The Marble Arch Caves Geopark is in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.
The lower, limestone slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain boast large cave systems including Marble Arch Caves, one of the most significant caves in Britain and Ireland. These caves were first explored in 1895 by the famous French cave scientist Edouard Martel who lectured in Speleology at the Sorbonne in Paris.Fermanagh District Council developed Marble Arch Caves as a tourist cave in 1985 and they are now world-famous as one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions, having attracted 922,000 visitors from more than 100 countries.
The Cuilcagh shales and sandstones form wide benches around the summit where rainfall gathers into discrete, or discontinuous, streams and rivers that sink on meeting the limestones to form caves.
The vast majority of caves formed within the upper Dartry Limestone Formation, a complex group of different limestone types varying greatly in thickness and character reflecting increasing tectonic activity.These variations profoundly effect cave development and form although in the Geopark the mudbank limestone is clean, massively bedded and conducive to sizeable caves.
The lithology of the rocks influences Cuilcagh’s character.The contrast between the sandstones, shales and limestones produces marked differences in vegetation, geomorphology and hydrology.
At 668 metres, Cuilcagh is not a particularly high mountain but its northerly location allied to a temperate, Atlantic-maritime climate produces a mean annual rainfall of 1,500 millimetres.Exposed, elevated areas exceed 2,000 millimetres.
Three rivers drain the impermeable sandstones and shales before flowing on to the limestone.The rivers flow for some distance on the limestone before sinking underground to form caves such as Marble Arch Caves, a particularly fine cave displaying complex speleogenesis, beautiful speleothems and notable clastic sediments.
The tour of Marble Arch Caves is widely regarded as world-class and is one of few showcaves in the world where visitors see a mainstream cave containing a highly active river.
Marble Arch Caves opened in 1985 and operate on a seasonal basis, annually attracting some 50,000 visitors.In peak season 45 people are employed, equating to 22 full-time positions.Visitors to the caves generate considerable spending power in the region supporting jobs in service industries such as hotels, restaurants and shops.
Over the years Marble Arch Caves attracted international attention for their management approach to conservation, development, education and geotourism.This recognition culminated in 2001 when Marble Arch Caves and the Cuilcagh Mountain Park became the first European Geopark in the United Kingdom.
This is all a giant stride from Fermanagh’s first tentative steps into ecotourism and geoconservation at Marble Arch Caves in 1985.It is incredible how much has been achieved by providing quality geotourism through a policy of sustainable development linked to landscape protection.All helped, of course, by some forward planning, a few good friends and, maybe, a little touch of Irish charm.
Mr. Richard Watson
Fermanagh District Council
Marble Arch Caves European Geopark
Northern Ireland BT92 1EW
Telephone: 00442866 348855
Fax: 00442866 348928