Blog

Excavation of a Civil War hide-out cave in Sligo

Media release

In an exciting new project, a Sligo-based team have completed the excavation of a cave used during the Civil War as an anti-Treaty IRA hideout. The project, funded by Atlantic Technological University (ATU Sligo), will reveal a forgotten story in Sligo’s recent history, in what is the first archaeological research excavation of a Civil War site in Ireland.

The team of three archaeologists – Dr Marion Dowd (ATU Sligo), Robert Mulraney (Independent Researcher) and Dr James Bonsall (Fourth Dimension Prospection Ltd.) – spent over a week excavating a small cave on private property high in the Dartry Mountains overlooking Glencar Lake in north County Sligo.

The cave was used as a hideout during the War of Independence and was the principal hideout of the North Sligo anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War.

In September 1922, the National Army closed in on the anti-treaty IRA headquarters at Rahelly House north of Sligo town. After an intense firefight, approximately 60 men evacuated the house, making for Benbulben, with the intention of crossing the mountains to reach the safety of Tormore Cave – better known as the ‘Glencar hideout’. Several IRA men were captured on the mountains and imprisoned by the National Army.

Six men were shot and killed at two different locations in the uplands. These men – Brigadier Seamus Devins, Divisional Adjutant Brian MacNeill, Lieutenant Patrick Carroll, Volunteer Joseph Banks, Captain Harry Benson and Volunteer Thomas Langan – became known as Sligo’s Noble Six.

Tormore Cave, hidden in the landscape. Credit: James Bonsall

A further 34 men successfully reached Tormore Cave and lived there for the following six weeks. The men were never discovered, making this one of the most successful hideouts of the entire revolutionary period in Ireland.

Following the Civil War, the location of Tormore Cave was lost. In the mid 1930s, however, General Officer Commanding William Pilkington, one of the men who had hid there in 1922, returned to Sligo and revealed its location. During his time in the cave, he had nursed an injury to his shoulder which had he broken during recent fighting. Anecdotal accounts recollect that while in the cave, Pilkington vowed to become a priest if he survived the war. This he did, and went on to be ordained as a Redemptorist priest serving in Cape Town, South Africa and England.

Archaeological excavations

The archaeological excavations sought to document the hideout and learn more about how it was utilised as part of guerrilla tactics. The excavations revealed that the cave had been modified and prepared for usage, probably during the War of Independence.

A large boulder was strategically placed at the entrance. On either side of this, stones were piled against the cave walls and fixed with mortar. This served to conceal the cave entrance making the hideout extremely difficult to find. It is likely that a sentry was positioned inside the cave behind the boulder, from where he commanded expansive views over the surrounding landscape.

Excavating the cave. Credit: R. Mulraney

Inside, excavations through soil layers revealed a series of constructed steps leading from the entrance into the cave. With further excavation it was found that the men had also prepared a mortar-surfaced floor, layered over with flagstones, in a similar way to traditional Irish cottages of the 1920s. A mortared wall was also built to enclose the space. This construction would have served to keep the living space clean and created a warmer and drier surface for men sleeping there. But it was far from luxurious: The 34 men endured harsh conditions in the cave. They could not light fires as the smoke would attract attention. They had to survive with little food, cramped into a small, damp and dark cave for many weeks.

Artefacts discovered

The excavations produced almost 200 artefacts. ‘This is the first archaeological excavation of a Civil War site in Ireland’, Dr Marion Dowd of Atlantic Technological University commented. ‘Many people knew that a mountain cave had been used as a hideout for six weeks, but almost no one knew where it was located. Because so few people have visited the cave over the past 100 years, the site was essentially a Civil War time capsule. The structures and artefacts we discovered were as they had been left when the men abandoned the cave in October 1922’.

Sherds of pottery and glass were recovered that related to food brought by local families to feed the men. ‘Much of the pottery probably came from Sarah Branley’s kitchen’, Dr James Bonsall explained. ‘The Branleys lived a short walk from the cave and two of Sarah’s sons, Paddy and Dominick, were hiding in the cave. One of the main problems the men encountered was Trenchfoot, caused by prolonged exposure in damp conditions. Apparently Sarah tended to the men’s feet on at least one occasion when some of them left the cave during a bad storm and came to her house.’


Surveying the cave. Credit: R. Mulraney

‘We also found several personal items that give us an insight into the men’ said caver and archaeologist Robert Mulraney. ‘We found a boot lace, a belt buckle and a clay pipe. As part of the project, we are trying to identify the men who sought refuge in the cave, who survived the ordeal and who then became largely forgotten. So far we have identified seven men and have been speaking with their relatives’.

The team hope that people who had relatives that stayed in the cave will contact them. ‘This is not just a Sligo story. We have had contact from people in Boston (USA), London, and Counties Galway, Down and Dublin whose father, grandfather, uncle or granduncle stayed in the cave during the Civil War. We hope to hear from others’ said Dr Dowd. If you have any information about the cave, the team can be contacted at:

Dr Marion Dowd (dowd.marion@itsligo.ie) (087 6632422)

Robert Mulraney (robertmulraney@gmail.com) (085 8384980)

Excavation team Dr Marion Dowd, Robert Mulraney, Dr James Bonsall. Credit John Cassella.

New Page: Underground Dublin II

Today I am pleased to publish Underground Dublin, Part II: The Mines of Dublin. The first part, released two weeks ago, covered Dublin’s caves and can be found here. This first part went down quite well and I would like to thank those of you, especially, who wrote say they enjoyed it. I hope part two will hit the spot too!

