Marble Arch Caves
The Marble Arch Caves are located just outside the small Fermanagh village of Florencecourt, not far from Enniskillen. This is one of the most extensive cave systems on the island of Ireland, stretching from 11.5km (7 miles) in length. Though extensive, the caves are not particularly deep by the standards of others in this cave-riddled region. The Marble Arch Caves are formed by rivers that run close to the surface, so that they only reach a maximum depth of 94m (305 feet). By comparison, Ireland’s deepest cave, Reyfad Pot, located just to the north in County Fermanagh, descends 193m (633 feet) – nearly 100m deeper than the Marble Arch Caves. The cave’s name derives from the shiny appearance of the nearby Marble Arch, a naturally formed limestone archway that gleams like marble when wet. Nearly two million people have visited the caves since they first opened to the public in 1985 and the tour leads you through some truly spectacular galleries, by foot and in a boat travelling the underground river in the darkness. It is quite an experience!
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One of the Marble Arch Caves guides leads a boat tour • Fermanagh
The Geology of the Marble Arch Caves
The path through the wood to the entrance of the cave • Fermanagh
Like much of Ireland, the bedrock of Fermanagh and the northern parts of Cavan is largely dominated by limestone. As a sedimentary rock, limestone is formed by the layering, settling and consolidation of deposited materials. These materials can be formed by the remains of living organisms, or from the erosion of older rocks. Here in Fermanagh the limestone was formed over 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous Period. At this time, Ireland was at the edge of a vast supercontinent near the equator. Much of the land we now know of as Ireland would have been covered by a shallow tropical sea. Over eons, countless multitudes of dead sea creatures accumulated on the seafloor, transforming through millions of years of compression into the sediments that then slowly compacted into beds of limestone. Across the millennia, more beds of limestone would be formed and laid down. This created layers that can still be seen in the geology of the rock faces today, where horizontal bedding planes tell the story of deep time.
As limestone is largely composed of calcium carbonate (derived from the shells of the long dead sea creatures), it is extremely susceptible to even the slightest acidity in rain and river water, which over time begins to dissolve the rock. Where weaknesses are found, particularly along the joints and bedding plains of the stone, more water flows, causing yet more erosion and dissolution in turn.
Three streams draining off the northern slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain, combine underground to form the Cladagh River, and it is the Cladagh that has been the chief architect of the passageways and grand galleries of these caves. Cutting, dissolving and displacing countless tonnes of limestone, leaving us with a spectacular and intricate network of underground worlds to explore today.
The path through the wood to the entrance of the cave • Fermanagh
The Archaeology, History and Folklore of the Marble Arch Caves
The otherworldly interior of the cave • Fermanagh
The caves are a repository of deep time. Some of the formations in the older parts of the cave have been found to contain uranium minerals, which can be used by geologists in radiometric dating. One sample from these formations has produced an age of 320,000 years and, since the cave must have developed before any formations could grow, it may possibly be much older.
This region in the Fermanagh–Cavan borderlands, on the slopes and shadows of the Cuilcagh, is rich in prehistoric sites. Nearby, at the Cavan Burren Geopark, you’ll encounter Neolithic dolmens, Chalcolithic wedge tombs, and Iron Age forts. Here, however, there has been so far very little evidence of human activity at the cave until much more recent centuries. Though prehistoric human remains have been found within the cave, they are believed to have found their way into the cave by having been washed down the river, rather than having been interred like those found at Dunmore Cave in Co. Kilkenny.
In many cultures, caves are a liminal space. The cave mouth is a threshold between the world we know above, and the unknowable dark depths of the Underworld. That’s why they feature so prominently in some of humanity’s oldest tales. Like the Epic of Gilgamesh that was first set down around 1800 BC, and which tells the story of the Sumerian hero Enkidu who reappeared from a long imprisonment underground in the Netherworld. Similar journeys end as darkly for Orpheus, Hercules and Aeneas as they do for their counterparts in Finnish, Inuit, Aztec, Mayan and Hindu mythology. In Ireland, caves were also treated as a place of portent. Sites like Oweynagat and Dunmore Cave have many stories and folklore attached to them. Here at Marble Arch Caves the folklore suggested that the caves may be home to witches, ghosts or more worrying still, fairies, the daoine sídhe, (Irish fairies are not like Tinkerbell). With such folklore it appears that people largely kept their distance, though the caves were well known locally. In the early 18th century, Reverend William Henry ventured a little way into the cave mouth and described some of the features that he saw.
