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Author: Patrick McCafferty
Present: Natalie Emmons, Patrick McCafferty, Steve Craig, James Armstrong, Amelia Seifert, Roisín Lindsay, Brenda Diamond, Ffion Bell, John McManus, Tony Furnell, John McShane, Aidan Gribbin, Shane Diamond, Stephen Read, Emma Ross.
The weekend started with us freshers being assigned to various drivers at the union. After a stop in Enniskillen for some grease-sodden food, the perfect aperitif for a night's drinking, and despite some unsettling navigational errors by our experienced Kapitan, we arrived in Boho Community Hall at the same time as about 100 locals. They'd clearly been told we were coming, and had arrived for the hooley. Though tempted to stay and join in the revelry, after listening to their music (the Worst of Irish Country) we escaped out the door. En route to the pub, I offered to show everyone the new naked-eye comet through binoculars but everyone except Amelia rushed to McKenzies.
We returned from the pub to find the locals had gone home. After a quick game of Twister, we played British Bulldog (the cause of every injury sustained over the weekend). To those unfamiliar with the rules, this was a cross between 'tag', 'red rover' and American football without a ball. Many members experienced what its like to be grappled and pulled to the floor. Somehow, I ended up with a carpet burn on my arm and on Monday, my glasses had to go to Specsavers.
We then used the hall's stage to play charades. Brenda was our helpful, though distracting, compère as we tried to mimic phrases such as "Alexander the Great", "Star Wars – the Wrath of Khan", and even the mis-spelt "The Enola Gray". Everyone proved to be models of propriety – and refused to display "Buckfast" with "sounds like 's...' or 'f...'".
At 5:00am, we began the snoring competition. This involved getting into a deep sleep while simultaneously constricting one's windpipe so that one's breath felt like it was in a tight squeeze in a cave – and complained loudly as it fought its way out of the lungs. Some snores were more interesting than others – and one unidentified body in the corner really sounded in pain while being strangled. All that was missing was David Attenburgh's voiceover: "here we've stumbled into the abode of the sleeping caver. Like bears, this territorial species uses its loud snores to warn off all others who might attempt to sleep in the same space."
The snoring ended with a hearty fry-up at noon. Then it was off to the underworld. Aidan led Brenda, James, JohnMcM, Roisín and myself into the Marble Arch showcave, up and down the bypass, along Legnabrocky Way, on our knees through the wet wriggle, up the mud-mound and far beyond. This was my first cave-trip – and I must say it was exhilarating. Part of this excitement came from the sheer beauty of the cave, the impressive size of the galleries and the variety and beauty of the formations (apparently dismissed as "pretties" by more hardened, aesthetically-numbed cavers). Each squeeze through tight, wet constricted passages felt worth it when we'd step into the larger space beyond. Of course, as a fresher, much of this exhilaration was also due to internal mental conflict. I was doing something that felt fundamentally, unnatural. Watching someone crouch beside a hole in the ground, disappear into it, and then be told "okay, you're next" felt about as sane as entering a toilet bowl with Ewan McGregor in "Trainspotting". Inside my mind, the sensible part of my brain kept reminding me that this was madness and repeated, "Go back now! Turn around!" But gradually, the curiosity-driven, adrenaline junkie in me shut the sensible part up, stifled its complaints, injected it with a sedative, and ushered me further into the dark depths. I felt I was becoming a caver.
When we returned to the surface, it was dark, and strangely scarier than the cave. A pair of bright eyes in the distance turned out to be a surprisingly tame fox-cub that sniffed around us as we changed out of our muddy clothes. We resisted the temptation to feed it with chocolate.
Meanwhile, John McShane had led Amelia, Ffion, Natalie, Shane, Steven and Tony through Boho Caves. They returned with that same glow of achievement, and stories of tight squeezes, amazing passages and Amelia's lost trousers, but most impressive of all, they had very kindly cooked dinner by the time we returned to the hall.
Saturday night involved another trip to the pub, except for Shane and Brenda who went off to Donegal and Aidan, who turned in for an unforgivably early night. Back in the community centre, all activity took place in the kitchen. Fat Tony demonstrated that an adult male human can fit through a 15.5cm gap if he takes off his trousers. I tried not to be too ashamed of needing a 23cm gap – even though I was informed that my rib cage contained cartilage and should be more flexible. That night, I slept well despite the volume of snoring in the main hall and I even had a vivid dream in which some of us had stumbled off the road on the way back from the pub, and then somehow, the dark sky overhead became the roof of a cave and we were inside a passage, while Natalie sang "in these shoes, I don't think so", Jock repeated, "Tony has lost us, Tony has lost us..." and Steven was sentenced to wandering back and forward, all night long.
On Sunday morning, the inaugural meeting of the reading group was held in the kitchen. The dilemma faced by the Medici of Florence – how to be a rich banker and a religious patron – was discussed, as was the contribution of bacillus anthracis to the superstition of fairy-forts. John McShane showed that it was possible to speed-read all of Süskind's "Perfume" in one morning (but also forgot to tell his girlfriend that he was no longer deep inside a cave). She rang later that morning and I made the major faux-pas of asking if she was his mother! I put all of this behaviour down to extreme fatigue.
After a late breakfast, we pulled on wetsuits and headed off again. Jock led Aidan, James, Steven, Tony and myself into Pollnagollum of the Boats. This involved a hairy descent in an unstable-looking boulder-choke into an amazing lake-filled passage. After swimming, wading and ducking our way to the end and back again, we climbed back to the surface – on a high because we were out in the evening sunshine, and on a greater high because of what we'd experienced underground. Jock then showed us the entrance to Bruce's Pot, Monastir Sink and Teampal Bán, and whetted our appetites for a return trip.
Meanwhile, John McM led Amelia, Emma, Ffion, and Roisín into Arch while John McShane and Natalie went back to Belfast. After a dinner of chilli con carne, and some frantic cleaning, we packed into a reduced number of cars and promised John McM we'd all go to his place to put away the gear. But, back in Belfast, Jock and Emma very kindly convinced me that there were enough others to help – and so I've ended up writing this instead to appease my guilt. It's really been an amazing weekend and I want to give a genuine big thank-you to everyone who helped organise this trip, who drove, cooked or cleaned, and who patiently encouraged myself and the other freshers. I also want to say a huge thank you to Roisín for lending me her knee-pads – and I hope your knees heal soon!!!!