August Donegal Trip Report

Inaugural Donegal Trip 24-26 August 2012

Cavers: Dave Murtagh, Thelma Cantlon, Stephen Brandon, Stephen Bourke, Petie Barry, Jack Healy and Des McNally.

Last Minute No-Shows: Shane Fitz and Becks Kelly. Tut tut.

Donegal isn't a county known for caves. If counties were cheeses, Fermanagh and Cavan would be a block of Swiss Edam and Donegal would be the crumbly Wensleydale arranged tastefully beside it awaiting consumption with crackers.

The only reason DIT cavers would have any truck with such a pathetically solid county would be if we were getting something for free up there. In this case it was my family's holiday home near Rossnowlagh. It was also my first go at organising a jaunt to the Wesht since being appointed Trip Officer in absentia at the AGM.

Stephen Brandon collected me from a house on the Navan road where I was helping with some renovations. This took some time as neither he nor Petie could see me or the fourteen foot floorboard I was holding when they rang to say they couldn't me. In their defence I texted them the wrong address.

Collecting some camera gear from my house turned into having dinner in my house, and by the time we were thanking my mam for a lovely meal and getting ready to go, Dave rang to say they were leaving and ask if we were past Navan yet. Oh, and they'd visited the gear shed but hadn't picked up an oversuit for Brandon. Cue a trip all the way back in to Grangegorman for El Presidenté while Petie and I did the food shopping.

Four hours later we arrived in Rossnowlagh just in time to nip out and enjoy a pint or three before closing time. We repaired to the house for banter, cans and toasties before bed.

Our first sortie of the weekend was Dermot and Gráinne's Cave in North Sligo. The lads made an attempt on it earlier in the year, but missed the entrance in thick fog. It was understandable, but embarrassing that DITCC couldn't find the largest cave entrance in Ireland. We were back to redeem ourselves. The slope up to the entrance is incredibly steep, such that for most of the altitude you have to clamber up on your hands. The last twenty metres or so are so sheer that hauling yourself up two tatty handlines is the only way to continue.

It was here that we disturbed a pair of sheep who clearly came up here with intent. That's the only way to explain it. As Petie was near the top of the first rope, he yelled at us to keep clear. The sheep were prancing across the scree and sending waves of rock tumbling down at us.

Don't even try to hike to the entrance of this cave without a helmet. There are just too many loose rocks ready to spoil your skull and the Sligo-Leitrim Mountain Rescue Team's day.

With many bellows of "Below!" we made it up and in. We reckon this is the cave RTÉ use for the famous "wholesome activities" ident that features caving.

Des and I went to great lengths to recreate the shot. Other photographic adventures included ten minutes of helping Petie get a slight green stain on a wall to show up on camera, and standing as still as possible while he tried to get some nice defined silhouettes in the daylight near the entrance.

Dermot and Gráinne's Cave is one of the dozens of spots around Ireland that features in the great love triangle of Gaelic myth's Fenian Cycle, Tóraíocht Dhiarmaida agus Gráinne. I haven't got around to hacking through the story myself, but they either hid from Fionn McCumhaill's enforcers in the cave or used it for trysts. Maybe both. The rubbish we removed included candle stubs and spent tea lights, so who knows? As well as doing a bit of a clean-up, we replaced one of the old pieces of tat at the entrance with some retired DIT static rope before returning to the house for a late lunch.

Next stop was Brownhall Demesne in Ballintra to visit the Pullans. That morning Petie, Brandon and I visited the owners to ask for access, and arranged that the landowner's son would show us the entrance around five. Jimmy was waiting for us when we arrived, sheepishly, at half past, and suggested we join them for tea after we were finished.

In classic style, I had forgotten to bring my wetsuit, so I braved the cave in a DITCC furry. I was expecting Whitefathers levels of shivering misery, but the Pullans were pleasantly cool. The roof teemed with spiders and river flowing through was about thigh-deep most of the time. We tramped through a few hundred metres of beautiful open canyon passage and roofed cave sections in the grey gloom of the forested evening.

Afterwards we drank Earl Grey in the conservatory of a refurbished Big House as the last flickers of a late August sun fell into the Atlantic behind the trees. Dinner was bangers and mash – Petie suggested a change from Spagbol as we shopped and I heartily concurred – and pints were had in the Smugglers Creek.

On Sunday morning we took the body boards (and my cousin's surfboard) off the heap of turf in the garage and went "surfing" on the calmest sea I have ever seen in my life. After an invigourating dip, we gave the house a clean and set off north to Glenties for Pollnapaste. This would be the only place Petie could hide from the thrashing Donegal would give Cork – not that he cares about GAA; I just think it's odd that we went in just before kickoff and came out well after.

Finding Pollnapaste was easy – we had a GPS fix on the entrance – but we had to fight our way through the mess of briars and hedge that had sprung up over the summer on the site of cleared forestry (new item of club kit needed: machetes).

It was a shame then that we chickened out at the last minute. We had only three SRT kits for the group of six, so we would have to go down in two groups. We didn't have slings to rig the entrance properly, so Dave had to set it up using bowlines and kit bags to protect the rope from the sharp edges of the stones. I got skittish.

"This chockstone moves when Dave's weight is on it," I said, "We should call it a day and use it as an excuse to come back to Donegal."

Jack and I made sure the rock didn't wiggle loose as Dave came back up by jamming our arses onto it – known in the trade as "being a meat anchor." We derigged and climbed back over the briars and heather, over the barbed wire and past the curious donkeys back to the cars.

Via a stopover in Omagh for pizza, we came home to Dublin as half of Donegal jammed up the northbound lane of the A5/N2 coming back from their Croker victory.

So, at full tiem did the Trip Officer do all right on his first attempt?

"That was the best weekend I've been on in a while," said Petie.

I'll call that a victory.

Lessons learned: Beware sheep; bring sugar cubes for the donkeys and your best manners for the landowners; always bring more slings; meat anchors are just dandy as field-expedient PPE and Guinness Black Lager is foul, foul stuff.

By: Stephen Bourke - Club Trips Officer

View the photos here