The Stalactite Cave of Larrybane

Beneath the limestone cliffs of Larrybane there is an unusual sea cave. It is located some 20 feet above the high water line and was formed shortly after the last ice age when the sea levels were much higher than they are today. Its present position above the reach of the destructive power of the sea has allowed some wonderful karst features to develop inside, including some fine pillars, stalactites and stalagmites.

The cave was first surveyed in 1895 by a visiting French cave scientist named Édouard-Alfred Martel, now considered to be the father of modern speleology. Around the same time, the interior was photographed by the famous local photographer and naturalist, Robert John Welch. I have now been able to source his old photograph from the Ulster Museum Picture Library. As you read further and compare the two photographs it is worth bearing in mind that, before my own visit, I had no idea that this old photograph even existed.

Stalactite Cave of Larrybane by Robert J. Welch c1890
Photograph reproduced courtesy the Trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland

After photographing some massive caverns during the course of this project, I was not put off by the geological reports that indicated a depth of only a few meters. As it turned out, the geological interest and wonderful outlook made up for that.

The Stalactite Cave is located in the middle of Larrybane bay, not far from the popular Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. I visited this curious cave on a fine March afternoon and after a short scramble over the jumbled boulders around the cliff base, the cave mouth came into view. It looked very mysterious from the outside and I almost expected some goblin to jump out at me from its grotto. In fact, something did jump out at me, but thankfully it was just some startled pigeons.

Inside the dripping interior I was treated to a wonderful display of rock architecture. In addition to the huge stalactites and stalagmites at the entrance, I discovered more delicate versions within as well as curious tufa ridges on the walls. I set my tripod up towards the back of the cave and switched to a super wide angle lens to cover as much of the entrance as I could. I also decided to use the rock opening as a natural frame for Sheep Island in the distance. Again, a series of exposures were chosen to capture the huge range of contrast within the cave. These were later merged into the high dynamic range (HDR) image you see below.

Stalactite Cave, Larrybane, Carrick-a-Rede
© Andy McInroy

By comparing the two photographs you can see that Robert Welch and I chose to stand in the same spot and to take practically the same photograph. This would have been a minor irritation to me but for the fact that we were separated by 118 years and could hardly have got in each others way. It is incredible to see how the stalactites have hardly changed, yet the march of technology in that same time has allowed me to capture the scene in a new crystal clarity.

I am very pleased that this new photograph adds a new dimension to my project. The cave is modest in size yet this is perhaps the most intricate of the photos to date. It really shows the variety of geology on offer in these caverns of Antrim and the huge range of natural processes that have gone into shaping them.

Update - June 2009

I have discovered a paper written in 1896 by cave scientist, Édouard-Alfred Martel, in an old French journal, 'La Nature'. In his report is this beautiful etching of the entrance to Stalactite Cave. The etching is apparently based on an original photograph and also appears in his famous book 'Irlande et cavernes anglaises' which was published the following year.

Stalactite Cave Entrance 1896
La Nature, 1896
In a paper written by Édouard-Alfred Martel

Stalactite Cave Entrance 2009
Taken to match Martel's view
© Andy McInroy

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