Marble Arch Caves

For countless thousands of years the Marble Arch Caves lay undisturbed in inky black, primeval darkness, while the cave river eroded and dissolved away millions of tonnes of limestone to carve and shape the majestic cave passages.

Rank upon rank of stalactites grew slowly from the cave roof in pitch darkness where a person could spend a lifetime in the cave and never see their hand in front of their face.

Superstition and fear kept the caves free from visitors and complete darkness prevailed until 1895 when two intrepid explorers disturbed the silence and natural order of the caves, and the first beam of light pierced the blackness, breaking the long sleep of the Marble Arch Caves.

It was French cave explorer Edouard Alfred Martel, accompanied by a young Dublin born scientist named Lyster Jameson, who first ventured into the darkness of the cave in 1895 and they were totally amazed by what they found.  Martel was a highly experienced cave explorer and at that time was considered the world’s leading expert on caves.

Martel Portrait

Edouard Alfred Martel

The two companions, equipped with Martel’s American-made, collapsible, canvas canoe, set off into the unknown by candlelight.  Dark, eerie shadows flickered and shifted before them while the blackness stole back in behind them only to be dispelled by stark brilliance as they lit strips of magnesium in the largest chambers.  Light flooded these chambers, driving back the darkness and revealing their magnificent splendour to humans for the first time.

Hours later, the two explorers emerged back into the daylight.  Wet, cold and covered in mud but exhilarated by what they had seen, they were eager to tell of their adventures.  Martel was so impressed that he suggested the Marble Arch Caves would make a fine tourist showcave in his 1897 book Irlande et Cavernes Anglaises.

Martel's signature On Irlande Et Cavernes Anglaises

Martel’s Signature on his book ‘Irlande et Cavernes Anglaises’

Martel’s prophetic statement was not realised until 1985 when Fermanagh District Council opened part of the caves as a tourist attraction.  The popularity of the show cave was immediate and to date over 1.5 million visitors have taken a guided tour through what is a truly spectacular subterranean world.

Subtle electric lighting reveals hanging stalactites, translucent mineral veils and cascades of calcite.  One of the largest of these flowstones, the Porridge Pot, took 50,000 years to grow from slow drips from above.  Visitors follow Martel’s journey on foot and by boat along the silent cave river to land beside a sandy beach that has never seen sunlight.

Over one hundred years have passed since Marble Arch Caves were first explored.  A long time in human terms and while a person could live a long life into their old age it is but a mere blink in the colossal time span of the caves.  In truth one hundred years is barely enough time for a two metre long stalactite to add an extra millimetre to its length.

When Marble Arch Caves was opened as a tourist attraction by Fermanagh District Council, the attraction originally employed only a handful of staff.  However, due to its immediate success the facilities were quickly expanded to accommodate ever growing number of visitors. In 1998, the adjacent Cuilcagh Mountain Park was opened on the northern slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain, fulfilling a vital conservation responsibility for the endangered blanket bog, but also providing a welcome recreational resource, with safe access to the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain.  In 2001 Marble Arch Caves along with Cuilcagh Mountain Park were awarded European Geopark status and in 2004, Global Geopark status.  The Geopark has expanded substantially since 2001 and a significant expansion in 2008 saw the Geopark expand to include public lands in west Fermanagh and west Cavan making it the first cross-border Geopark anywhere in the world.  The story doesn’t end there with UNESCO officially endorsing the Global Geoparks program in 2015, and Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark currently includes over 40 sites and is continually developing a range of different sites.