Free family fun day at Marble Arch Caves to celebrate 30th anniversary

Published: 27th May 2015

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Marble Arch Caves to the public. To celebrate, the Marble Arch Caves is hosting a free family fun day on Sunday 31 May 2015 from 11.00 am to 5.00 pm. The free activities are funded by the INTERREG IVA Border Uplands Project which is managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.

Normal admission rates to the Showcaves apply.

Free activities include fossil hunting; backpack explorer activities; face painting; balloon modelling; story telling; bouncy castles; and much more!

The Showcaves were first opened to the public on 29 May 1985 by Fermanagh District Council following three years of work in the cave network.

Since then over 1.5 million visitors from more than 100 countries have visited the Marble Arch Caves to explore the million year old cave network and admire its grandeur and splendour. Fermanagh and Omagh District Council now manages the operation of the Marble Arch Caves.

Lying 94 metres below ground at its maximum depth, the caves were given their name by local people who believed the rock in the caves was marble, when in fact it is limestone.

Today, the Marble Arch Caves are the flagship site within the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, a status endorsed by UNESCO to recognise areas of special geological importance. The Marble Arch Caves were first awarded Geopark status in 2001. Since then the Geopark has expanded significantly, spanning from the northern shores of Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh to Lough Oughter in County Cavan, making it the first ever cross-border Global Geopark in the world. The Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark showcases some of the finest natural landscapes on the island of Ireland.

Chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, Councillor Thomas O’Reilly, said:

“The Marble Arch Caves offers locals and visitors alike a remarkable opportunity to explore the mystery of the world underneath us. The unique and diverse landscape of the Fermanagh and Omagh district is one of our greatest assets.

I would like to commend all those who have been involved in developing the Marble Arch Caves and later, the Global Geopark. Their role in protecting this area of geological importance whilst ensuring members of the public can experience and enjoy it in a sustainable way is valued.”

For further information on the 30th anniversary celebrations at the Marble Arch Caves, please telephone 028 6634 8855 or email mac@fermanaghomagh.com.

Background to Marble Arch Caves

Historical Exploration
People have known about the entrance of Marble Arch Caves for centuries but anybody entering the caves probably did not go very far because the rock floor of the cave soon gives way to deep water.

The earliest record of cave exploration at Marble Arch Caves dates back to 1735 when a Frenchman called De la Contayne went into the caves with a local man.

The first properly equipped exploration of Marble Arch Caves took place in July 1895 when Edouard Martel, a French cave scientist from the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, ventured into the caves with Lyster Jameson, who was an expert on bats and a member of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

Martel was a very experienced cave explorer who pioneered the scientific exploration of caves. He explored over 1,500 caves in his lifetime and, in many cases, he was the first person to explore them. Martel’s caving expeditions took him to a number of European countries including France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, England, Ireland, Russia and the United States of America.

Jameson and Martel wore tweed suits and woollen clothes, which was the normal outdoor wear of the time, to explore Marble Arch Caves and were fairly well prepared for their trip into the caves using equipment that Martel had shipped over from France including oil lanterns, hemp ropes and even a small collapsible canvas boat. Rowing along the cave river in their boat before getting out to clamber over boulders and wade along shallow streams, Martel and Jameson travelled about 600 metres (2,000 feet) into the caves. In the large chambers Martel lit strips of magnesium, which gave off a brilliant light enabling them to see the full splendour of the caves.

Martel was invited to explore Marble Arch Caves by the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen who lived on his family estates at nearby Florencecourt House and who was a keen amateur geologist specialising in collecting fossil fish.

On his way back to France, Martel stopped off briefly in Yorkshire where he was the first man to reach the bottom of the massive Gaping Ghyll, which is the largest cave in Great Britain. Martel’s achievement caused some dismay to members of the Yorkshire Ramblers a club for mountaineers who were considering an expedition into Gaping Ghyll around the same time and Martel’s feat prompted them to form a cave exploration section in their own club.

In 1904 Martel gave a lecture about his caving adventures to the Yorkshire Ramblers when he pointed out that there were major cave discoveries waiting to be made in Marble Arch Caves and under the limestone hills of Fermanagh. The Yorkshire Ramblers visited Fermanagh several times in the years leading up to the start of the First World War when many of them died fighting in the trenches.

