© Yorkshire Ramblers' Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted.
However, short extracts from it may be used, for non-commercial purposes, provided their source is fully cited, acknowledged and referenced as:
Brodrick, H. (1908) Some Caves And Pot-Holes In County Fermanagh. Yorkshire Ramblers' Club Journal Volume 2 Number 8: pp291-305. Leeds: YRC.

Some Caves And Pot-Holes In County Fermanagh.

By Harold Brodrick.

That "most disthressful country" Ireland does not by  any means present such a variety of geological formations as does the neighbouring island of Great Britain; it does,  however, possess in a very marked degree that rock so  beloved by the ardent cave-explorer,-Carboniferous   Limestone.

 The greater portion of Ireland, that known as the central plain, which rarely rises above 300 feet, consists of a vast hollow of limestone covered for the most part with drift and peat. On the borders of this basin, where the limestone is more elevated, it is more exposed and it is in this raised portion of the country that we find the caves.

In the County of Fermanagh there occur two of these upland tracts, the one Belmore Mountain which rises to a height of 1, 300 feet and the other Cuilcagh which reaches the respectable height of about 2,200 feet.  In each case, as with Ingleborough, the upper portion of these two hills is composed of Yoredale rocks on which the streams form, to sink into the ground on reaching the limestone. Until last year no exploration had been attempted since 1895 when Mons. E. A. Martel explored a number of the caves and pot-holes, publishing his account of them in "Irlande et Cavernes Anglaises," (Paris, 1897).  His description of the caves clearly indicated that, although he had done extremely good work considering the limited time at his disposal, there remained a large number of problems not fully worked out and, as now appears, a still larger number of caves and pot-holes which were absolutely untouched.  Even now one more expedition at least will be required to work out the Marble Arch district fully and, this being so, I propose only to describe those caves the exploration of which we completed and to omit all account of those which we only partially explored. 

At Whitsuntide, 1907, a party of strangers in a wagonette which was piled up with coils of rope, life-belts, cameras, rope-ladders and other things not usually employed in picnicing might have been seen rattling out of Enniskillen towards Boho, which, situated at a distance of about ten miles to the west of the former town formed the most central position for the more or less scattered caves of the district.  The four members of the party, who hailed from London, Liverpool, Southport and Dublin, first turned their attention to Noon's Hole or Sumera, a deep pot-hole with a grisly reputation due to the fate of an informer who was thrown down about a century ago.  The hole runs East and West and receives a small stream from the West, the waters of which are said to reappear at Arch Cave.  Our first step was to dam this brook in three places in order to obviate the discomfort which M. Martel suffered from in the wav of falling water, and in consequence of which he mistook the true configuration of the hole, which really consists of three shafts opening one into the other.  It is also enormously deeper than he estimated by plumbing, his plumb-line having stopped on a bridge.  Our rope ladder was only 70 feet long, and as we could hardly make up more than 200 feet of life line, Mr. Lemon, of Enniskillen, kindly lent us two I20 feet ropes, which we used to raise and lower the 70 feet ladder. It was the lot of our London member to make the first and only descent, and this only as far as the second bridge - 143 feet below the surface. The top pitch is 90 feet in depth, this measurement including a top step ten feet in height, at the base of which is a wide ledge.  After the first thirty feet the explorer saw that he was in a magnificent pot-hole, far finer than one would dream of expecting from the insignificant opening on the surface, and more than entitled to M. Martel's description - " une colossale marmite de géants."  The shaft bellied out beneath the mouth, and the walls were grooved with giant flutings formed by the tremendous rush of the flooded brook.  On reaching the last rung of the ladder it was necessary to scramble for about .ten feet down the polished ledges on to what appeared to be the bottom of the pot.  This floor, 90 feet below the lip, was in reality merely a bridge in which were three openings, the two smaller of which were probably seen by M. Martel, for he says that the hole below him was entirely occupied by the falling stream; this could not have referred to the main hole on the North which could hardly be filled even by such a flood of water as would stun a man a few feet below the lip of the pot-hole.  The rope-ladder was then lowered down this northern hole and, after descending it, our man (E. A. Baker) found himself, at a depth of I43 feet from the surface, on a second bridge which spanned a still greater drop.  This bridge was rifted in places, and stones thrown down went hurtling to a depth which could not be less than 100 feet and might be even equal to the two upper pitches taken together.  These stones fell into water with the reverberating boom so well known to cave-explorers. Communication between the surface party and the man below had now become impossible, except by means of whistles, so that, although the explorer would have liked to try the third pitch, a return was compulsory. A much stronger party with no lack of tackle will be required for a successful descent of Noon's Hole. After the ascent the dams were cut through and the stored-up waters allowed to rush into the hole.

