Aillwee Cave, Ballyvaughan – County Clare, Ireland

ireland-1141861510-aillwee cave waterfall 1 b

Michele Kerrigan

David Merryman

Gina Deen

JJ Meehan
The Meehan Family

Aillwee Cave is still a fairly recent discovery.  Located near Ballyvaughan Aillwee Cave is still one of the few caves which has the features of Clare underground -great caverns, stalactites, subterranean rivers – and which is easily accessible to the general public.  Before Ailwee Cave was opened to the public in 1976 its entrance was only a chink in a cliff face.

The man who discovered the cave was Jacko McGann, a herdsmen on Aillwee Hill for many years.  Jacko McGann was a farmer looking for a lost sheep who had found the entrance and wandered inside and couldn’t find it’s way out, and then—he kept it (the cave), a secret of 20 years or more. Mr. McGann explored much of the cave by candlelight. In 1973, cavers continued to explore as far as a massive fall of boulders that sealed the passage.  The cavers mapped the cave passages, a total of 210m.

The Aillwee Cave is one of the many caves beneath the Burren.  It was formed by glacial melt waters that seeped through the cracks in the limestone pavement during an early ice-age. It is the oldest cave in the Burren at 1.5 million years old, and boasts some of the most spectacular stalactites and stalagmites in Ireland .
The powerful flow of these melt waters eroded through the rock, forming a subterranean river.

Since the last ice-age, this river has subsided, leaving in its place one of Ireland’s most spectacular caves. The largest area in the cave is known as The Highway, which is located at the centre of the cave. The cave was inhabited by animals for thousands of years before it was discovered by man. Hibernation pits dug out by bears were found in the cave, as well as bones of a brown bear. Bears are no longer found in Ireland , and have been extinct here for over 1,000 years.

In the Aillwee Cave most of the limestone formations are very recent in the history of the cave itself. The knobbly stalagmites on the floor of Mud Hall are 8000 years old, and to reach their present size took over 1000 years. The larger stalagmites in Midsummer Cavern took 5000 years to form. Some samples of calcite from deep inside the cave started to form 350.000 years ago.

2337077-Aillwee_Cave-County_Clare flickr-293209011-image
ailwee_caves360px   flickr-1086209371-image
2281197197_4baf7dc899       stagl


You can read more about the Aillwee Cave in the archives of the County Clare Library  The following is from their archive.

Aillwee Cave is basically a single tunnel burrowing a kilometre in to the Aillwee Hill. The original show cave consists of three chambers , Bear Haven, Mud Hall and the Cascade Chamber. Beyond the tunnel in to the new cave the passages become much larger. The show-cave ends where the floor falls steeply at the beginning of the Highway, a straight passage 90m long and 20m high – one of the largest caverns in the Burren. Beyond is the River Cavern. Even in dry weather the sound of the cave river can be heard from considerable distances.

Aillwee Caves, Co. ClareIn 1976, work began on making the cave accessible to the public. The present-day entrance passage from the cave building to Bear Haven had to be enlarged by blasting. As this was being excavated a low crawl at floor level was discovered. This led to the St. Patrick’s Series of passages. The original show-cave ended at the near side of much more extensive series of caves was hidden which proved correct. A month of excavation followed to engineer a route through these caves. The breakthrough was made on Midsummer Day 1977, so the chamber just beyond the blockage was called Midsummer Cavern.

It was decided to extend the show cave as far as the Highway, some 350m in to the cave. To do this, two major problems had to be overcome. Cascade Chamber was bridged and then a safe route was made through the boulder fall. The resulting narrow tunnel is the only “man-made” section of the cave. Originally the cave was lit by electricity produced by a generator but now the ESB supply is used with a generator for use in case of emergencies. The original cave is brightly lit but beyond the Cascade Chamber lighting levels are kept lower in order to catch the “feel” of the cave as seen by the original explorers.

Aillwee Cave was originally an underground river fed by the melting snows of the ice age. The river dried up as the ice retreated leaving the cave as it is to be seen today. Cave bears then moved in and used the cave to hibernate. The building which leads in to the cave blends in to the surrounding area and was winner of the EC Europa Nostra prize. The entrance contains tourist information, craft shop and tea room. One can also climb the mountain behind the cave to find the rare Alpine flowers which are plentiful.

My friend and contributor, Gina Deen has a very good article on the Aillwee Cave in her blog "BT – The Crafty Gardener.  The following photos are from that article.


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This article was suggested and most of the data contributed by Michele Kerrigan, Chief Executive for GROW in Ireland, which is a mental health organisation.  Michele  is also working on her Masters in Voluntary and Community Sector.

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The following is an Irish Blessing:


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2 Responses to Aillwee Cave, Ballyvaughan – County Clare, Ireland

  1. Gina says:

    I remember my trip to the cave very well. It was fascinating and the cafe in the visitor centre afterwards provided excellent tea and scones.

  2. Gina says:

    The photos have come out well, John. Thank you for including them. It was a very wet day outside when we visited so a good day to see the cave.Gina

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