Dunmore Cave has a complex and occasionally fantastical history. It is situated approximately 11km north of Kilkenny city, not far from the town of Castlecomer. The cave – temporarily closed to the public, but due to be reopened in 2023 – contains around 300 metres (984 ft) of known passages and caverns. In terms of geology, it is a rare example of a cave as formed directly by glacial meltwaters. Although not a particularly large cave system, Dunmore has a number of great examples of calcite formations, such as stalagmites and stalactites. However, the cave’s interest comes not just from its geology; but from its dark history and its associations with the Vikings.
Located in the north of County Kilkenny, in the ancient Irish kingdom of Ossory, Dunmore Cave was situated right in the middle of a disputed territory between the Viking powerbases of Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The Vikings of Ireland were not one people with united aims and ambitions, under one government, but were instead rival powers who regularly came into conflict with each other. A story connected to Dunmore Cave highlights just how deadly that rivalry could be. Multiple sources record a Viking massacre in AD 930 (or 928) at a place called Derc Ferna which is believed or assumed to be an older name for Dunmore Cave. It was certainly known as that by people in the locality in the 19th century.
The Annals of Innisfallen tell of ‘Gothfrith, grandson of Ímar, with the foreigners of Áth Cliath, razed Derc Ferna—something unheard of from ancient times’, something similarly repeated in the Annals of Ulster. Chronicon Scotorum recorded ‘The besieging of Derc Ferna and its taking in which one thousand men die.’ These accounts are reinforced further by the Annals of the Four Masters: ‘Godfrey, grandson of Imhar, with the foreigners of Ath-cliath, demolished and plundered Dearc Fearna, where one thousand persons were killed in this year, as is stated in this quatrain: Nine hundred years without sorrow, twenty-eight, it has been proved, Since Christ came to our relief, to the plundering of Dearc-Fearna.’
One tale describes how the Vikings descended into the cave and slaughtered all within. Another commonly told version of the story describes how a raiding band of Vikings discovered a large number of people (mainly women and children) hiding in the cave at Dunmore. In an attempt to drive them from the cave, they lit large fires, hoping to smoke out those in hiding in order to capture them and sell them in the slave markets. However, the fires were too large, their flames swallowed all the oxygen in the deep cave, so many suffocated to death.
Antiquarians in the 18th and 19th centuries collected large quantities of human remains from within the cave, long presumed to be those of the people massacred in that raid. However, reappraisal of the site in recent years has questioned this old belief. Perhaps the story of the cave is not quite as dark as once believed. For a more detailed discussion on the evidence, read on!
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