On the same plateau as Noon's Hole, but directly behind Arch Cave, is the picturesque chasm of Pollanafrin which consists of a pot-hole some 30 feet deep spanned by a fine arch of rock; this was descended and described by M. Martel.  The farmer who lived close by told us that one of his lambs once got into a small hole at the  base of a cliff within a few yards of the main hole and  was found at the bottom of a big chamber, which, he said, ran three hundred yards down the valley. A day or two later we opened this small cave mouth, which the farmer had blocked, and found ourselves in a chamber 30 feet  high with a floor about 15 feet by 4 feet and a small fissure going 8 feet further in.  The 300 yards had dwindled to this!  The cave, with its stalagmite-coated walls, looked pretty when lighted up by magnesium. 

On the same plateau, to the South of Pollanafrin, there is a hole marked Rattle Hole on the survey map and, although we were told by the "oldest inhabitant" it there was nothing worth seeing there, we felt that after our experience at Pollanafrin we must see and judge for ourselves. It turned out to be a wide shake-hole with a fissure at the bottom running north and south. It was fitting that the first person to go down should be the Irishman of the party. He climbed down the long rocky slope at the northern end, the walls being from 3 to 6 feet apart and finally reached a depth of about120 feet, only to discover that nothing further was possible, the floor of the pot-hole being entirely covered with broken rock.

Close to Rattle Hole the Ordnance Survey marked Ivy Hole; we visited this to find that it was a large open pothole some thirty feet deep which could be readily walked down.

The plateau upon which these pot-holes are terminates in an escarpment overlooking the low-land, and at the base of one of the cliffs is Arch Cave or Ooghboragan, which seems to form the exit for the greater quantity of the water which sinks on the plateau above. This cave has been so well described by M. Martel that very little account of it is needed here.  Within the great arch which forms the imposing entrance there is a majestic hall 80 to 100 feet high and 120 feet wide, with piles of' huge boulders covering the floor and hiding the stream which is heard rushing beneath.  A natural window high up in the roof helps to light this hall and gives one the idea that the cave is much longer than it really is.  On clambering over the boulders the roof is seen coming down in a series of fine rock curtains, each being lower than the one in front, while the roof  between them rises to a height  of 50 feet or more.  At a distance of 120 feet due west from the entrance we were brought up on the edge of a deep pool, the further side of which was shut in by rock.  One of the party, with a life-belt on for fear of unexpected  holes, waded through the south end of the pool and landed on a shoal of sand and mud, to find that there was g a narrow lane of water behind the rock curtain which had,  at first sight, appeared to form the end of the cave. The water in this fissure rapidly deepened and, as the walls were too close together to permit of swimming, the situation was felt to be hopeless.  Climbing along the fissure was also impossible, so a careful examination was made and a small arched opening through a further rocky curtain, which seemed to lead into other similar pools, was noticed; as however this was at the further end of the deep water there was no alternative but to retreat.

