Into the Depths of the Grand Cave, Runkerry

"Don't be afraid, sir: never has an accident happened in any one of these boats, and the most delicate ladies has rode in them on rougher days than this. Now, boys, pull to the big cave. That, sir, is 660 yards in length, though some says it goes for miles inland, where the people sleeping in their houses hear the waters roaring under them."
The Irish Sketch Book
William Makepeace Thackeray, 1845

Pull up a seat. This is biggest journey on my cave project to date and I have quite a story to tell. A journey into this legendary cavern is not for the faint hearted and my story comes to you after 9 months of planning and a day to remember on the exposed Runkerry headland. Before I begin, I would like to express my gratitude to my climbing guide for the day, Iain Miller. I could not have photographed this cave without Iain's unflinching coolness at a time when I was almost going to pieces. Thanks also to Cathal Donnelly for being our eye in the sky and taking some remarkable photographs from the clifftop.

Let us begin....

With four chapters now complete, it was finally time to turn my attention to the biggest sea cave on the Irish coast. The Grand Cave of Dunkerry on the Runkerry headland is accessible only by sea. It is approximately 100 feet high at its entrance and, if the legends hold true, it runs for miles inland. At the time of this adventure, in 2008, a photo of the interior had never been published.

A search through the old texts threw up some remarkable material relating to this mythical cavern. Dunkerry appears to have been one of the top tourist attractions on the north coast in the 1800s. However, today all the expert boatmen of Portnaboe and Runkerry are gone and this cavern remains off limits to the casual tripper.

Where yon dark shadowy rocks embower the wave,
Scooped in their mural height Dunkerry's cave,
As Fion's grot sublime, its arms extends,
And o'er the flood its dome high-arching bends:
A crimson zone its emerald walls surrounds,
Far, far within the hollow, surge resounds;
Borne through the cliffs contracting sides we hear
Its echoes roll, where skiff ne'er dared to steer.

The Giant's Causeway: A Poem
Rev. William Hamilton, 1811

As I approached the interior, the cave grew wider: we came to immense arched galleries, where the waves were tossing boisterously to and fro. The base of the rock was of a reddish hue, the sides black as ebony, and the arch partly green, partly white. Before me was a vista of more than seven hundred feet in length; but the passage afterwards took another direction, and its issue is not known. One of my boatmen had a gun, which he discharged beneath the vaulted arch ; the report was terrible, the sub-terraneous echo repeated it seven or eight times, and I quitted the cavern in the highest state of excitement.
The Three Kingdoms: England, Scotland, Ireland
Charles Victor P. Arlincourt Published 1844

The Century Magazine
Published 1890

It was W.H.Bartlett's 1842 etching of the Dunkerry cave interior that provided the major inspiration for my plans. W.H.Bartlett was prone to some artistic exaggeration. Nevertheless, this haunting etching was fascinating to me with its awesome sense of scale, depth and atmosphere. If I could come close with a photograph, I knew it would be worth the effort (and risk) involved.

The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, Published 1842

In 2008, after many months of planning, I assembled a small team to make an attempt at getting inside the cave of Dunkerry. The trick, however, was not only to get inside but also to haul camera gear and the tripod up onto a ledge within the cave to take the photographs.

When you see Runkerry Cave you will have had an experience by which you may value all the sea-caves you encounter all your life afterwards.
Round Our North Corner
George A, Birmingham & Forbes Patterson, c1930

At 8am on the 21st of June, 2008, our small team gathered in the Giant's Causeway carpark. Joining me was Iain Miller from Iain is an experienced sea stack climber from the Island of Orkney. In 2004, as part of a 4 man team, Iain made a first ascent of an epic 1500 foot climb up the vertical sea cliffs of Hoy. I was in good hands. Also with us was Cathal Donnelly, our clifftop lookout and photographic reporter. A quick "good morning" and it was down to business.

First the gear was sorted. Ropes, climbing hardwear, wetsuits, helmets, headtorches, tripods, cameras and of course, our fine sailing vessel. It's not often that a £40 dinghy from Lidl supermarket gets a chance to venture inside Ireland's largest marine cave, but it got Iain's seal of approval. So off we trotted along the clifftop with our backbreaking load.

