Caves of Keash - a hidden gem of massive potential
The birthplace of Irish legend Cormac McAirt, former high king of Ireland, the Caves of Keash have a rich and ancient history. Now, locals are hoping the caves could prove key in the rebirth of the area.
With 20 tombs in total between Carrowkeel and Keash, the limestone karst area is both a hiker's and an Irish folklore enthusiast's dream.
According to local businessman Patrick Ward (pictured right), whose family took over the nearby pub, The Fox's Den in 2003, the area is not just a 'hidden gem' of Sligo, but of Ireland.
"People are very proud of the area. In winter we have great domestic tourism here and now we're just focused on highlighting this great place to people further afield," he explains.
Taking the pub over and facing into a recession, Patrick and his family had to look at ways to change the pub and move on. Fast forward to 2013 and a bright idea shone a light on the caves, literally. For St Patrick's Day that year the caves turned green, resulting in a huge boost in tourism. Always a favourable attraction among locals, the caves were still relatively underdeveloped until recently.
"There was no clear pathway and you had to go through bushes, thankfully Leader worked on getting a pathway. After we turned them green people started coming from all around and after that we launched a brochure for them," Patrick explained.
Ironically, Patrick says he used the caves to 'try and get out of a hole, in terms of reinvigorating the business in Keash.
"I could see the potential, but to try and build the brand and get people interested was the task."
Each year the trickle of tourists continued and last year the decision was made to convert a unit at the pub into an information point for both Carrowkeel and the caves, a decision which has proved fruitful. Last year, tourists from America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and many other countries made their way to the caves for a more 'undiscovered' side of Irish tourism.
"Last July I started doing guided tours to be professional and to have set times. It was a six week trial to see what we could do. We went at 10am and 2pm. Some days you hadn't enough people, but other days you had people from all over." In order to arm himself with as much information as possible for the tours, Patrick visited the National Museum in Dublin to view what had been found in these ancient caves, along with researching the history and mythology of the area. From this six week trial, the amateur tour guide discovered that tourists wanted to hear local knowledge.
"It's not just about the experience of the caves. They like to meet, have a conversation, hear a little bit about Ireland and the conversation could turn to anything when we're on the side of the mountain." Travel writers such as Megan Star and Yvonne Gordon have since given their stamp of approval for the attraction and input from Sligo Walks, Sligo County Council and Leader has meant that a keen interest in the location is being developed.
Off the well worn beaten track to the likes of the Cliffs of Moher, Patrick wants to tap into the uniqueness of the caves and invites people to, 'Discover the undiscovered' and he believes the caves have more to offer than the popular tourist haven in Clare. Speaking of discovering the undiscovered, last summer a further cave was uncovered at the back of the mountain, leading people to believe that there are many more hidden caves yet to be found in the area.
"You talk about the Cliffs of Moher but I think the caves are much better. You're looking down into the see at the cliffs. At the hike up to the caves, you've the history behind it. The caves are unique to Ireland and to Europe, you have to climb up to them to reach the pinnacle."
Referring to rural decline, Patrick is passionate in finding a remedy and cites tourism as a huge player.
"You couldn't ask to live in a more peaceful spot, but we're going to need extra people and tourism. Tourism is key in providing opportunities and providing employment."
Mr Ward also runs the nearby Coach House Hotel in Ballymote and hopes the caves will act as a draw in filling rooms and attracting people to stop by. "Tourism is helping the area, a lady I know has recently started going Airbnb and over the Christmas she had a man from Seattle stay while visiting the caves."
With a renewed energy starting off in 2019, Ward hopes to build on last year's successes. Though the trail is currently closed, the summer season of twice daily walks will be launched this May, with a monthly tour scheduled for Carrowkeel.
Patrick believes that some day, seeing coaches of tourists visiting the natural attraction will be commonplace and will bring with it more infrastructure and facilities.
"I can see campsites, glamping and more coming to the area."
Last summer was the first season Patrick and his family opened The Fox's Den in the morning and they aim to do the same this year.
"It's about keeping the place alive. There's a fear of losing a pub now in rural Ireland, and the community. If you can build trade in summer it will help keep you open in winter," Patrick concluded.