The next series of caves to the south of the Arch Cave group are those at and about the village of Boho. They are all well worth a visit and none offer any difficulties.  Above Boho there is a large open valley which is cut off at the village by a band of limestone rising some 50 feet above the floor of the valley; into this the surface stream sinks to emerge again at a lower level. The largest cave may be entered either from the upper or lower end: we chose the latter.  We had the guidance of a gallant member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, under whose barracks the ramifications of the cave extend, who is always ready and willing to pioneer any visitors wishing to explore its intricacies.  The outlet of the caves of Boho is entered from a deep ravine which is most easily reached by way of the police-station.  After claiming the assistance of our guide we descended a steep bank and, on reaching the dry stream bed, made our way up its slope.  Here a sheer wall of rock some 50 feet in height confronted us over which, in times of flood, the river pours and forms a magnificent waterfall.  It was now bone dry, the river finding a lower course.  Skirting the wall on the left hand side we found on the top a vertical rift in a still higher cliff; this is the true exit for the waters in flood time.  The cave mouth is 5 feet wide and about 20 feet high.  Through this we walked and found ourselves inside a spacious vault flanked by jointed pillars of limestone. The limestone throughout the greater portion of the cave has been laid down in beds ranging in thickness from a few inches to two feet which give the chamber a very curious appearance, as the stone has weathered considerably along the bedding planes.  

Our way lay clear before us and we followed a straight and lofty passage for 40 yards until we were brought to a halt by its division into two branches.  Looking backwards from this point the daylight was still visible in the distance.  Next the question arose, right or left?  Our guide, after consideration, finally decided upon the left as being the nearer way through to daylight, so that way we went and, after twisting here and there, finally struck into a tunnel running in the same direction as the "daylight" passage.  We at last reached a point 120 yards from the entrance where the way again divided into two.  After exploring in both directions we found that either was suitable but that the one to the left (or South) brought us into the daylight sooner. We traversed this and emerged under a wooded bank in the field just above the road leading to Carn House and close to Boho Post Office.  Looking about the meadow we discovered that our way of exit was not the only one out of - or rather into - the cave. There were no less than seven openings, all about 15 feet below the level of the ground.  We explored them each in turn, and found that they all led' back into the passage we had just quitted; some directly and others indirectly by various twists and turns.  The total length of the underground passage from entrance to  exit we made by rough measurement to be about 150 yards ; but this figure by no means represents the sum of the many ramifications of the cave, which form a regular subterranean maze, in which the explorer, unless aided by compass or guide-string, may easily lose himself.  The distance on the surface between the entrance and the exit is 125 yards.  When the river is in full flood, it would seem to completely fill up the cave from floor to roof; at such times the beautifully wooded ravine below the cave mouth must present an awe inspiring sight.

It will be recollected that the "daylight" passage at its termination was found to divide into two, and that we followed the left hand passage. We also explored the right hand one, and traced it finally, through many complex passages, into the straight tunnel near the upper exit. This passage was the only part of the cave in which any stalactites were found; they were, however, very fine ones and well worth a visit.

Lower down the ravine we noticed two lofty openings on the left hand side, which invited exploration.  The first one would seem to act as an overflow channel when the others are fully charged.  At its commencement it is 6 feet wide and 80 feet high, and can be followed in for a considerable distance until further progress becomes impossible as the roof and the floor come together.  The second passage, which at its entrance is 30 feet high, soon becomes very shallow.  At a higher level it seems to' run above the first one just described, as sounds in one are distinctly audible in the other.  We followed this passage for some distance, but soon gave it up, as progression along its stony floor by crawling was too irksome and uncomfortable.

About a mile from Boho, up the wide valley mentioned earlier, and some 400 feet above its floor, is the Great Cavern of Coolarkan, or Pollnagullum (The Hole of the Doves) as it is called on the Survey map.  The entrance to this lies at the bottom of a great pit flanked on three sides by steep grassy slopes and on the fourth by a cliff  about 40 feet high, over one part of which a stream falls in a silvery cascade. The bottom of the pit is strewn with large boulders masking the entrance to the cave we had come to explore.  Clambering over the rocks and  under an arch about 5 feet high we at once found ourselves in a lofty vault some 45 feet wide with a level floor, along one side of which the stream noisily splashed its way into the darkness ahead.  As we walked inwards the roof continued to rise until, at a point 40 yards from the entrance, it attained a height of at least 100 feet.  Here the cave is 30 feet wide, so that a chamber of no mean size is formed.  We noticed that the stream sank at this point, although in wet seasons it would seem to flow much further along the cave.  This great cavern pierces the heart of the hill in a straight line for a distance of 165 yards and, curiously enough, almost directly under the stream which afterwards flows through it.  At about two thirds of the length of the cavern a pile of fallen boulders, evidently caused by a collapse of the roof, mounts up about 30 feet on the left hand side and stretches more than 57 feet in width.   Looking back towards the entrance the view was superb as the daylight feebly filtered through the moisture-laden atmosphere and half illumined the dimly discerned depths beyond.  At the far end of the cave we were stopped by a great mass of fallen rocks which lay piled right up to the roof nearly 20' feet above and proved an impassable obstacle.