More than 50 years later, a Frenchman by the name of Jacques-Louis Bougrenet de La Tocnaye (also spelled as De Lacontayne or De Latognaye), described his adventure in his book A Frenchman’s Walk Through Ireland. He described how he was accompanied by two guides, an older man and a young one. The older man took great relish in describing all the ‘horrible stories’ associated with the supernatural creatures that dwelt in the dark depths of the cave. Perhaps the older man believed some of the tales he told, as, when the three arrived at the cave mouth, he stopped and declared that the younger man would be enough to guide de La Tocnaye. With their heads full of horror, de La Tocnaye and his nervous young guide descended into the dark:
‘After walking for nearly an hour among the rocks and precipices and waterfalls without end, I took the candle from the hands of my guide in order to look over a precipice, at the bottom of which I thought I could hear water running. How it came about I cannot tell, but the candle went out. ‘ Now,’ said my guide, in a melancholy voice, ‘ we’re done for ever, I would not move my foot from this place for a guinea.’ After having, with a great deal of trouble and effort, made the man at the entrance to the cavern hear, I was certain that he would go for lights, and set myself down tranquilly to pass the time, being much amused at the fright of my companion. ‘Have you ever seen him?’ I said. ‘Who?’ he answered. ‘The great devil who put out the candle with his cloven foot.’ ‘Oh no. Sir!’ he said, ‘it must have been the fairy. Oh, I am sure it was the fairy; she is jealous, and does not like anyone to come and bother her.’ ‘Oh’ said I, ‘was it the fairy ; then she is a damned bitch to have played us such a trick.’ ‘Oh, Sir, Sir!’ he cried, ‘don’t speak in that way about the good folk. You are on the edge of a precipice, and they could push you into it. I have never offended them, I respect them, and I am sure they will not harm me.’ At this last statement I could not refrain from laughing, and I called his attention to a faint ray of light which appeared at the bottom of the precipice, and this seemed to reassure him a little. Patiently we waited for our guide with the lights, who came about an hour later, and released us from this disagreeable situation.’
The cave would continue to keep its secrets for some time longer. Indeed, it would be more than one hundred and fifty years after de La Tocnaye re-emerged from the caves before light would finally be shone on some of the Marble Arch’s darkest depths.
Exploring the Marble Arch Caves
On tour in the Marble Arch Caves • Fermanagh
The first person to successfully explore Marble Arch Caves was the Frenchman Edouard Martel, who was invited to Fermanagh by the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen. The Earl was a keen amateur geologist who lived nearby at Florence Court.
Martel was one of the most respected cave experts in Europe at the time. He pioneered the scientific study of caves, known as speleology, and lectured about the origins of caves at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris. Together with Lyster Jameson, a naturalist from Dublin who wished to study bats in Irish caves, they set out for Fermanagh in 1895 to explore the many caves in the area. Martel knew he was likely to have to negotiate underground rivers and so he brought a collapsable, American-made boat, made from canvas stretched over a wooden frame. It could be taken apart and carried in two bags when not being used. They also carried lanterns, spare candles, whistles for emergencies and magnesium flares to light the great chambers.
It’s difficult to imagine the experience and emotions of paddling the boat through the dark, knowing that you’re venturing beyond what any known person has done before. Setting off the flares to illuminate features that had only known deep darkness since they were formed eons before. They discovered and named the largest chamber the Grand Gallery, and also named the Stalactite Chamber and the Pool Chamber. Here, about 600m (2,000 feet) into the cave, they encountered a solid wall of limestone with a deep pool at its base. This ended their journey. They carefully returned to the entrance, surveying the passageways as they went.
In his book, ‘Irlande et Cavernes Anglaises’ published in 1897, Martel wrote that there were more cave passages to be explored and that, one day, the Marble Arch Caves should be opened to the public.
On tour in the Marble Arch Caves • Fermanagh
In 1907 a team from the Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club began to explore the cave system. Unlike Martel and Jameson, they did not do so by boat, instead they waded through the cold dark waters to the point that the previous explorers had ended their journey. The following year, the cavers returned and discovered a new route into the Pool Chamber from a pothole above, bypassing the deep waters that had blocked the previous explorations. They also performed dye-tracing experiments, and managed to identify the networks of water movement between the caves.
In the mid-1930s the Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club returned and made yet more discoveries, including connected passageways. Further detailed surveys were made in the 1960s, and by this stage it had become clear that Martel’s previous assertion that the spectacular caves should be opened to the public was the correct thing to do.
Visiting the Marble Arch Caves
A path through the darkness • Fermanagh
In the early 1980s, Fermanagh District Council decided to open the Marble Arch Caves to the public. It proved to be a truly monumental task for the engineers and workers who carried out the project. One of the key challenges was to accurately chart the twists and turns of the cave to the ground above. Boreholes had to be drilled through 60m (195 feet) of solid rock so that concrete for the paths could be pumped into the caves. These boreholes would later be used to bring in the electrical cables for the cave lights. This was at a time before digitised mapping, so everything was surveyed using traditional techniques. Their work was made all the more difficult as they took the greatest care not to damage any of the fragile cave formations, stalactites and stalagmites. The workmen waded through the cold cave rivers in near darkness, laying paths and building footbridges and railings. Finally the magnificent show caves were opened to the public at last on 29th May 1985.
Today the caves are a wonderful visitor experience. When the water-levels allow, a guide brings you down into the cave where you then take a boat tour across the dark waters to a series of concrete walkways. The scale of the chambers, the delicacy of the formations and the sheer weight of time offers a truly memorable experience.
Upper left: the Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre • Lower left: a walkway traversing a chamber • Right: a flow formation
Top: the Marble Arch Caves Visitor Centre • Middle: a flow formation • Bottom: a walkway traverses the chamber
The Marble Arch Caves Visitor Information
The Marble Arch Caves is one of Ireland’s largest and most spectacular show-caves.