The long weekend saw the shop over in Kiltyclogher for the Irish Student Caving symposium.
For an Englishman this is an area full of history, not all of it happy. A striking feature of the village was a large memorial to Sean MacDermott, who students of history will remember as being executed by the British in 1916 after the Easter rising. Not very long ago at all, this was bandit country.
Which, while sobering, makes the fact that the whole event was a riotous pissup for cavers from all over the place – Fermanagh, Clare, Mayo, Leitrim, everywhere – all the more excellent. The ale flowed, the pubs hardly closed, the talks were well worth attending; and the Lovely Girls Competition (lovely giggle, lovely walk, lovely talent…no, don’t ask) was memorable for all sorts of reasons.
Caving was also perpetrated, despite some unsympathetic weather. Lots of trips went on of all grades and styles, but I was lucky enough to get on three trips into Shannon Cave (Polltullyard entrance).
Having met a few of the movers and shakers in the ongoing exploration of Shannon at a different time, and having seen descriptions of the big stomping streamway in the further reaches, I was very keen to get in here. I’m pleased to say that the cave does not disappoint. It’s a good, sustained stream cave with a few very delicate pretty sections, lots of shapely meandering canyon passage that just gets better the further you go… and more than its share of boulder choke.
The joke goes, “how many chokes are there in Shannon?”, the answer being, “Just one, all the way through” and it is kind of true. It’s a big, old place and in many places you’re climbing over, squeezing between , and occasionally cowering under, all sorts of limestone in a temporary state of rest. The cave is starting to see a bit more traffic, which helps, but you don’t have to go a long way off track to find some ticklish areas.
There are also a couple of narrow sections, one being the Rebirth Canal; slightly restricted sideways crawling, this is the relatively recent connection between Polltullyard and the old Shannon cave, whose original entrance is currently collapsed. The other small bit is George’s Choke (named after a local caving Reverend who was temporarily trapped by boulder collapse in this part of the cave a few years ago). This has a bit of a reputation, and a few folks had eyed me appraisingly and said “well, you might get though it…” in dubious tones.
The fact is, it’s tight; but the main problem is:
i. there’s a scaff clip in exactly the wrong place in the tighter section (but looking at what it’s holding back, you don’t complain)
ii. in some sections, you don’t much want to push hard against anything very much…
The work done by the Shannon Group to reopen George’s Choke a few years back is very, very impressive. The cave beyond makes it worthwhile, because from here down to the current terminal sump (Chris Jewell is aiming to make this description out of date) it just gets bigger and better. Where the stream is lost, high level oxbows give equally interesting going; them more canyon, more climbs, more (expletive deleted) choke. It’s a real cavers’ cave.
To get to the end -or thereabouts- and out will take around seven hours without a lot of faffing about or route finding delay. This is mainly caving, as there is only one 30m pitch by the entrance (normally dry, but don’t count on it!). If you get a chance to go there – DO. Really – you may love it; I did.
But… this is not a perfectly standard trip; it is new, it would be easy for bad things to happen; and the rescue response is very good, but not exactly over-staffed. Also, although the landowner is clearly a good bloke and friendly to cavers, access in this area is best done delicately. Anyone wanting to get in here is strongly advised to contact the Shannon Group, who know all that there is to know about the cave, and are very friendly and helpful.
Talking of which – thanks to loads of folks, especially: Steve, Steve, Aileen, Jock, Tony (for opening up the cave, making the craic happen, and caving with me) and Chris J (for talking me through George’s the first time, and letting me carry scaff to give me an illusion of being useful). Also Nikki for being dead Glam, and Helen, who is a Lovely Girl – and it’s official!