The Dunmore Cave - Our most important heritage gem?

A seemingly “never ending” silver twined cone chosen to portray Ireland of the 10th century; a visit from the populist author of his time, Sir Walter Scott and a possible hide-out of the four times wed, Dame Alice Kyteler at Dunmore Cave ties in well with a cat like monster slain there by a Kilkenny female chieftain. And The Big Fella left instructions on its use while ancient tribes had forts here (two have been ploughed over and one remains un-excavated). Their presence led to a shocking Viking massacre chronicled in the annals of the Four Masters. The remains of many women and children have been found there and carbon dating has confirmed that the age of the bodies coincide with the dates in the annals.

A seemingly “never ending” silver twined cone chosen to portray Ireland of the 10th century; a visit from the populist author of his time, Sir Walter Scott and a possible hide-out of the four times wed, Dame Alice Kyteler at Dunmore Cave ties in well with a cat like monster slain there by a Kilkenny female chieftain. And The Big Fella left instructions on its use while ancient tribes had forts here (two have been ploughed over and one remains un-excavated). Their presence led to a shocking Viking massacre chronicled in the annals of the Four Masters. The remains of many women and children have been found there and carbon dating has confirmed that the age of the bodies coincide with the dates in the annals.

Dunmore Cave is as good as it gets when it come to history, archaeology and explaining our past and yet it never seems to get the recognition it deserves.

All that changed for a short while in 1999 when it made the international headlines. A conscientious worker, still in situ, was cleaning up after tourists when he shone his torch over the terrain to see if there was any rubbish lying around. A shiny object caught his eye and showing the calibre of the man, within a second of seeing what lay before him, he secured the site and his actions afterwards saved a find of global status.

Within months, the archaeological world was in a tizzy and with good reason. Forget about the silver and bronze pieces and other fragments found, it was the presence of something totally unexpected that turned heads. It was the hint of a very expensive, rich purple coloured dye used in a dress to which was attached a number of silver cones that made the headlines.

It turned out to be Byzantine in origin and all of a sudden we are sailing to that place with Yeats, through his poem of the same name. More of that later.

Dunmore Cave, which boasts the largest stalagmite in Ireland (6.5 metres), remains under-valued and has not been celebrated for its importance and of course the finds here should be returned to the centre which blends into the landscape.

The following words were written about Dunmore Cave in the Dublin Penny Journal of September 1, 1832: “And this is the regal fairy hall; and the peasants say that when the myriad crystallisations that hang about are, on a gala evening, illuminated and when the for-ever falling raindrops sparkle in the fairy light, the scene becomes too dazzling for mortal life.”

The reason for such a whimsical description might be because of the lack of light.

The Fairy Hall remains and it is said that the reason there are no stones from the partially collapsed ceiling above is because the fairies removed them to allow dancing to go ahead. At least that’s what the enchanting Michael Keogh told me on my tour there last week.

Located just six and a half miles from Kilkenny city, Dunmore is by far the most historically significant cave on the island of Ireland, With strong links to our Celtic mythology; scene of the massacre of 1,000 children and women; reputed to be the hiding place of Dame Alice Kyteler, who was accused and sentenced to death for witchcraft in the 14th century but escaped. It is claimed that she remained in the cave until she was smuggled to New Ross to board a boat which we believe, took her to England.

And Michael Collins sent some of his men into the cave in 1919 to check if it was suitable as a hideout and if there was another way out in case they were pursued by the Crown Forces. In his memoirs, the late Judge James J. Comerford of the New York State High Court said he was sent there by Collins to check out the place as a possible hide-out for volunteers. He, Bobby Shore and five others went in with candles and when he came out, he said he had come across a large number of skeletons under a grey glass case. What in fact he saw were wet, grey stalagmites which in the light of a penny candle probably looked glassy grey.

The real jigsaw that is Dunmore Cave has never been put together - until now.

The massacre at Dunmore in 928 AD is written about in the Annals of the Four Masters and while the Dublin based Vikings killed all the men, they then went to the cave and those they could not get out were burned out while any youngsters they got were sold as slaves in Dublin.

However, the most salacious testament of what happed in Dunmore comes from the Book of Leinster compiled in 1160. A fierce Amazonian type warrior, Aithbel, killed a the cat like monster called the Luchtigern in the cave. She also killed the Fomorian tribe we learn from the book and she burned the “seven wild men” and also scattered the black fleet and hunted the red hag and drowned her in the nearby River Barrow.

We are also indebted to Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe, Waverly and Woodstock (not Inistioge). His son-in-law gave this account of his trip to Dunmore in August 1825: “Next morning we all went to the cave at Dunmore which is vast without dignity, and dangerous without terror - a black, slippery, dirty hole.”

