Dunmore Caves

Dearc Fhearna


Useful Information

photography
The entrance of Dunmore Cave from the surface. You see the path at the wall of the doline. (© Mathias J. Duckeck)
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The entrance of Dunmore Cave from the surface. You see the path at the wall of the doline. (© Mathias J. Duckeck)
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The entrance of Dunmore Cave from the bottom of the slope. (© Mathias J. Duckeck)
Location: Mothel, Ballyfoyle, Castlecomer Road, Kilkenny R95 A972.
11 km north of Kilkenny on the Castlecomer Road. Follow N78 for 10 km, then turn right at the sign. Signposted.
(52.7338455, -7.2465609)
Open: All year Wed-Sun, Bank Holidays 10-17:30, last admission 16.
[2024]
Fee: Adults EUR 5, Children EUR 3, Students EUR 3, Seniors EUR 4, Family EUR 13.
Groups (20+): Adults EUR 4.
[2024]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: L=400 m, VR=45 m.
Guided tours: D=60 min, St=700.
Photography: Not allowed.
Accessibility: No, long entrance staircase.
Bibliography: George Berkeley (1706): Description of the Cave of Dunmore. In Alexander Campbell Fraser, Works of George Berkeley IV. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901. pp. 73-84. jstor archive.org
P. (1832): Cave of Dunmore (Kilkenny). Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 10, 01-SEP-1832, pp. 73-74. online jstor DOI
Arthur Wynne Foot (1878): An account of a visit to the cave of Dunmore, Co. Kilkenny, with some remarks on human remains found therein, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 4 (Dublin) I: 65-94. archive.org
N. J. Dunnington, J. C. Coleman (1950): Dunmore Cave, Co. Kilkenny, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section B: Biological, Geological, and Chemical Science Vol. 53 (1950/1951), pp. 15-24 (10 pages) Published By: Royal Irish Academy. jstor
John Christopher Coleman (1965): The Caves of Ireland. Tralee, Co. Kerry: Anvil Press. pp. 14-16.
R. Lloyd Praeger (1918): Derc-Ferna: The Cave of Dunmore. The Irish Naturalist, Vol 27 (10/11), pp 148–158. ISSN 2009-2598. jstor archive.org
Address: Dunmore Caves, Castlecomer Rd., Ballyfoyle, County Kilkenny, Tel: +353-56-776-7726. E-mail: contact
Debbie Burke, Visitor Services, Tel: +353-1-6476593. E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

928 a viking massacre happens in the cave, as an old chronicle tells.
1706 first archaeological report by bishop George Berkeley.
1709 explored by Dr. Thomas Molyneux.
1869 archaeological visit to the cave by physician Arthur Wynne Foot, Rev. James Graves and Peter Burtchaell.
1901 Prof. Haddon, Prof. H. J. Seymour, J. N. Halbert, and R. Lloyd Praeger explore the cave, the bones, the cave fauna, but fail with a survey.
1940/1941 explored and surveyed by N. J. Dunnington and E. Dunne.
JUN-1944 geological examination by N. J. Dunnington and J. C. Coleman.
1944 designated a National Monument by the Commissioners of Public Works.
1967 formation of a Development Committee for the cave, begin of development.
1967 opened to the public.
1973 the bones of 44 people where found in the cave.
1996 more human bones discovered.
1999 hoard of 43 silver and bronze items discovered by a cave guide.
APR-2000 closed for an archaeological dig after a guide found some coins, probably dating back to the massacre of 928.
2003 reopened.
2023 reopened to the public.

Description

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The Market cross, one of the largest formations of the cave.
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Some speleothems. (© Mathias J. Duckeck)

Dunmore Cave is located on the Castlecomer plateau, overlooking the Dinin River Valley. In this area a small and isolated limestone outcrop of Lower Carboniferous (Viséan) limestone of the Clogrenan Formation exists. Quite interesting is the lack of contact karst features like swallow holes, also no other caves were discovered in the area. N. J. Dunnington guess this was a result of the last Ice Age, during which the limestone was covered by ice, and entrances to possible other caves were obscured by ground moraine. Dunmore Cave is the only cave of significance known in southeast Ireland. The entrance is 12 m wide and 6 m high, lying at the bottom of a 20 m deep pit, a so-called Karstcollapse doline where the roof of the cave collapsed thousands of years ago. Most of the cave is horizontal and has two different levels. Many chambers in the cave are the product of roof collapse along lines of weakness in the rock. The name is believed to originate from Irish Dún Mór, which translates great fort.

In 1967 a Development Committee for the cave was formed, mainly through the enthusiasm of archaeologist and speleologist J. C. Coleman. A visitor centre and site museum were built and the cave surroundings were landscaped. Stairs and walkways and an extensive lighting system were installed inside. The tour requires a little physical fitness, as the trail has 700 stairs, most of them on the descent from the surface to the level of the main passage. The largest dripstone pillar of the cave, the so-called Market Cross, is over 5 m high and 1.3 m across. According to cave guide lore, this is the place where, according to legend, Luchtigern - the Lord of the Mice - was slaughtered. The calcite deposits in this chamber, called the Town Hall, are very pure as indicated by their whiteness.

The area near the entrance shows an interesting zonation of vegetation due to the great changes in environment. On the way down the staircase, the common flowering plants of the area are gradually replaced by ferns, then by liverworts and then by green algae on the rocks. Within the entrance itself, only a few algae and fungi are present. The interior of the cave is virtually devoid of plant life, except lampenflora around the lamps. Since man visits the cave, a white fungus has sprung up in several places, obtaining its nourishment from spots of candle grease.

