Proudly ‘Minding’ Doolin’s World Wonder
While many local businesses love the ownership that comes with running your own company, John and Helen Browne of Doolin Cave have a slightly different take on their professional passion. For several decades this local family has dedicated itself with love and commitment as ‘caretakers’ of North Clare’s incredible Doolin Cave and its mighty Great Stalactite: developing it into one of Ireland’s premier attractions.
“The Great Stalactite is a 350-million-year-old natural wonder and Europe’s largest stalactite. You don’t ‘own’ that! We may be the Cave proprietors, but we rather see our role as ‘minding’ a valuable and important miracle of nature and sharing its beauty with the world. We are custodians – here to care for the Cave and preserve it for generations to come. Work doesn’t get more satisfying than that!” says Helen Browne.
A STORY OF LOVE AND CARE
The history of Doolin Cave is one of exploration and discovery and of the incredible power of nature. The Great Stalactite was formed when ONE drop of water kept falling over hundreds of thousands of years to form one mighty, breath-taking wonder. In the 1990s, 40 years after its discovery, the Cave was mainly enjoyed by visiting potholers, but The Browne family was determined to celebrate the wonder of Doolin and bring it into the public eye. John and Helen purchased the Cave and the surrounding land and set about carefully and respectfully developing it for the world to enjoy.
Due to the delicate nature of the Great Stalactite, special care was taken to ensure the minimal amount of environmental disturbance. This meant the tunnels that were built during the Cave excavation were painstakingly dug out by hand, rather than with the use of explosives. The Cave was also enlarged so it could be open to the public, using the slow and laborious ‘plug and feather’ method of tunnelling. To protect the Great Stalactite, John and Helen had sensor equipment installed by Hull University in the UK – to protect its delicate structure from any erosion.
The project was a massive but rewarding labour of love, and John and Helen opened Doolin Cave to visitors in 2006. Then, in 2010 a dedicated visitor centre was added to the site.
Today, the Cave is one of the most important eco-tourism attractions in Ireland. Measuring 6.725 metres (23 feet) in length, it is a truly authentic, natural experience that amazes and delights all who visit. For environmental reasons, numbers are limited to 20 per visit, with a cap of a total of 55,000 visitors each year.
A CHANCE DISCOVERY
Long before the Browne family, Doolin Cave remained hidden until its chance discovery in 1952. This has always resonated with the Brownes:
“Doolin Cave shows us how elusive nature can be, unseen for so long. It’s been such an honour to bring this hidden beauty to life,” says John.
How exactly was the Cave discovered? A group of 12 explorers from the Craven Hill Potholing Club in North Yorkshire, UK, arrived in the small North Clare town of Lisdoonvarna. Named the ‘Whitsuntide Expedition’ because of the timing of their arrival, the group was eager for an adventure exploring the undocumented underworld of the Burren.
On the Whit Sunday, two of the men – Brian Varley and JM Dickenson – broke from the group to explore a cliff face. As they walked across the limestone pavements, they noticed a small stream that seemed to disappear beneath the large cliff. They followed the water, pulled back some boulders and dug their way into a narrow passageway. After crawling for about 500 metres, they arrived at the main chamber of the Cave and circled the great hall with their lamps. Slowly, the light picked out the mighty stalactite – over 30 feet in length and set majestically in the very centre of the Cave. The explorers described this epic moment in time:
“We tip-toed to the bottom of the chamber, not daring to speak lest the vibration of the first voices ever to sound in this hall since the beginning of time should cause it to shatter.”
A TRUE FAMILY BUSINESS
Helen and John have dedicated themselves to proudly sharing Doolin Cave with visitors from near and far – a huge responsibility and reward in equal measure. In running the business, they are supported by their two daughters – Jennie who oversees operations, and Caireann who is the creator of the exclusive and much-loved Doolin Cave Pottery.
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