Old Desmond Cave

County Tipperary

Enormous scallops lining the main passageway

There are few caves of significance in County Tipperary but, despite this, some of the caves it possess are big, dramatic, well decorated and exciting. In the south of the county there is the wonderful trinity of Mitchelstown Cave, Pollskeheenarinky and Old Desmond Cave.

Main Passageway

The former is now a show cave privately owned and not open to the caving community. It is sad to see that the people who first explored, surveyed and promoted it are not welcome. However, it is likely the least interesting of the caves. Pollskeheenarinky is possibly the most diverse and dramatic and of greatest speleological significance. I first visited both caves with DIT Caving Club in 2014 and again in 2017 with Breifne Caving Club. Many thanks to both groups for organising a great weekend, above and below ground.

By no means obscure, Old Desmond was known to have been used as a hideout for the Súgán Earl, James Fitzgerald the Earl of Desmond. It then fell somewhat into obscurity after the accidental discovery of the ‘new’ cave at Mitchelstown. It was later subsequently used as a refuge in the further troubled times of 1798 and 1918.

The cave itself is quite impressive. I can say that it is possibly the only cave I have visited that did not require any crawling or squeezing. Despite the ease with which access through the cave is allowed, the six meter pitch at the entrance has perhaps protected its hidden beauty from being over-trodden or damaged by careless visitors over the ages. Despite this, many of the stalagmite formations were ‘mined’ during famine years (Gargan, 1939).

The Great Eastern Chamber

After the initial pitch a tall narrow rift leads into the beautiful Main Passageway. Running North-South, it features some impressively big scalloping on the walls and ceiling (as seen in the first two photos, above). It then opens out, after a series of nice decorations, to the Great Eastern Chamber. This must surely be one of the biggest chambers in Ireland. At 120 meters in length and a varying, but average width of 50 m, I had been fairly excited about photographing this monster chamber.

The Great Eastern Chamber

Unfortunately, the undulating roof and rising and falling mud floor deposits, ensure that no more that perhaps 20 meters in length is visible at anytime. To complicate matters, the chamber dips at a 35 degree angle (following the bedding plane) to a large sump. Between the walk-able passageway and the sump the steep floor is covered in extremely slippy mud and I did not like the idea of exposing anyone to such risks just for a photo. The photo, above, shows the largest part of the chamber that can be seen at any stage and it displays the steeply sloping roof typical of the South Tipperary caves.

As one gets closer to the sump, it is possible to see how beautifully clear the water is. It is turquoise and almost crystal clear! My excitement got the better of me and a few minutes later a caver was dangling precariously over the deep water to submerge a flashbulb into it to help take the photo above. I never thought it would be possible to see water in an Irish cave so clean and so easy to light up for the camera.

After this we visited the Great Western Chamber which, despite being smaller than the Eastern Chamber, actually appears larger due to its more consistent openness. It has an excess of formations and is impressive for its size. After the two main chambers there is little else to see in this cave. Despite this, the chambers and associated passages are fascinating, spacious and very pretty and they are quite unlike the caves typical to other regions of Ireland.

The Great Western Chamber


Gargan, D.J., 1939. The Desmond cave at Mitchelstown. Dublin: At the sign of the three candles.

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