The caves of East Cuilcagh, on the border of Cavan and Fermanagh, particularly excite me. Unlike the Marlbank area of Fermanagh these caves do not feature dramatic entrances with flood rivers crashing out of them. Instead, these seemingly subtle caves, found on a vast plain of blanket bog, are sinkholes predominantly taking defuse drainage water.
With few exceptions the East Cuilcagh caves are deep vertical chasms, many of which begin as small pots and open into dramatic and massive chambers. These are places of large open spaces, crashing waterfalls, loose chert-bands and grim limestone, and few cave decorations.
The difficulties that the cave photographer faces in most caves are greater than ever here. Taking photos of people on rope can introduce shake into the picture and restricts where artificial lighting can be placed. Some of the massive chambers are not easily lit, even when they have open daylight entrances, and they require extreme lighting power.
Amongst the best known of the East Cuilcagh caves are Pollnatagha and Pollprughlisk. While both pots can be descended on individual trips, the best way to see them is by completing a through trip in which two groups of cavers descend separately into each pot, meet half way via the tight horizontal passages that link both pots, and ascend using each others’ placed ropes. I did just that when, intending to visit Prughlisk with a friend, we met with some holidaying Polish cavers, and the through-trip was easily organised!
Prughlisk, which sits just ten meters within the Cavan County border, was our point of entry and we descending a big pitch from which a slight sinking river can be seen dropping from surface to underground. From there a second pitch descends into Frog Chamber, a large but peculiarly grim chamber. To get to Pollnatagha from here there are some very awkward squeezes through limestone that seems to be almost entirely chert. These squeezes were made hellish by carrying my 50 litre caving bag full of camera equipment! (Edit: I have since downsized!). In a small chamber we then met our Polish friends arriving from ‘Tagha. We talked for a while and then continued on through a long crawl which, mercifully, was considerably more roomy and comfortable in size.
When the tight space finally opens up into the main chamber of ‘Tagha, it is a sight to behold. It is a massive room 60 meters long and 40 meters wide and is crowned by a dramatic waterfall enetering 60 meters above the cavers’ heads. The waterfall, which sinks at Pollinksa adjacent to Tagha, comes crashing down to the cave floor hitting numerous ledges and sending spray around the chamber. This view must surely be one of the most spectacular sights in Ireland and is certainly one of my favourite underground spots.
The climb back up to the surface is exhilarating and best done with lights out as the entire length is lit by natural light. The beauty of this natural light is evident in the photo above. It was taken as a long exposure with no light source other than the natural light available.
The big chambers and dramatic pitches found within this system are exactly the kind of cave I like to photograph, and I wish we had more of such in Ireland. My efforts in trying to capture images from here led to me winning first place in the estimated Geological Survey of Ireland’s Du Noyer photograph competition, as well as receiving a Merit grade in the UK’s Hidden Earth competition and a back-cover artist’s profile on Descent magazine, issue 255.
There are not many through-trips in Ireland of these proportions however similar fun can be had at the more recently established and perhaps underappreciated Pollfaffin to Pollrunda through-trip in County Leitrim.