Coolarkin Cave Plan.  © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
Coolarkin Cave Plan

Cuilcagh Mountain is situated some I2 miles to the South-West of Enniskillen and on its northern side three streams run down towards Marble Arch, to sink at three points about a quarter-of- a-mile apart.  M. Martel gave a partial account of these three sinks and also  a more detailed one of  Marble Arch and Cradle  Hole[1],  two fine caves through which a considerable stream flows.  Our party explored both these latter caves but did not survey them: we contented ourselves with M. Marte1's plan, and, as the caves seem to have altered considerably since his visit, I propose to leave any description of them until  after a further visit, when we may perhaps find more alterations have taken place.  The drive from Boho to Marble Arch and back took us over four hours each day, so that, although we spent two days at the caves on Cuilcagh, we were very much pressed for time.  However, we managed to explore several caves which had not been fully explored in the past and several of them not even recorded.

 Our drive led us through the village of Belcoo and then along the southern bank of the Lower Lake Macnean.  Shortly after passing the grand limestone cliff known as Hanging Rock, which rises almost sheer out of the lake, there being just room for the road between, we noticed a fair sized stream running from a wooded slope some 100 yards from the road and 50 feet above it, and naturally inspected its source to discover that it rose in the middle of a pile of loose, moss-covered stones, while a few yards further up the hill side there was a low arch about 30 feet wide.  The cave we found there was, although small, well worth a visit. The floor immediately inside the entrance dropped about 15 feet to a still pool of water, while on all sides were steep banks of nearly black clay, of a type which we only met with in one other place (Cat's Hole), and of which we learned more by sad experience later.  This cave simply consists of one chamber about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide, but it is possible that further chambers might be exposed if the mud banks were altered by a flood.

On arriving at the gate of the Cladagh glen we found Mr. Bowles the head keeper waiting for us, and a great help he was on both our days in that district, entering into the sport like a veteran cave explorer. The year seemed at its best for a walk up the bank of the Cladagh river; but beauties of flowers and trees soon palled, as we were each carrying a considerable weight of ropes, ladders, life-belts, food, and clothing.  After a walk of about a mile from the gate, through scenery very similar to that of Clapham Park, we turned a corner and arrived.

at the Marble Arch.  This consists of a beautiful limestone arch, some 30 feet high, which spans the stream, while the sides of the glen are covered with trees, and the grass was so thickly carpeted with primroses, violets, and all manner of wild flowers that one could not take a step without the feeling of committing a sacrilege.  As I do not propose to describe our work in Marble Arch Cave itself, it will be sufficient to say that we had a most excellent time there, despite the fact of one member falling head first into deep water.  

