One of the main features of limestone is its solubility in water. The strange shape of the Burren landscape is only one consequence of this feature, the real effect goes much deeper. Under the limestone pavements and hills exists another landscape, equally beautiful but even stranger than the one above: Caves.
So far some 35 miles of cave passages have been surveyed but the real extend of the Burren caves is thought to be a multitude of that. Most of the caves can only be entered by experienced cavers, potholes and flash floods are only some of the dangers, but there are two caves that can be enjoyed by everybody. Aillwee Cave near Ballyvaughan and Doolin Cave between Doolin and Lisdoonvarna are open to the public and give an insight into the Burren’s underworld. The Doolin Cave or Pol an Ionain features the Great Stalactite. This massive stalactite measures some 7 meters which makes it the biggest of its kind in the northern hemisphere.
Aillwee Cave was first discovered in 1940 by a local farmer but it took until 1977 until the cave had been fully explored and mapped.
Another interesting caves is Poll Na gColm on the east side of Slieve Elva. The cave entrance lies at the bottom of a funnel shaped which is wide enough to host a fully grown ash tree. Inside the cave a muttering stream has shaped narrow passages that open up into wide galleries. In places the river forms deep pools and enchanting side grottos emerge from the main passage.
The cave however is best known for its connection with some of the greatest novels of all times: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The anglicied version of Poll Na gColm is Poll NaGollum and it is thought that the cave lend its name to Gollum, one of the main characters of the story who also lived in a cave.
It is a fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was a regular visitor of the area and there have always been rumours that the Burren has inspired much of the landscape of Middle Earth. Other sources reject this but whatever the truth may be it is a nice thought that the Burren was somewhat involved in the conception of a masterpiece of literature.
Many of the caves date back to a time long before the Burren as we know it today emerged. Radioisotope data collected at Aillwee cave suggest the cave is more than 1 million years old and was already formed long before the last glaciation period which had a major impact on the surface of the Burren.
Findings like human skeletal remains, pottery, oyster shells and butchered animal bones or the well known skeleton of a brown bear at Ailwee Cave, suggests that these caves have provided shelter for both animals and humans alike for a very long time. Early Christian hermits also took advantage of the Burren caves: According to legend St. Colman Mac Duagh spent seven years in a small cave at the foot of Eagle’s Rock. Even today the Burren caves provide shelter and sanctuary for wildlife, especially for wintering bats including the rare lesser horseshoe bat.
Text & images by Carsten Krieger