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 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 massive 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 horiztntal passages that link both pots, and ascend using each others’ placed ropes. Breifne Caving Club did just that when, intending to visit Prughlisk, we met with some holidaying Polish cavers, and the through-trip was easily done!
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 having to carry a 50 litre caving bag full of camera equipment! 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.
Into the Light: Ascending Pollnatagha
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.
Michal in the natural light shaft in Pollnatagha
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 idea was my friend Michal’s (who is also the subject) and it was very tricky to get right, requiring numerous attempts.
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.
These photos were taken on outings with Breifne Caving Club and would not have been possible without the help, patience and a huge input from Michal Spigiel. All these photos were taken by just the two of us! Thanks also go out to our Polish friends Andrzej, Agnieszka and Piotr!
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