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Ailwee Caves

Aillwee Caves, Co. ClareAlthough one of the oldest in Ireland, Aillwee Cave is still a fairly recent discovery. Located near Ballyvaughan, Aillwee Cave is still one of the few caves which has the features of Clare underground - great caverns, stalactites, subterranean rivers - and which is easily accessible to the general public. Before Aillwee Cave was opened to the public in 1976 its entrance was only a chink in a cliff face. The man who discovered the cave was Jacko McGann, a herdsmen on Aillwee Hill for many years. Mr. McGann explored much of the cave by candlelight. In 1973, cavers continued to explore as far as a massive fall of boulders that sealed the passage. The cavers mapped the cave passages, a total of 210m.

Aillwee Cave is basically a single tunnel burrowing a kilometre in to the Aillwee Hill. The original show cave consists of three chambers , Bear Haven, Mud Hall and the Cascade Chamber. Beyond the tunnel in to the new cave the passages become much larger. The show-cave ends where the floor falls steeply at the beginning of the Highway, a straight passage 90m long and 20m high - one of the largest caverns in the Burren. Beyond is the River Cavern. Even in dry weather the sound of the cave river can be heard from considerable distances.

Aillwee Caves, Co. ClareIn 1976, work began on making the cave accessible to the public. The present-day entrance passage from the cave building to Bear Haven had to be enlarged by blasting. As this was being excavated a low crawl at floor level was discovered. This led to the St. Patrick’s Series of passages. The original show-cave ended at the near side of much more extensive series of caves was hidden which proved correct. A month of excavation followed to engineer a route through these caves. The breakthrough was made on Midsummer Day 1977, so the chamber just beyond the blockage was called Midsummer Cavern.

It was decided to extend the show cave as far as the Highway, some 350m in to the cave. To do this, two major problems had to be overcome. Cascade Chamber was bridged and then a safe route was made through the boulder fall. The resulting narrow tunnel is the only “man-made” section of the cave. Originally the cave was lit by electricity produced by a generator but now the ESB supply is used with a generator for use in case of emergencies. The original cave is brightly lit but beyond the Cascade Chamber lighting levels are kept lower in order to catch the “feel” of the cave as seen by the original explorers.

Aillwee Cave was originally an underground river fed by the melting snows of the ice age. The river dried up as the ice retreated leaving the cave as it is to be seen today. Cave bears then moved in and used the cave to hibernate. The building which leads in to the cave blends in to the surrounding area and was winner of the EC Europa Nostra prize. The entrance contains tourist information, craft shop and tea room. One can also climb the mountain behind the cave to find the rare Alpine flowers which are plentiful.


Ballyvaughan: Places of Interest