A group of workmen pictured working on the canal at Pollinagollum.

The unique story of a Mayo canal

OVER a year ago my colleague Johnny Mee, in his Auld Stock column here in The Connaught Telegraph, wrote about the canal that runs from Saleen Lake to Lough Lannagh, entering the lake at the Lough Lannagh loop car park, writes Tom Gillespie.

As a youngster I was always scared to peer over the walls into the deep canal on either side of the road into Creagh Villa, the Gillespie ancestral home, on the Westport Road - now the Lough Lannagh Holiday Village.

Most days during the summer I cycled to Creagh Villa and spent many happy hours climbing the trees surrounding the house and in the extensive orchard, now a car park, which ran down to the canal.

We were always warned to stay well back from the cavernous canal for fear of falling in.

The walls on the bridge over the canal were high, compared to our height, the tops of which were lined with barbed wire.

Nevertheless, the temptation was always too much and we had to stand on our bikes to peek in. It was particularly rewarding if the river beneath was in full flood.

Even today to look down into the canal sends a shiver up my back and yet every time I pass it I must look over both walls and wonder how the canal was ever dug out.

Johnny Mee enlightened our readers that workmen dug out the canal using spades and shovels.

When they reached Creagh Villa they encountered huge sheets of rock, as can be seen in the photograph. Undaunted, the workers laboured under the worst possible conditions, slowly hacking their way with sledge hammers through the tough rock face.

Johnny told us the area is known as Pollinagollum and the workers were paid 1/6d a day, starting at 7 a.m. and often working on until 8 p.m.

I must admit I never in all the years heard it called Pollinagollum but when I Googled it I discovered why it was so named.

At over 16 kilometres (9.9 miles) in length, Pollnagollum is the longest cave in Ireland and the third deepest cave in the State. The system, located in The Burren, Co. Clare, primarily consists of winding stream passages which interconnect in various ways, offering a great variety of through trips. The cave is usually entered via the Pollnagollum entrance, with the main streamway encountered a short distance inside.

The main streamway continues for most of the length of the cave, with several smaller inlets entering along its length. Near the southern end of the cave the 30-metre (98-foot) Poulelva pot is encountered; the two entrances are often used for through-trips.

Much of the water in the cave is fed from the sinks of Upper Pollnagollum, at the point where surface water runs off the shale bedrock and sinks into the permeable limestone.

The terminus of the cave is a low bedding plane which eventually becomes too low to progress. The water resurges at the Killaney rising to the south of the cave.

The first known exploration of the cave was by T.J. Westropp in 1880, venturing as far as the Main Junction, but it was not until the 20th century that serious exploration began.

E.A. Baker undertook the first systematic exploration of the cave in 1912 and returned in 1925. During the 1925 trip, Baker carried out a partial survey. In 1935 the Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club recorded the first descent of Poulelva. In 1944 the Royal Irish Academy published a major survey and article by J.C. Coleman and N.J. Dunnington.

In 1952 cavers from the RAF discovered Branch Passage Gallery and in 1953 they connected it to the rest of the cave. A full survey was carried out in the 1960s by the University of Bristol Spelaeological, by which time 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) of cave had been discovered. The survey has been kept up to date by the society as cavers continue to add to its length to this day.

Pollnagollum is one of the most popular and most visited caves in the country for cavers, and is often done as a beginners' trip.

But getting back to the Castlebar Pollinagollum at the entrance to the Lough Lannagh Village, it is worth viewing. If you take the pathway to the right, the original tree-lined entrance to Creagh Villa, with the ‘orchard’ to the right, you can see how daunting the deep canal was to youngsters in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Back then Creagh Villa was a working farm with poultry, cattle, sheep and pigs, and was almost self-sufficient. As youngsters we helped my uncles, Bernie, Tommy and Alfie Gillespie, save the hay from McCormack’s field at the end of Cavendish Lane and along by the town river. We had no mechanical aids then, just the pitch fork and hay rake. It was hard work but rewarding in what were long, hot summers. The hay had to be turned, cocked, tied down with sugans (hay ropes), covered and transported to a barn in the back yard at Creagh Villa.

Plentiful blisters were our rewards.