After leaving the plantation in which Marble Arch is situated the party spread out with the intention of walking up to the sink of the Monastir - the central of the three streams on the plateau. We had in view the exploration of a point marked on M. Martel's map as "Effondrement recent" and on the Ordnance map as Pollnagapple (The hole of the Horses). This was found soon after passing Cradle Hole and at first sight seemed to be simply a large opening about 60 feet deep' and 80 feet in diameter in the floor of the valley.  We had almost decided that there was nothing to be done here when one of the party decided that he would climb down it. This proved fairly easy and, although from the surface there seemed to be no opening at the bottom, a shout quickly caused the rest to follow.  Well it was that we did so. A low arch in one corner led into a very fine cave, at least 50 feet high, with a steep rocky slope up one side.  The leader climbed this and illuminated the cave with magnesium. The sight was magnificent.  All the walls of the chamber were covered with bright yellow stalagmite, forming a picture such as is rarely seen.  As we were leaving this chamber we heard, close to its entrance, in one corner of the main pot, a roar of running water. The sound came from the floor, from between jammed boulders, and appeared to be some depth below. After nearly an hour's work we at length cleared a passage, and the two lightest members of the party, carefully roped, made their way down. It was unpleasant work, as every rock seemed loose, but with care a depth of 20 feet was reached, and then it was considered better to return. The jammed rocks were overhanging a vast chamber, which must have been at least 50 feet deep, while the roar of the river below had become much greater.  One felt like a fly crawling in a basin of lump sugar, with the fear that at any time the lumps might collapse and carry the explorer into the depths below.  Evidently the whole floor of the main pot is composed of boulders, wedged into their present position, which will at some time fall into the cave beneath and form a pot-hole some 100 feet deep. Leading into the main wall of the pot at a point some 10 feet below the floor we noticed a low bedding-cave which on further investigation may be found to lead to something of interest.  

As part of our work we decided to attack the three inflowing streams in order, commencing at the most westerly, which is named the Sruh Croppa River in the Survey Map.  In times of ordinary rainfall this stream sinks through numerous small holes in its bed, but in times of flood flows on and falls over a cliff some 30 feet high into a large hollow called Cat's Hole. In times of excessive flood this overflows and the water runs down the meadow below towards Marble Arch.

 When we arrived at Cat's Hole we found it quite dry and at once scrambled into it, to find an arch about10 feet high leading into a cave which turned directly under the stream bed. This cave we found was about 40 feet high and 60 feet wide, and its floor was covered with enormous blocks of rock thickly coated with heavy black mud. Working between and over these boulders we reached the apparent end of the cave at a distance of about 75 yards from the entrance, the passage being absolutely straight for this distance.  There was, however, a continuation of the fissure at the higher level and with a little difficulty we made our way along this for a further 20 yards, naturally getting thickly plastered with mud.  At the end of the passage there was barely room for one person, but below was a small hole from which came the sound of running water. After clearing away a considerable number of loose stones two of the party climbed down while the third "played" them from above with the rope.  The hole was very narrow and excessively muddy and, at a depth of about 40 feet, ended in several still smaller holes, down none of which could we force an entrance. The running water sounded very clearly from here and seemed to be only a few feet away, but we could not make our way through to it.  Cat's Hole is, without exception, the muddiest' place we have been in, and from the similarity of the mud we came to the conclusion that its waters have their exit at the muddy spring on the, main road from Belcoo, which we had visited' earlier.

