County Leitrim is one of the most enigmatic yet neglected caving regions in Ireland. Despite having the second greatest number of caves in the Republic (Drew, 2004) the caves are likely to be the least familiar to both cavers and the public. Since the 1950s there has been much exploratory interest in the county. However, rewards here have always been hard won, with very poorly bedded chert-rich limestone yielding an extremely small amount of new horizontal cave. Despite this there is continued interest in the county, especially in the Northern region around Manorhamilton, where most of the pots and caves are to be found.
Leitrim, however, will never have a show-cave like Clare or Fermanagh! The caves here are almost exclusively vertical pots that require rope access. It is perhaps their ‘inaccessible’ nature, their complex karst hydrology and the isolated beauty of the hills in which they are found that makes this region one of which I am particularly fond.
Teampall Shetric is the finest and most geologically interesting caves in the area and it is also one of my favourites. It features both vertical pitches and horizontal passages and possess a main streamway; a feature absent in most other Leitrim caves. Locally, it has the longest history of exploration being first investigated and surveyed in the 1950s by various British caving groups.
However, there has always been local interest in the cave and it was known to be used as a site for Mass during Penal times (Moore, 2003). It was also the scene of an tragedy in which a Sligo woman exploring the cave in 1936 fell to her death. The retrieval of her body by a police Sargent from Kiltyclogher, lowered down the 20m drop by local farmers, brought the cave to much attention (The Leitrim Observer, 1935).
The entrance is one of my favourite cave entrances. It is not dramatic or large but the fern and moss covered limestone cliffs forms a natural amphitheatre, as if standing sentry over the small sink hole entrance. The smaller pillars of cherty limestone add to a feeling of entering the namesake ‘teampall’.
After an open air drop down by a small waterfall, a number of passages all lead into the Main Chamber, a massive pot fed by two raging waterfalls. It is spectacular and humbling. The streamway then continues and makes for an excellent trip to the sumps. To the north west of the main chamber after a long crawling passageway ‘Memory Stone’ chamber is reached. Here many caving groups have left their signatures in ‘mud sausages’ on a large boulder. The oldest was left in 1946 by Johnson Dixon, a man about whom little appears to be known but who continued exploring and documenting the region into at least the 1970s.
Not far beyond here exploration by Shannon Group in 2013 led to the discovery of over 300m of new passage after a notoriously cruel and muddy dig. The new passage alternates between awkward squeezing and occasional small and prettily decorated chambers. Towards the end it opens up and closes just as quickly. There is still potential for new cave to be found here, and the rising has not been definitely located.
Other parts of the cave may also offer up something new and I hope that this will be soon as Teampall – with over 1km of horizontal passage – may offer some clue as to what happens to the many local streams which suddenly disappear down deep potholes and which cannot be followed. In turn this might tell us more about the fascinating geology of North County Leitrim.
Drew, D., 2004. A cave database for for the Republic of Ireland. Trinity College: Dublin. Available at: <http://www.ubss.org.uk/irishcaves/irishcaves.php>
Moore, M. (ed), 2003. Archaeological Inventory of County Leitrim. Dublin: Stationary Office.
The Leitrim Observer, 1935. “Manorhamilton Inquest. Sligo girl killed at Glencar”. The Leitrim Observer, September 25.