At one time, the cave supported a large bat colony, but nowadays bats are only to be found in the remote recesses of the cave. In some parts of the cave, bat skeletons encrusted with calcite flowstone have been found.

Dunmore Cave was an important site during the Middle Ages, a hideout during Viking raids. As a result, the cave is since 1940 in the care of the Commissioners of Public Works as a National Monument because of its historic interest. In the Irish Annals the cave was called Dearc Fearna (Cave of the Alders). It is mentioned numerous times.

Gothfrith, grandson of Ímar, with the foreigners of Áth Cliath, razed Derc Ferna—something unheard of from ancient times.
Annals of Innisfallen

The besieging of Derc Ferna and its taking in which one thousand men die.
Chronicon Scotorum

Gofraith, ua h-Iomhair, co n-Gallaibh Atha Cliath, do thoghail & do orgain Derce Fearna, airm in ro marbhadh míle do dhaoinibh an bhliadhain-si, amhail as-berar isin rann,
Naoi c-céd bliadhain gan doghra,
a h-ocht fichet non-dearbha,
o do-luidh Criost dár c-cobhair
co toghail Derce Ferna.
Godfrey, grandson of Imhar, with the foreigners of Ath-cliath, demolished and plundered Dearc Fearna, where one thousand persons were killed in this year, as is stated in this quatrain:
Nine hundred years without sorrow, twenty-eight, it has been proved,
Since Christ came to our relief, to the plundering of Dearc-Fearna.
Annals of the Four Masters, 17th century

The huge, imposing entrance has been known for centuries, the slope allowed the locals to climb down and enter the cave. It seems the people in the Middle Ages were not exceptionally fearful of the cave, they regularly used it as a hideout. But later caves were regarded with dread and awe as being entrances to Hell. There were numerous legends around the caves. In early Irish legend, Dunmore Cave is associated with a monster cat named Banghaisgidheach. In the Book of Leinster the amazon warrior Aithbel overcame the cat monster of Luchtigern.

An interesting reference to the cave occurs in Broccan's Poem in the "Book of Leinster" : — Ro shaltair for in luchthigern i ndorus derci Ferna : the full passage in English reads as follows : —
Aithbel, she was a jewel of a woman, mother of Ercoil, the wife of Midgna,
Who killed the ten Fomorians in the strand at Tonn Chlidna,
Who burned the seven wild men in the glen at Sliabh Eibhlenn,
Who scattered the black fleet against which the men of Ireland failed,
Who hunted the red hag that drowned her in the midst of the Barrow,
Who trampled on the luchthigern in the door of Derc Ferna.

The luchthigern, "lord of the mice", which this formidable person treated so badly, was a gigantic cat that lived in the Cave of Dunmore, and of whose prowess wonderful tales are told ; a Sabre-toothed Tiger could scarcely have been more terrible.
R. Lloyd Praeger (1918): Derc-Ferna: The Cave of Dunmore. The Irish Naturalist, Vol 27 (10/11), pp 148–158. archive.org

Dunmore Cave is described in folklore as the mouth of a huge beast, with ten thousand teeth above his head and as many under his feet. Another legend tells there was a tunnel that connected the caves with the center of Kilkenny city. It was used for escape in times when the city was under attack. It never existed, this is simply a SmileFar Connection Cave Legend. Those legends exist all over the world, and not one single of those tunnels was ever found.

From the eighteenth century onwards a number of visitors, including scientists and historians, explored the cave and have published reports. The earliest was an essay from bishop George Berkeley about a visit that he made to the cave as a boy. It included archaeological details, was dated 1706, but was not published until 1871. The physician Arthur Wynne Foot, Rev. James Graves and Peter Burtchaell visited the cave in 1869. This was actually an archaeological exploration, and they discovered large quantities of human remains, which they collected. Foot meticulously documented his findings. The geological and historical aspects of the cave have been further explored, making it one of the best documented caves in Europe.

Remains found at Dunmore include coins and human bones. The old chronicles tell about a tragedy around AD 928, when more than 1000 people were killed seeking refuge underground from marauding vikings. In 1973 the bones of 44 people, mostly women, children and elderly folk, were found in the cave. Most people seem to connect those two facts, but actually there were not 1,000 dead people, only 44. And the annals tell about "one thousand men die", the found remains were women, children and elderly. Nevertheless, it is obvious that they were seeking refuge in the cave, and were somehow killed. It is unclear how they died, whether they were slaughtered or, as some suspect, suffocated when the Vikings tried to smoke them out. In 1996, human bones of two more persons were discovered in another part of the cave, a woman and a newborn child or foetus. It is not clear if they are related to the 44 others, only a small part of the bones were found, and it was impossible to reconstruct their fate. So there is actually no legend or historic document explaining the actual archaeological discoveries.

Soon after, in 1999, a tour guide who cleaned the cave around the tour path, found a viking treasure of coins and woven silver buttons. The hoard was concealed in a rocky cleft. It consisted of 43 silver and bronze items which were dated by several coins minted in the North of England to around 970 AD. Someone obviously hid his valuables here in the cave, but was not able to retrieve them later, most likely because he was dead. This treasure was so astonishing, it was even mentioned in a documentary called The Ultimate Ten Amazing Treasures of The Learning Channel in the U.S.A. Immediately the cave was closed for archaeological work. This time was used for general reconstruction of the show cave. The Visitor Centre was extended and a roof was built over the stairs to protect visitors from falling rocks from the cliff face. This is certainly a sensible safety measure, although there has never been a corresponding incident. After the dig and the renovation, the cave was reopened in 2003.