Monastir Sink Plan.  © Yorkshire Ramblers' Club
Monastir Sink Plan

From Cat's Hole a short walk across country eastwards brought us to the Monastir River, a stream which seems also to go by the name of Owenbrean (The Foul River).  This stream after running through a beautiful limestone gorge, the cliffs of which rise to at least 150 feet, sinks in its bed, to reappear close to the mouth of the cave which we had come to explore. In times of flood, however, the ordinary sinks are not enough to carry off the water, and the whole valley becomes a lake of a depth, at times, of 30 feet.  The valley is cut off at its lower end by a limestone cliff, which we found by measurement to be 130 feet high and overhanging at least 20 feet.  At the base of this cliff are two openings. The east one is small, and from it flows the stream which sinks further up the valley. The west one, however, is about six feet wide and eight feet high, and receives the stream, which has only flowed for a few yards in the open.  We found that the roof at once rose, although the passage only widened very slightly, and at a distance of about 60 feet from the entrance we were stopped by a long deep pool, which looked the more uninviting from the fact that the roof came down to within about two feet of the water level.  None of the party at first cared to enter the water, so we made small rafts of bits of wood and floated them down the stream with lighted candles.  This gave us a certain amount of confidence, as the stream seemed fairly slow; so after stripping, two of the party ventured in, dressed in boots and hats, in the latter of which candles were fixed.  For the first 40 feet the water was about three feet deep, while the roof was just above their heads.  Then they reached a small beach of pebbles and sand: here the roof rose to a considerable height.  The fissure in which they were then standing ended in front and the water again became very deep, but on the right, and just beyond the pebble beach, was a low opening.  The men worked their way to this, clinging with hands to grips on the walls while their legs dangled in deep water.  The opening led into another fissure parallel with the first, and in this they had their greatest difficulties.  The bottom could not be touched, the roof was out of sight above, and the walls were so close together that if either man had missed his hold on the wall he would have found difficulty in swimming, owing to the lack of space. With great care they climbed along the right-hand wall, and at a distance of 20 feet from the low opening arrived at another pebble beach. Immediately beyond this the water was very deep and the walls came together, so that no further advance was possible. They lit the passage up with magnesium, and even then could not clearly discern the roof, although they could see at least 80 feet up.  Climbing was impossible, owing to the sharpness of the rock edges and to the fact that the explorers were wearing no clothes. So, being convinced that no further progress could be made, they reluctantly returned and without any mishaps arrived at the entrance again.  While some of the party prepared tea under the shelter of the cliff - for it was now raining hard - two others walked up the valley to inspect another cliff some hundred yards above, on the left or west side of the stream.  After tea they led all the party to this cliff and pointed out an uninteresting looking hole almost hidden by brambles.  This hole was about three feet high and the same in width, and seemed to be unworthy of notice.  However, after crawling through a low passage for a few yards we entered a most beautiful chamber about 100 feet high, 200 feet long, and with a width, at its greatest, of about 20 feet.  All the walls are brilliantly white, while high up are numerous holes through which the light streams, illuminating the whole chamber.  As this cave seems not to have been known before, we decided to name it Templebawn (The White Church). Trails of ivy and other creeping plants hung down through some of its openings, and the whole scene was one never to be forgotten. After taking a few photographs of this most beautiful place we returned to the cliff, where we had tea, and as time was getting on and rain coming down heavily we decided that we had no chance of doing any more serious work; but we wished to see the inflow of the third stream.  Leaving all our ropes and baggage we went at full speed eastwards for about half a mile and arrived at the third river, which seems to have no name. This stream runs through a narrow valley, and while a portion sinks into the rocks other portions flow on to the cave Pollasumera (The Cave of the Horse-leech), which was our last point for the day.  We found that the stream sinks finally at the base of a high cliff in which are two parallel caves about 10 yards apart. That to the left, or west, is only very short, although it has an imposing entrance.  The other cave, however, is a much finer one.  The entrance is about 35 feet high and about 10 feet wide, and was at the time of our visit quite dry, although it evidently at times is completely flooded.  We walked along the loose rocks of the floor for about 150 yards, at which point the roof had come down to within about five feet of the floor.  From here the passage became very winding, and divided, so offering several alternative routes.  All these, however, rejoined each other, until, at a distance of about 250 yards from the entrance, we found ourselves on the shore of a deep underground lake and in a chamber with a roof only slightly above the surface of the water; but we were luckily able to reach the side at several places and came to the conclusion that nothing further could be done there. Magnesium was, ignited, giving us most beautiful views of the lake from the various approaches, and we then reluctantly made for daylight.

 A quick trot across the bogs through the rain soon brought us to the Monastir sink, where we picked up our ropes and hurried down to the main road, which was reached shortly after 8 p.m.  There are many pot-holes and caves on Cuilcagh which we had not time to look at, but we hope to have the opportunity of carrying on later the exploration in this, perhaps the most speleologically interesting, district of Ireland.

Our party consisted of E. A. Baker, Charles A. Hill, R. Lloyd Praeger and the writer.

[Where mention of the Survey Map is made the 6-in. sheets of Co. Fermanagh are referred to. Sheet 20 includes Arch Cave and the plateau above, sheet 21 the caves of the Boho district, and sheet 32 the Marble Arch district.]

[1] Irlande et Cavernes Anglaises,  pp 19-49