Having already seen the cave from the clifftop, I had an idea of what was in store. As Iain first caught sight of the massive entrance, I could see the excitement building in him and he carefully scanned around the cave for the best approach. The best way, I was assured, was a sea level traverse to reach a 100 yard channel in front of the cave, at which point we could launch the boat.

After lowering all our gear a few hundred yards east of the cave, we followed down on a short abseil. Down by the waters edge we noted that the sea wasn't exactly flat calm. The traverse itself took some time and a particularly difficult section needed a safety rope in place. The rope came in handy too because on this section a few big swells came up and over us. Hanging like a limpet, I could feel the enormous power of the swell prising my fingers away from the rock.

Onwards we went, ferrying the huge load of gear in relays through the swell. Finally we got to a terrifying looking corner at the entrance to the channel and we made preparations to set sail into the darkness. One final key preparation was the placement of an indestructible anchor point onto which we attached our static rope that would be used to haul the boat back from the abyss.

The launch of the Dunkerry Dinghy
Photo reproduced by kind permission © Cathal Donnelly.

Iain had first go at being captain. The six foot breaking swell near the rocks made the launch a little tricky so Iain chose a flying launch over it. Bang !! The boat hit the water and Iain paddled like mad. Meanwhile, I payed out the rope and was alone in my terrified thoughts.

"What if the rope runs out? Do I cut it like in "Touching the Void" or do I tie it up and call out David Hasselhoff? Perhaps if I pull it all back in I'll find nothing but a pair of empty boxer shorts on the end." A bellow !!! "Has he fallen in or was that a shout of triumph?"

Thankfully, the boat came back into view with Iain still on it and we were ready for our tandem sail. Thanks to Iain's efforts in the cave we now had a continuous line to haul us into the cave with all the camera gear and haul ourselves back out with the photograph. And haul we did. Hauling down the rollercoaster ride on the swells of the channel, down into the darkness, down into the depths of Dunkerry.

Into the depths
Photo reproduced by kind permission © Cathal Donnelly.

In we went. Our attention was drawn up to the immense roof, 100 feet above. Up in the arches we spotted the cormorants and razorbills that have made their home in the high places of this gorgeous cathedral. Then we looked down the immense tunnel of perfect blackness and awe was overtaken by fear once again (at least for me). Off in the distance we could hear the subterranean rumbling of the sea as it crashed into the deep places that we dared not go.

A tiny high ledge exists 50m into the cave, this being the only place where a tripod can be set up. With Iain carefully steadying the boat I got up and out. With some difficulty, I climbed the 8 feet up onto the tiny ledge with my camera and tripod. At this point we decided not to hang around to admire the view. I quickly set up, fired a test exposure and fired off a series of 4 exposures which I would later merge into the final image. In one final exposure I got Iain to reverse back to the mouth of the cave (don't leave me Iain!!) to take a version with him in it. Done.

Then the cave anchors were dis-assembled and it was back onto the boat quicksmart. We hauled again on the line as we took one final ride on Neptunes very own rollercoaster back down the channel.

Hauling out
Photo reproduced by kind permission © Cathal Donnelly.

Back at the launch point I made an undignified landing and I was back on dry land. Meanwhile Iain stayed on the boat to make one final victory salute to the great cave. What a man.

Victory !!
Photo reproduced by kind permission © Cathal Donnelly.

The voyage was complete. Not only had we entered the grandest cavern of the north coast, but we had also returned with life, limb and camera intact. We had got our photograph of the great cathedral of stone. Although my photograph may never compete with the artistic drama of Bartlett's original etching, I hope it gives you an idea of the scale and wonder of one of Ireland's most secret places.

The Grand Cave, Dunkerry
© Andy McInroy

We did this by the texbook (pausing)........ if the textbook existed.
Iain Miller, June 2008

Shortly after we returned from photographing Dunkerry cave, our story made national newspaper headlines.

Chapter List
1. The Ghost of Cathedral Cave
2. Portcoon Cave
3. Mermaid's Cave
4. The Stalactite Cave of Larrybane
5. Into the Depths of the Grand Cave, Runkerry
6. The Caves of Rathlin Island and the Hunt for Bruce's Cave
7. The Caves of Prehistoric Man, Whitepark Bay