Doolin Cave or Pol an Ionáin, opened to the public in 2006 enabling visitors to view for the first time, what is reputedly the largest free-hanging stalactite in the northern hemisphere. Originally, discovered by speleologists in the 1950’s, it then took the owners John and Helen Browne, almost 20 years to attain planning permission to open the cave to the public, following the strictest environmental protocol. This year, the new visitor centre was officially opened and named after their friend, Irish author Nuala O’Faolain.
And what a triumph it finally is, the whole visitor experience is extremely professional from start to finish. You are immediately aware of their commitment to science, safety and conservation by being asked to wear a hard hat and carry a torch. In doing so, you seamlessly step into the role of an explorer/adventurer which adds enormously to the experience. Numbers are limited to 20 per visit. which lasts approximately an hour with a cap of a total of 55,000 visitors a year.
The guides are excellent, extremely well informed, patient and friendly throughout. As you descend through the main shaft, they explain how the engineers bored and shuttered the shaft in concrete sections 80 feet deep and 20 feet across. They then had to dig out 100 metres of chamber, enlarging the former river bed for access using air explosives, to ventilate, light and monitor the whole operation daily.
Most Irish visitors would have touched on the geology of the Burren in school, it being a prime example of a Karst limestone region on our doorstep, but to actually experience it a 100 feet below the surface, just inches away from real calcite features possibly 1000’s of years old and still being formed is something else entirely. No book, classroom, or internet site can ever replace the real thing.
Then assembling in darkness in the main chamber prior to the stalactite being lit up, I must admit to being wary of perhaps some “Disney” style theatrics which thankfully isnt the case. Subtlety lit, the huge beautiful stalactite stole the show silencing any sceptics or tired seen-it-all before types amongst us. What strikes you first is the sheer size of it, 7 metres long, some 10 tons in weight and hanging incredibly from a crack in the ceiling, in exquisite curtain like folds which changed colour owing to ore deposits, that possibly has taken 400,000 years to form and incredibly is still in the process of being formed, as you watch and listen one drip at a time.
Doolin Cave is a true wonder of the natural world, go and see it next time you are in Ireland.
For further information on Doolin Cave or to book your tickets online visit http://www.doolincave.ie/
Susan Byron author of http://www.irelands-hidden-gems.com/