How Irish revolutionaries used caves to hide people and weapons


Analysis: Guerrilla tactics during the War of Independence and Civil War included the use of caves as hiding places for fighters and weapons

By Marion Dowd, IT Sligo

The landscape of revolutionary Ireland stretched underground. At least 25 natural limestone caves scattered across Ireland have hid fugitives and hidden weapons during the War of Independence (January 1919-July 1921) and the Civil War (June 1922-May 1923). These caves were usually located in remote parts of the landscape, far from villages and homes. These caves were often only known to a privileged few and knowledge of their location was kept in the utmost secrecy.

Caves were ideal places to store weapons and ammunition. Caches of weapons that have been forgotten or never recovered have survived in caves, only to be discovered years or decades later. While exploring Pollnagollum, Co. Clare in 1925, caver Ernest Baker discovered a reserve of weapons. This section of Pollnagollum, Ireland’s longest cave at 10 miles, was later named ‘Gunman’s Cave’.

Jack Coleman, known as “the father of Irish caving”, made a similar discovery at Ovens Cave, Co. Cork in 1934. Inside one of the cave’s entrances, he came across a landfill dump. weapons concealed in a butter box, including a Lewis machine rifle and a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. The weapons had probably been hidden by the 3rd Battalion, Cork No. 1 Brigade, IRA which deployed a small flying column in this area during the War of Independence and the Civil War.

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From Sligo County Council, Dr Marion Dowd on Sligo Caves Archeology and Folklore

The records maintained by the Bureau of Military History provide other examples of the concealment of weapons in caves. Liam McMullan, IRA captain in Antrim, recalled that guns taken from an RIC barracks in Ballycastle were then hidden in a cave a few miles away in Fairhead. Lieutenant Thomas Hallahan documented that the IRA oiled and cleaned weapons in a coastal cave in Bunmahon, Co. Waterford and stored weapons there during the War of Independence.

Stories and memories about some of these hiding places are still in circulation today. In Sligo, a woman is remembered bringing tea to her husband while he was hiding in the “IRA Cave” on the slopes of Benbulbin Mountain. A coastal cave in Dunowen, Co. Cork is still remembered as a lair from the Revolutionary War; the inhabitants brought food to the men who were hiding there.

Cloghermore Cave, Co. Kerry is known as a place that was used to store ammunition and weapons during the Revolutionary War. The men who hid weapons there would not have known that the cave had been used for burial, possibly by a Viking group, a millennium earlier. Likewise, the IRA which used the caves of Keash, Co. Sligo probably did not know (or care!) That excavations in the caves 20 years earlier had recovered the bones of reindeer, arctic bear and lemmings.

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From Corey White Photography, exploring Keash Caves, Co Sligo which once housed bears, reindeer and wolves

The fear and anxiety felt by those hiding underground is palpable in some of the accounts recorded by the Bureau of Military History in the 1950s. Galway IRA officer Martin Fahy provided an overview also striking description: “We were in a cave in a solid rock on Capard Mountain two miles as the crow flies from Capard House and about two miles from my own house in Dunnally.

“Shortly after hearing the sound of the plane, we heard the voices of the British forces as they walked towards our hideout. We couldn’t make out anything they were saying. Crawling with soldiers.” we lay there and waited. The voices fell silent but we did not venture outside… We stayed in the cave until 6 pm that night when I crawled out and I goes around.

One can only imagine what the men went through during their confinement in this dark, humid and cramped space: it could not have been very pleasant.

Arguably the most successful hiding place of the Civil War was a cave in the Tormore Mountains of County Sligo, overlooking Lake Glencar, a cave notoriously hard to find. 34 IRA members hid in this cave for six weeks in 1922, successfully evading detection. A woman remembers her grandmother bringing tea and food to the men who were hiding there. The broken glass and broken dishes currently scattered on the cave floor probably relate to this period. One can only imagine what the men went through during their confinement in this dark, damp and cramped space: it couldn’t have been very pleasant.

Landowners sometimes faced consequences for allowing caves to be used on their property as hiding places. The Mitchelstown Cave in County Tipperary, the oldest commercial cave in the country – and the adjacent Old Desmond Cave, provided shelter for members of the Third Flying Column of the IRA’s Tipperary Brigade during the War of Independence. In retaliation, the house of the family who owned the cave was set on fire.


From Madra Rua, an excerpt from David Fox’s 1989 documentary Trouble the Calm with Slievawaddra teacher Mary Jo O’Connor reading on the siege of the Clashmealcon caves in Dorothy Macardle’s Tragedies of Kerry

The Clashmealcon Caves on the North Coast of Kerry are probably the best-known cave of the entire period. In 1923, Timothy ‘Aero’ Lyons and five IRA volunteers occupied the cave for three days and two nights, under siege by National Army troops. One night, two of the volunteers tried to escape but fell from the steep cliff and drowned.

The next morning, mines exploded in the cave, followed by gunfire and a grenade attack. Finally, Lyon surrendered. A rope was taken down from the cliff and he began to climb, but the rope snapped (or, according to some accounts, was deliberately cut), forcing the National Army troops to open fire and kill. Lyon. The three surviving volunteers surrendered and were subsequently executed. The Clashmealcon Cave event is considered one of the last acts of extreme violence of the Civil War.

Dr Marion Dowd is Senior Lecturer in Prehistoric Archeology at the Center for Environmental Research Innovation and Sustainability at the School of Science at IT Sligo. She is a former laureate of the Irish Research Council


The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ



Thelma J. Longworth

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