There are caves in the limestone areas of Ovens-Ballincollig. They were referred to by Charles Smith in his book History of Cork.
J.C. Coleman wrote an article for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Journal (1940) about these caves, entitled “The Ovens Cave, County Cork”. In this article, he refers to Dr Richard Caulfield, who visited the Ovens Cave in 1864 and states: “Dr Caulfield visited the Ovens Cave in 1864, and in his notes to Smith’s History of Cork, states that he and a Dr. Fox dug the cave floor in several places and found bones and vertebrae in sequence, some fixed in the stalagmite floor”. J. C. Coleman states also that some of the bones found in the cave (by Caulfield) were thought to be human.
However, in 1940, J.C. Coleman only found the remains of one red deer. J. C. Coleman made a survey of the caves (see below) and produced a map of them. He states that he could not substantiate claims in the History Of Cork that the caves went from Ovens to Carrigrohane and Gilabbey in Cork City. Quarrying has interfered with the caves so the full extent of them is unknown. There may be Ice Age remains which to date have not been discovered.
Jerry Aherne, speleologist has written the following article on his visit to the Ovens Caves, in his youth:
The Ovens Caves
By Jerry Aherne
It was a bright spring afternoon and I was in the company of one of my schoolmates as we cycled from Cork out to the Ovens Caves, a short trip of only eight miles. I was a member of the Cork City Library at the time and had borrowed a book from there called The Caves of Ireland written by J.C. Coleman. Leafing through the pages of this very fine book, I discovered that the caves were over two thousand feet in length. Inside were small caverns and passageways and it was stated, by the author, that in one of the caverns Mass used to be said in the Penal days, in secret, by priests on the run from the Red Coats.
Remembering back to that day, I was perhaps sixteen years of age, we had on our school uniforms, short pants, knee socks, skull cap and blazers. For illumination we had our bicycle torches and our fear of dark places as close companions. We found the entrance to be rather close to the ground and we crawled in a short way, until our eyes became used to the pitch darkness. After a couple of feet we were able to stand up straight. Something stirred close by and my friend turned and scampered out of the cave in an agitated state. I followed him out and as I stood up a startled fox stopped and looked back at us before continuing on at a fast trot. We reassured ourselves that if there was a fox in residence then there would be no one else within to cause us grief so we returned underground.
That day we spent over an hour underground exploring the cave. Shining our torches on stalactites, stalagmites, white as marble flowstone on the walls and floor, we were enthralled with our surroundings. We did not get to see all of the cave but we did find the Mass Rock Chamber where mass was said all those years ago. One long wall of the cavern had names written on it and someone had used a sharp piece of metal to carve their name and date on the wall. That name and date are lost to my memory now but it was sometime in the 1800’s. Leaving the cave that day two boys could be seen cycling back to Cork with mud caked knees, shoes elbows and faces. I got home and washed before my mother needed to ask where I had been.
Some years later when I was working in Roches Stores in the city I came across two people working there who, with a few of their friends, had formed an impromptu caving club and I was asked to join them on their explorations. Our first trip was back to the Ovens Caves on our bikes again and I fell in love with the whole experience.
Later we decided to start a proper caving club and in October 1968 we formed the Cork Speleological Group (CSP). Speleology is the fancy name for caving and potholing and we needed a fancy name for our group. The CSG grew, over the years, in both name and stature and in June 1970, after an article appeared in the Cork Evening Echo, about a man-made cave that was found by workmen in the Ovens area, I decided to call to the Echo offices in Academy street and tell them all about our club. I was introduced to the late Mr. Walter McGrath and he invited me to submit fortnightly articles for the paper. After our first article we received many applications from members of the public to join our club.
Our first member who was lucky enough to own a van was the late Brian Murphy and through him our horizons broadened allowing us to explore caves further afield. The only drawback with Brien’s van was the faulty exhaust leaking fumes in on top of us. That aside, we were able to drive in a little comfort, to places that were otherwise beyond our reach on mere bicycles.
We were instrumental in being founder members of the Speleological Union of Ireland and we had, through this organisation, contact with the Association for Adventure Sports (AFAS) and in this way we were able to access money to purchase potholing equipment like ladders, rope, helmets, caving lamps and so forth. We also affiliated our group to the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation and through them we trained to be experts in the event of there being someone trapped or lost in any of our local cave systems.
We extended our horizons and travelled to Clare and the lovely Burren where the caves and are much deeper and longer. In 1973, we discovered over 500 feet of new cave in the Mammoth Cave near Doneraile and subsequently one of our member’s, Kevin Walsh, discovered the tibia bone of a young woolly mammoth. This was taken to UCC the following morning and caused a lot of interest there. Subsequently the National Museum wrote to us to inform us that the tibia bone belonged to a juvenile woolly mammoth roaming the ice fields of north Cork during the last Great Ice Age, fourteen thousand years ago. It was probably killed by bears and dragged into the caves by hyenas and left there.
Members of our group went to foreign caves over the years in the Pyrenees and northern Canada. We continually toured the Ovens Caves over a period of ten years taking beginners out caving there. I will always remember my first exploration of these caves with great fondness. Alas, with the times that we now live in, the caves are no longer open. For fear of someone getting hurt or lost there, the owners of the land had them blocked up. As a showcave, the Ovens Caves would be a nice tourist attraction but in our current economic climate this venture could be a very long time in the making. Suffice to say the caves are still there hidden away, dripping water into deserted pools away from the prying eyes of humans. Perhaps the descendants of that fox that frightened us all those years ago still live there. Who knows?