New pages: Underground Dublin, Part I

As lockdown slowly eases here in Ireland, I am happy to present an article, in two parts, on the underground environments of our capital city and county, Dublin. This is the result of work carried out during a time when access to the western caves for myself was impossible, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. As I mention in the article, do not expect glorious photos of deep descents, this is a piece more-so based on the story Dublin has to tell about its caves and mines.

Part II, deals with the county’s mines, as well as some more unusual underground sites. This will be released over the coming days. I hope you will enjoy this rather different take on my usual style and can appreciate the not unreasonable amount of time that went in to its production! Please find the article here.

These articles are dedicated to the memory of Matthew Parkes who, on today’s date would have celebrated his 60th birthday. I would struggle to think of anyone more enthusiastic in documenting our natural heritage and sharing his knowledge of it. Matthew was probably the most keen supporter of my blog and his encouragement was a massive drive to invest in it. This drive remains today, so I hope you will enjoy my efforts.

Underground Dublin, Part I: The Caves of Dublin

2021 Update

Well, I won’t dwell more than necessary, on the fact that caving has come to a halt due to COVID-19, as we all know this. However, in between the series of lockdowns over the past year I have been able to get a few trips done and a few photos taken. The major event to occur was the successful Gorteenaguinnel Expedition in September of last year. This was organised to map uncertain caves in that region in County Leitrim just prior to the country entering a series of harder lockdowns. More will be forthcoming on this, when the |expedition leader publishes our findings in the next Irish Speleology journal.

I will attempt to keep updates coming with my backlog of photos not yet shared online. My first is an entirely rewritten page on Pollnagollum Cave in Clare with photos not before included. Please find it here.

Here is my favourite photo from the above mentioned Leitrim Expedition:

Just prior to the Expedition a few of us managed to get a flying visit to the classic Pollnagollum of the Boats in Fermanagh, where I had terrible camera flash failures but managed to get this not unreasonable shot:

Pollnagollum of the Boats

Finally, and again just prior to the expedition, on a trip to my my most local caves, in an attempt to calibrate survey gear, I got this shot from Portrane Caves:

Unfortunately, some very sad news came in October with the untimely passing of one of Ireland’s great cave geologists, Matthew Parkes. He had written on the Portrane caves and was an extremely knowledgeable man who never hesitated to share his knowledge; and I enjoyed our often long discussions by email. He was a big supporter of my website and photography and strongly encouraged my work. Rest In Peace, Matthew.

New Page: Expedition to India 2019

Delighted to finally publish an entry on last year’s expedition to the caves of Meghalaya, in the North East of India. It is a rather lengthy article which I hope you enjoy. However, if you’re here mainly for the photos it is well worth a look. Find it here:

Meghalaya, India 2019.

Interview Podcast and my first cave trip since lock-down!

I am delighted to release a link for a podcast interview I did last week for Irish Photography Podcast, Ireland’s leading photography channel. I was interviewed by hosts Darren J. Spoonley and Diarmuid O’ Donovan, both top photographers, and it went live shortly after. If you would like to hear it, follow the link below and also follow IPP as it features many fine photography interviews and discussions. It is available at:

https://theirishphotographypodcast.podbean.com/e/special-guest-robert-mulraney-deep-into-irish-caves/

Also, I had my first cave trip since lock-down recently. I visited one of my favourites caves Pollskeheenarinky Cave in Tipperary. I have added a couple of new photos and updated the text. Hope you enjoy!

Two new pages, June 2020

Just a quick write-up to highlight that over the last month I have added two new short cave pages:

Poll Gonzo in County Clare; and

Carrowmore Caverns in County Sligo.

geevagh carrowmore caverns caving caves of ireland cave photography
The entrance to Carrowmore Caverns

I hope you enjoy and stay tuned as my next upload with be on a much greater scale, featuring many photos from Indian caves!

Updates: Noone’s Hole and About pages

Hello all, just a quick update! My website relaunch, which happened just under two weeks ago, has been great success. Aside from the new layout, which I love, it has been receiving quite a lot of traffic and subscriptions. I am especially thankful to the many people, most of whom I do not know, who took the time to send me messages of appreciation and to tell me their own stories. It makes the effort all worthwhile.

So in other news Noone’s Hole, that fantastic pothole and cave in Fermanagh, now has an entry page full of new photos and text. I am also especially pleased to present a spectacular and awe-inspiring Noone’s Hole themed drawing, created by the wonderfully talented Becks Kelly (have a look at her Instagram account). Find it all here.

I have also updated the About section of this website with details about competitions that I have won, as well as publications in which my work has appeared. I hope to see these lists grow over the next while!

Finally, for those on Instagram who wish to follow my work, find me here on my new account: Caves of Ireland Instatgram.

Re-launch of Caves of Ireland website!

I am pleased to present a newly reworked and improved version on my website Caves of Ireland! The site, which initially started as a personal blog in 2014, quickly developed and, despite a period of recent silence, continues to attract large numbers. With over fifty thousand views and almost twenty thousand visitors, and a growing photographic archive, I have decided it’s time to re-lauch it.

Many hours of work have gone into making this possible. Every single photo, of which there are about 300, was re-stamped, resized and very many were re-edited. All of the text has been revised, and many old items removed and new ones added. New entries are being worked on at present.

The most immediate change that will be noticed is the overall appearance of the site. For this I am extremely grateful to Becks Kelly who, in large, redesigned the entire site. Her work has given it a neat consistency, a greater ease-of-read and a really smart look.