A new generation of the Yorkshire Ramblers visited Marble Arch Caves in 1935 when they found their way into a huge unknown part of the caves , which now makes up a large portion of the show cave.

In 1897, Edouard Martel published the story of his travels to Ireland and England in a book called Irlande et Cavernes Anglaises where he pointed out that Marble Arch Caves was one of the best caves he had seen that contained a sizeable river. Martel suggested that the caves should be developed as a major tourist attraction. In 1985 the caves were first opened to the public as a show cave by Fermanagh District Council.

Opening of the Marble Arch Caves
Nowadays, thousands of people enjoy a tour of Marble Caves every year. They learn about how caves formed and get an idea of the obstacles faced by Martel and Jameson when they were the first people to explore the caves.

Visitors to the show cave also hear a little of the story of how the caves were developed in the early 1980s to open them up to the public but can only get a limited idea of the challenges faced by the engineers and workmen who carried out the work.

Working for three years using cap lamps and wading along the cave rivers in the darkness of the caves, the workmen laid concrete paths and jetties and also erected foot bridges and safety railings throughout the caves. Electricians installed many kilometres of electric cables and over a hundred lights in the caves while other technicians installed sophisticated water level monitors and an underground telephone system.

The engineers in charge of the work were responsible for planning the show cave route through the caves and, perhaps their single biggest challenge, was to accurately plot the starting point of the land surface above the caves where bore holes were drilled through 60 metres (195 feet) of rock to emerge in the cave passages. The bore holes were needed to pump in the concrete for the showcave paths or to bring in electric cables for the cave lighting.

In those days before the invention of modern computerised mapping devices, the precise location of each borehole had to be carefully plotted using traditional theodolites and other surveying equipment. Any miscalculation may have resulted in the borehole missing the cave passages altogether or, worse, emerging in the wrong place and destroying some of the irreplaceable cave features.

Fermanagh District Council opened the Marble Arch Caves to the public on the 29 May 1985. The caves were immediately popular with visitors. Thirty years later that popularity continues with people coming from near and far to enjoy the cave tour.

Marble Arch Caves – Facts and Figures
• Local people living in the Marlbank area many years ago believed the rock in the caves was Marble, hence the name Marble Arch Caves. The rock was in fact limestone.
• At 7 miles (11.5 kilometres) Marble Arch Caves are the longest cave system in Northern Ireland.
• The Marble Arch Caves are estimated to be at least one million years old.
• The caves are still growing today but these colossal time periods are hard for people to imagine. Human time has little meaning in the Marble Arch Caves where a stalactite hanging from the cave roof may take more than 100 years to add just one millimetre to its length.
• The cave river emerges from the largest cave resurgence in Ireland. In flood, it has a discharge volume of up to 10 cubic metres or 10 tons of water per second.
• Due to being formed by rivers running close to the surface, Marble Arch Caves are not particularly deep, reaching a maximum depth of 94 metres (305 feet).
• Although, the bones of two pre-historic people have been found in part of the Marble Arch Caves, it is unlikely that people ever lived in the caves. Most likely, their remains were washed into the cave by the river after they died elsewhere.
• Between them, the three boats in Marble Arch Caves have travelled around 33,750 miles (54,000 kilometres) along the cave river since 1985.
• Between 1985 and 2015, over 1,500,000 people have visited Marble Arch Caves from more than 100 different countries.
• On average between 55,000 – 60,000 people visit the Marble Arch Caves every year.

Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark – the Wider Area
UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation)-endorsed Geopark status was first awarded to the Marble Arch Caves and adjoining Cuilcagh Mountain Park in 2001 and since then the Geopark has expanded rapidly from these two original sites. In 2007 and 2008, the Geopark underwent two phases of expansion firstly, into the public lands of West Fermanagh and secondly into West Cavan. This expansion meant that the Geopark was not only one of the largest Global Geoparks in the world but, also the first ever cross-border Global Geopark. The Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark now stretches across various sites from the northern shores of Lower Lough Erne in County Fermanagh to Lough Oughter in County Cavan. The Geopark showcases some of the finest natural landscapes on the island of Ireland and offers a window into the area’s 895 million year past.

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