CLARE COUNTY Council yesterday granted planning permission for the construction of a visitor centre to serve the Pol an Ionain cave in Doolin in spite of stiff opposition from An Taisce, Ailwee Caves, the Pol an Ionain Action Group and the Speleological Union of Ireland (SUI).
Three years ago, owners John and Helen Browne opened the cave to the public after a 16-year struggle to realise their dream of showing the 23ft Pol an Ionain stalactite to the world. However, in lodging the plans, the Brownes said the attraction would not be viable without on-site facilities – currently visitors are bussed to the site from Doolin. Now, the Brownes have secured permission for a centre, a 30-space car park and a bus bay at the site.
The council gave the plan the go-ahead after Dr Maria McNamara, a geologist it employed to examine the application, found “it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which the proposed development works will impact negatively upon the physical stability of the Great Stal”. In her report, Dr McNamara wrote: “The roof of the chamber housing the Great Stal is 35m below ground level and at a lateral distance of 150m from the proposed development site.” She was “satisfied with the conclusions of Prof John Gunn – one of the world’s leading experts in cave science – regarding the impact of the proposed development on the cave and the Great Stal in particular, ie that the risk of negative impact is negligible”.
The planner in the case said: “While I consider that tourist facilities should be located within settlements, I feel in this instance that it would be appropriate to have such a facility adjacent to the tourism product, in this instance being the cave.” Precedent of visitor centres being permitted to tourism sites in the north Clare area include the Cliffs of Moher, the Michael Cusack centre, the Ailwee caves and the Caherconnell stone fort.
Yesterday, Ms Browne said: “We’re delighted. We deserve the same chance as everyone else.