Viking massacre of local people in 928AD. Viking coins, silver ingots and jewellery have been discovered there. The show cave consists of a series of chambers chiselled out over millions of years, with some wonderful calcite formations. Not suitable for the very young children or people with mobility difficulties as there are 700 steps descending into the cave – and therefore coming out!

Cloyne Cave, Co Cork

The full direct translation of the Irish for Cloyne (Cluain Uamha) is ‘Meadow of the Caves’. Limestone and caves are quite plentiful in East Cork, where the rocks have been folded into a series of pronounced ridges and valleys. The ridges are formed of older sandstones with small pockets of limestone resting in the valley floors, meaning the caves are not very deep. Cloyne Cave is the most extensive in this region, being more than 3km long but comprising a complex maze within that. There are two entrances – one dry, one a stream sink. Seasonal due to flooding. Features include the Grand Canyon, Sphinx and Stepping Stone Chamber.