This expedition, to the Burren in NW Co. Clare, owed most of its initial inspiration and organisation to Mike who had been before. Despite his many trips to 'consult the stars' in various far-flung corners of the world, the organisation was finally hammered out just before we went down for Easter, and the final Team Eire consisted of the following 'men' and 'honorary men':
Mike Perryman, Nick Thorne, Tony Malcolm, Julia Kostelnyk, Sally Bliss, Simon Kellet, John Heathcote, Simon Whitaker, Ben van Millingen, Charles Butcher, Andy Connolly.
The week was spent centred on the little village of Doolin, at Lasha House, a somewhat primitive but comfortable farmhouse with all the essentials including the usual peat fire which invariably failed to give out enough heat even to warm the kitchen. Doolin is situated where the Aille River meets the sea, and consists of a few houses and three of the ubiquitous Irish Bars scattered along about a mile of road.
Throughout our stay we were constantly tugged by our right arms to Gus O'Connor's Bar - sometimes even before breakfast - where the statutory few pints were emptied, often to the pleasant accompaniment of tin whistle, guitar, flute, spoons, pipes and badran. We were also able to witness the way the Irish celebrate Easter - namely inhabiting O'Connor's from midday to midnight!
Geologically, the Burren, occupying an area of about 50 square miles, consists of a 1000' thick stratum of Upper Series (Dartry) limestone, lying unconformably on granite; the limestone being overlain by the Clare Shales. The Upper Limestone is clean and well-jointed, with chert layers near the top of the horizon.
The scenery, generated by glacial action upon the geological pattern outlined above, consists of low hill masses rising to just over 1000' in places, and capped by the peat-covered shales. Slieve Elva, to the west of the region, is perhaps the most prominent example. The limestone outcrops take the usual forms - dissected pavements and low scar cliffs, tbe latter being prominent along the western coast road, where they provided some of us with a morning's crag bathing. The pavements descend to the shoreline and can be seen along the whole of the western coast.
The drainage follows the general dip of the shale and limestone (2-3 degrees to the SSW) and is dominated by two river catchments - the Aille River and the Coolagh River - supplemented by a number of streams and underground water-courses which find their ways separately to the sea.
All of the caves, with the notable exception of Doolin Cave, occur at or near the shale/limestone boundary, and are developed initially along bedding planes. They are all relatively close to the limestone surface, seldom more than 100' below (usually much shallower) and show simple dendritic drainage and a close match with surface features - dry valleys and shakeholes. These features indicate a postglacial age for the formation of these caves. Further details of the geology and cave formation in NW Clare may be found in 'The Caves of NW Clare' by members of UBSS, ed. E.K. Tratman.
The pot-bashing kicked off with a trip down Polldubh, part of the Coolagh River catchment, on the western flank of Slieve Elva. The immediate problem encountered with a lot of the Clare caves is actually locating the entrance - Mike proved this point to perfection by disappearing into the wastes of Slieve Elva - everyone else having long since located the two entrances.
The cave itself is a typical linear streamway fed by a series of sinks at the shale boundary, and it runs in a roughly north-south direction, the passage varying from a tightish 12' high rift near the upstream entrances, to a high vadose trench at the junction with the main streamway.
In contrast to Polldubh, Faunarooska, about half a mile to the north, descends steeply, the end being about 300' below the entrance. The select party who bashed this on the second day were forced to jack on the 70' pitch due to a lack of belays. Meanwhile the rest of the active cavers (one being somewhat less active and more hungover than the rest just having arrived off the ferry) went to look for Cullauns 1 & 2 which lie on the western side of Poulacapple, the surface of which has recently been afforested and scored with drainage ditches, which should make finding the entrances quite sporting in years to come.
Having found one of the many entrances to Cullaun 1 a short free-climb into the streamway - the cave was followed downstream along mainly T-section passage (with roof-level oxbows) until it started to close in. A democratic decision was reached, and half an hour later we were back on the surface looking for Cullaun 2. This is a similar streamway, with chert floors and waterfalls and an impressive gory stal-flow - 'The Bloody Guts'. A freeclimbable cascade leads down to the sump, above which is a surface connection through an aven involving a tricky climb which was attempted by Tony but with little success. Talking to Charlie Self of UBSS in O'Connors the same evening revealed that the best part of Cullaun 1 lies beyond the crawl, marked as 'The Crawl' on the survey
Later in the week Cullaun 5 was tackled in wet conditions, which made the low entrance and the cascade climbs upstream of the 'Hunched Back Horror' passage very sporting. Emerging coated in grey mud we found ourselves being regarded with expressions of disgust by a party of French tourists
Perhaps the finest trip of the week was a two-way through trip in Doolin, from Fisherstreet Pot to Aran View swallet, and then back via St. Catherine's 1 to Fisherstreet. Most of the cave is formed beneath the shale and contains stretches of impressive stream canyon in the main streamway and some very sharp shelving especially near Aran View. Fisherstreet Pot itself is liberally coated with mud which rapidly transferred itself to everybody climbing the ladder, and especially to the two fools who tried to free-climb the pot on the wayout.
The majority of caves do not exhibit many flowstone or dripstone formations, although there is the notable exception of the Great Stalactite in Pol-an-Ionian. The entrance is at the foot of an ivy-covered limestone cliff opposite Cregg Lodge. 800' of crawling leads into a 60' high phreatic chamber, floored by a boulder slope, with the stalactite dominating the roof.
A dig in the swallets of A6, A7 and A8 near Cregg Lodge was preceded by a morning of welly-hoighing, rockputting (into the burundi !) and other exhausting feats of skill. The dig in A7 was pushed 30' past a boulder choke to another choke by Charles, but lack of time prevented a return for a further attempt to boldly go ... etc.
Consultation with Charlie Self resulted in Mike and John setting out early one morning to survey Long Gallery in Upper Poulnagollum. Entering through E3, 800' of passage was surveyed, in very short and awkward legs, before a decision was made to get out. After some hours spent unsuccessfully searching for Pollnua or the way through to Poulnagollum itself, and not wishing to retrace their steps to E3, they free-climbed out of Pollbinn and a retreat was effected with fading lights and torn hands. Not to be defeated, a second attempt was made but wet conditions forced an early retreat. At the third attempt, the survey was completed, followed by an evening of baking the notes in the oven !
To end the week, a Poulelva-Poulnagollum through trip was done. This trip is easy but very spectacular, starting with a 70' ladder pitch down Poulelva, an open pot on a par with some of the bigger Yorkshire entrances. A short section of maze in fossil passages leads to the main streamway, containing some fine high sculpted passage running in sweeping curves with flowstone formation at the inlets. The exit to Poulnagollum was via a short climb from the streamway to the virtually fossil passage of Gunman's Cave. Poulnagollum is also an impressive open pot, having a short free-climb to the surface.
This trip wound up the caving for the week. Many thanks to Julia and Sally for the cuisine which was somewhat superior to the average cavers' trough. One carload of drunks nearly missed the ferry back, due to spending too long in O'Connor's, and Ben misreading the sailing time on the ticket. Tony fell asleep on the Severn Bridge !