Cuilcagh Mountain Park
Marble Arch Caves is located within a European Geopark. It encompasses both county Fermanagh and county Cavan. Driving to the caves the road rises into the hills and offers fantastic views over to the sandstone cliffs of Cuilcagh Mountain Park.
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The caves were formed when the county of Fermanagh was covered by a warm tropical ocean 330 million years ago. The resulting limestone is made up of organic debris, such as the remains of shells or coral reefs, cemented together with the mineral calcite. The cave was formed by limestone fissures worn away by three rivers that run into and then out of the cave.
The cave is 9 km long, at least the explored part is. In 1895 French Speleologist Eduoard Martel and naturalist Lister Jameson first explored Marble Arch caves using a small collapsible canvas boat with paddles to transport them along the river and candles and magnesium flares to find their way in the dark.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was fully opened for visitors. Because the river flows through it there are various sounds that are heard in the cave, and, in the distant past, people believed it was the habitat of witches and other creatures; therefore, they were afraid to go in.
A cave tour begins with steps down to one of the rivers. Small electric powered boats holding a dozen people navigate the river part of the cave. As you travel by boat guides share the history of the cave. Shortly you are out of the boat and on a concrete walkway for the rest of the trip.
The cave has some unique features formed by the river and dripping water. First to be seen on the walkway is the Stalactite chamber, and then the approach is made downwards into a circular cave passage. A flyover leads from here into the Pool chamber with a solid wall of limestone and a sump pool. Heading over the pool and through a manmade passage leads into the New chamber, the deepest passageway in the cave at 165 feet below the surface. The ceiling has straw stalactites.
At the other end of this chamber is a ledge above the pathway, and just beyond the Owenbrean river disappears under the rock. The tour follows the passage to showcase a number of formations including ones named Porridge Pot, Organ Pipes, and a cave curtain named Streaky Bacon.
Further along is Canyon passage, formed by a vertical stream. Heading further along the trail leads to Paddy Fields, rimstone pools, and Moses Walk. Downwards the path goes into the Crystal Palace, replete with stalactites and cave curtains. The footpath ends at Journey’s End where the cave continues upstream into passages only accessible to experienced cavers. Here are strange stalagmites named the Frog, the Screwdriver, and the Mexican, all formed as drip-pits in sand deposits that were washed away. Another stalactite is called Long John Silver because of its peg leg shape. Another stop highlights Calcite Cradle, with examples of many formations, including one where a stalactite and a stalagmite have almost joined up.
A cascade is named the Frozen Waterfall. Beyond this is a column named the Guardian Angel because of its shape. A seven foot long stalactite is another treat heading toward the exit. The one mile tour ends with 130 steps going back up and out a “hole” to the daylight.
Marble Arch Caves
Marlbank Scenic Loop
County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland BT92 1EW
From the A32 on minor roads
Tel. 028 66 348 855 from N. Ireland and Britain; tel from Republic of Ireland 048 66 348 855; tel from rest of world 0044 28 66 348 855
Open: See their website for full details as varies by month. Caves may close in times of heavy rain for safety reasons. Tours last for 75 minutes and are suitable for people of average fitness. Comfortable walking shoes and a warm sweater are recommended; advance bookings by phone highly recommended
Parking; café; shop; exhibition; AV theatre
Web: Marble Arch Caves
Photos © by Barbara Ballard