Shannon cave break-through
28 / 05 / 2005

Trip members: Stephen McCullagh (Bus), Les Brown, Ronan O Ceallachain and Stephen Macnamara (Muh)
Time: 6 hours
By: Stephen McCullagh

After a surprisingly leisurely start, Wetherspoons the purveyors of cheap fries having been visited earlier; we finally decided to go down Polltullyard for what must have been our fifteenth digging trip of the last 9 months.

The aim of the trip was to get some photos, take some video footage of the dig and to recce what we intended to do next. It was already decided that the dig was still a long-term prospect and as such no digging was planned for that day. Stevemuh, the fourth member of our group texted us confirming he would be down a bit later than expected and the fifth member, Sean Magee, having gone AWOL in Belfast. So Les, Ronan and I headed down to the dig site.

The first plan was to check out the flake that was stuck in the middle of the passageway with the intention being that Ronan, Irish student squeeze champion 2005, was to wriggle past the flake and then for me to help him, if possible, manoeuvre it out of the way. Hence, we could all investigate the parallel passageway spotted in the trip two weeks previous. For the people who haven't seen the passageway the flake is in, it is smaller than crucifixion crawl in Noone's hole - not somewhere for pie eaters and such like.

Ronan as expected squeezed past the flake and after a few seconds we both realised that the flake was not the insurmountable object of a few weeks previous and I contorted myself past it into the larger parallel passageway. Within a matter of seconds it was realised that it continued back around a corner and kept going. Shouting back that the passageway goes, Les squeezed through quickly. Keeping exploration fever in check we chose to wait for Stevemuh, it being only fair. To idle away the time we figured a bit of videoing and photographing was required. After half an hour, with no sign of muh, we pushed on into the unknown videoing as we went. On the ground we started noticing signs of disturbed mud. Keeping the excitement in check we pushed forward through a couple of small chambers following the draft. After 20m a blockage was encountered and we had lost the draft - maybe the scuff marks were nothing and it was all in our imagination. Ronan pushed a small squeeze to the left and I pushed a squeeze up into a boulder choke. Finding that they both headed in the same general direction Ronan went first. I didn't want to knock the loose boulders I was climbing over on top of him! The passageway went round a corner and opened up. From there the sound of rushing water suggested we had made it - Shannon cave. For a final confirmation, the point where Tim Fogg had taken a photo of the terminal boulder choke, having entered from the now collapsed Pollahune entrance many years ago, was found and re-photographed.

There it was after 9 months of hard digging through hanging death, at least 9 meters of boulders filled mud, and 1 meter of rock we had made it*. Upstream JCP passageway, Shannon cave, last entered maybe 11 years earlier, was rediscovered.

Regaining our scruples we pushed back through the connection to find Stevemuh; he had missed the discovery but we wanted to make sure he was there for the 'romp' down the streamway. Finding him just beyond the entrance pitch I continued back to the hastily named Re-Birth canal. Where the following cryptic conversation was had;

Stevobus "Do you know where we are?"
Stevemuh "At the scaffolding in the dig"
Stevobus "No, do you know where we are?"
Stevemuh "What!"
Stevobus "We're now in the entrance series of Shannon cave"
Stevemuh "What!"
Stevobus "Steve, we've just broken through"
Stevemuh "You have? OK I've just told a few of the other lot to follow me down"
Stevobus "Well you better tell them to turn round - just say 'it's a bit dodgy and I'll see you on the other side"

Stevemuh caught up with us on the other side to an impromptu cheer; he had hastily made up an explanation to the others regarding unstable scaffolding and pulled a few boulders across the passageway to make the dig look 'dodgy'. Although it sounded a bit over the top, we believed this was the correct decision as it was only fair that the other people who had put a lot of work into the digging effort were informed first.

The upper end of JCP passageway was a stream passageway unlike any other passageway in Co. Fermanagh or for that matter, as we had just crossed the border, Co. Cavan. Following the stream, within minutes we encountered the first of the formations - all pristine with many helictites - very close to the through-fare. Although Shannon cave was open for a number of years it's reputation for boulder collapses and the fact that most of the pushing trips were downstream, upstream JCP passageway was rarely visited. Now this part of the cave is set to become the main 'trade' route in and out of the system - a conservation nightmare. The 'best' path through this area was ascertained so that taping may minimise any damage in the future.

Down through a number of unstable boulder chokes and a sump by-pass we finally came to a point where no further progress could be had. We were quite tired at this point as continuous route-finding was taking a lot out of us; a conservation and surveying trip the next day passed that point but was halted a few meters later by a small boulder collapse. Later, reading the survey we found that we had only gone a quarter of the way through the system!

Turning back we found our way quickly back to the entrance pitch to find another group of Irish cavers ascending the pitch. We mumbled a story about running out of scaffolding and we prussicked out of the cave into the sunshine.

*The list of diggers over the previous 9 months;
Ash (TCD), John G (TCD), John M (DCU), Ronan (DIT), Steph (DCU), Mark (QUBCC),Eoghan Mullen (QUBCC) Stevie (QUBCC), Stevo (QUBCC), OZ Williams, Les Brown and Elena di Barcelona (QUBCC)