Today it is a visitor centre, excellently run and with temperature 9 degrees centigrade all year round, it is never cold or warm. As you go down the steps, the landscape changes and within a minute there is no growth and you enter another world. Some of the stalagmites look like the creature from The Alien film and with carefully placed lighting it is absolutely breathtaking and pity there is no longer access to the blue pool in an inner chamber (The Crystal Hall) only reachable by sliding down the narrow entrance on your belly.

It is more than a rumour that there is another even larger chamber behind one of the existing ones and we may never know because official access doesn’t look like being approved anytime soon.

We were told that the cave opened up after the ceiling collapsed 3,500 years ago after acid strengthened rain water got through the cracks and caused the cracks to grow until such time as they could no longer hold up the huge limestone slabs. Michael Keogh told us that a farmer came out one morning to check on two goats and found them at the bottom of what was described as a yawning chasm. Since then it has been used regularly but never as a place of residence like the caves structures in Southern France.

Geologically the visitor centre is important. On your way down, there are several levels and each is covered by the dominant material of that time. There is so much to take in that you should take your time and treasure each step back in time. To appreciate this hidden gem you have to take the tour and you have to give yourself a half an hour to enjoy all the exhibits.

But it is the chance find at the cave in 1999 when a man cleaning up, shone a light on a particular part of the cave and saw something shining and when he went to inspect it, he found 43 silver and bronze items. The hoard was dated by several coins minted at York, in the North of England to around 970 AD. It consisted of hack silver and ingots as well as conical buttons made of fine silver wire woven expertly to form their present shape. The richness of the hoard which had been concealed in a rocky cleft deep in the cave and the fact that it was never returned to, hints that a personal tragedy overcame its owner.

He or she had pushed the belongings up the cleft and after 1,000 years it dropped to the ground and thankfully it was found by someone of exemplary character.

The importance of this find cannot be underestimated. A cone of woven silver thread is simply delicious and it is slightly bigger than an old penny piece. Last year, The Irish Times newspaper named it as one of 100 objects in the history of Ireland. It has three separate strands of silver, each composed of between 15 and 18 wires and thanks to the expertise of the craftsman, probably based in Dublin it is difficult to know where one ends and others start.

However, the huge international furore over the 1999 find did not concentrate on the silver but the remains of a dress and the dye used in it.

The silver coins dated from 970, some 40 years after the great slaughter at Dunmore. The smaller cones in the hoard have parallels in Viking burials on the Isle of Man.

What were the cones for? Found with them was a border of silver wire to which they seem originally to have been attached. More exciting was a small, unpromising-looking remnant of textile that turned out to be, of all things, very fine silk. It seems that this was a fabulous dress with a silver wire border and cones that functioned either as tassels or as buttons. The silk itself was more valuable than all the silver ornaments put together. It had come, almost certainly, from either the Byzantine empire or the Arab world. The dye used to colour it was either red or purple and used by only the wealthiest.

If it was the latter, the dress was truly amazing: purple dye was breathtakingly expensive. Either way, the woman who wore this dress must have made a dazzling spectacle. For the display of female wealth and status in 10th century western Europe, glamour doesn’t get much more fabulous than this. Who was this woman and where did she come from? I doubt if she was from Dunmore, Muckalee, Comer or the City but from some far-off land, it’s more romantic and exciting to think that it was a foreigner dressed in the finest of Viking style?

All we know is that someone had a dress worth a king’s ransom, shoved it in a crack in a cave in a moment of panic and never got to come back for it.

We know from Andy Higgins in the National Museum of Ireland that the jewellery was north African silver wire. Exhaustive research found that the dye is obtained from the purple murex snail which is only found on the north coast of Africa. It took several thousand snails to produce enough dye for a garment. Also found were a buckle and strap-end from a long-decayed leather belt, possibly worn over the beautiful murex coloured garment and this buckle would have been mounted with the silver ornaments found. Were the coins, ingots and other objects wrapped in this garment and tied up with the belt, before being hidden in a crevice in the cave? Who knows, Dunmore might throw up some other secrets in the future.

Some people, no matter how much they try to deflect from themselves, have a way of making life a little brighter. One of the great team at Dunmore is Michael Keogh, tour guide extraordinaire who has a fascination with Kilkenny history and in particular with Dunmore Caves.

On the day that student James Lahart and I visited there last week, he had a bus load of extremely well behaved transition year students from Presentation College, Carlow for a tour and they were captivated. It was a mesmerising hour or so in his company and at the end of the tour, he took out his tin whistle and played that haunting Gaelic melody. An Coolin.

At 70 years of age, he went down the 352 steps and back up again with the dash of a much younger man. Long may he continue and what a jewel he has been for the last eight years, Failte Ireland should have him giving classes on how to give a tour. We also thank him for his enormous help in putting this piece together.