Aillwee Cave near Ballyvaughan is one of the few caves which contains all the ingredients for the making of a show cave and with easy access for the public. Probably first penetrated by man in 1940 when a herdsman, Jack McGann crawled through with a candle to see what he could find. He explored much of the cave and his initials can still be seen at the base of the cascade.
Nothing further was done until 1973 when Jacko McGann talked to a group of cavers and told them of the existence of a cave on Aillwee Mountain. The group from Bristol University, under the leadership of Dr. Tratman explored the cave as far as was possible. A massive fall of boulders sealing the passage beyond Cascade Chamber. At this stage the survey was a total length of 210 metres completed and carried out under the direction of Dr. Tratman.
Nothing further was done until 1976 when work began on the massive task of opening a cave to the public. The present easy walkway from the entrance to Bear Haven was in 1976 a horrendous crawl and slither through muddy pools and sharp jagged rocks in a crack with a circular roof. This 200m passage had to be enlarged by blasting with the resultant debris being winched by a torpedo shaped container to the entrance and used to form part of what is today the car park.
An unforeseen circumstance of this blasting was the discovery of a low crawl at floor level. This led into the St. Patrick’s Series of passages and to a second entrance to the cave in the cliffs above the cave building. From Bear Haven to the Cascade the work was comparatively easy but costly; handrails installed; electric cabling and lighting throughout; the pathway laid with Liscannor flagstones. This section then and now remains visually much as it appeared to Jacko McGann and the first explorers.
The tour route ended at the near side of the Cascade. All the evidence strongly suggested that the boulder fall was just blocking the way through into much more extensive series of caverns.
After a month of strenuous excavation the breakthrough was made on Midsummer’s Day 1977. Exploration and survey was quickly undertaken until progress was halted by the flooded passages in the furthest section of the system. Divers were called in and using sub-aqua equipment they tried to find a dry cave beyond. But to date they have not been successful.
It was decided to extend the show cave as far as the Highway as the most spectacular sections were beyond the blocked passage this meant a further 305m into the cave. Two massively expensive challenges faced the promoters, the Cascade Chamber had to be bridged and a safe, easy route through the boulder choke had to be found. This was eventually achieved by forcing a tunnel through the boulders. Metal rails were bent to follow the curve of the tunnel and the resultant arch covered with expanded metal. Then the walls and roof were plastered to make them waterproof. This narrow tunnel is the only “man made” section of the cave to date.
The first section of the cave was lit by electricity provided by a small generator. Now the demand was too great, E.S.B. supply was brought in, retaining the generator as an emergency alternative. The first section of the cave was brightly lit, but beyond Cascade Chamber the lights are purposely kept at a lower level to re-create the feeling of the cave as seen by the first explorers.
The river and lake at the far end of the cave providing the building with its own supply of pure cool water which is brought to the surface via a 1.5km long pipe which had to be dragged into the cave and laid.
In 1982 and 1983 the walls of the Highway were scaled some 20m high and 90m long. During this exploration a small wet rift was discovered. In 1988 this section was tackled again and the result, a stream way was diverted to provide a spectacular waterfall which has been on view since March 1989.
Exploration was again concentrated on St. Patrick’s Series which had been largely ignored while more challenging things were happening. In 1987 a narrow, tight passage was found leading away from the main apart of the cave, this was explored until roots growing into the passage indicated that the surface was near St. Bridget’s, so called because of the day it was first discovered, was enlarged from the outside, a track laid so that the debris could be brought out by mine cars. The passage was enlarged and excavated until it connected up through the Charnel House to the main section of the cave to act as an alternative exit.
Exploration and expansion is ongoing and in 1991 it was decided to create a circular tour. Marine Blast Company together with Nigel Barnes undertook the massive task of drilling and blasting through 255 metres of solid limestone linking the entire cave system together. Visitors are now able to take a circular tour which makes everything much more pleasant. To light this new section of cave tour it was felt that a hand-held torch would create the feeling of cave exploration.
In creating the new tunnel there were several mountains of rock to be disposed of. So the five thousand tonnes were put to use to create a vastly improved car park and a new road, leaving the area in front of the cave as a pedestrian area only.