Fermanagh in the 1980s didn’t have much going for it. A remote place – in European, British and Irish terms – with a declining agricultural sector and a small inflow of tourists, largely for the boating on Lough Erne, and the seemingly endless misery of the Northern Irish conflict making both everyday life and economic activity enormously problematic.
Sometime in the early years of that horrible decade a small group of visionary people in Fermanagh Council – led by chief executive Gerry Burns and director of tourism John Crichton – came up with an idea to promote a different kind of tourism in the county. 90 years earlier a French cave explorer, Edouard Martel, and a young Irish scientist, Lyster Jameson, had discovered the Marble Arch Caves, south of Enniskillen and north of Cuilcagh Mountain on the border with Cavan. This extensive cave system was formed some 330 million years ago during the Carboniferous geological period out of the fossil-rich limestone caused by the accumulation of mud at the bottom of the tropical sea which then covered Ireland. Its spectacular galleries, often following fast-flowing underground rivers, contain a marvellous array of stalactites, translucent mineral veils and cascades of calcite.
The Fermanagh Council group were well ahead of their time in wanting to make Marble Arch Caves the centre of a new kind of sustainable and educational tourism in north-west Ireland. In 1985 the caves were opened to the public and started to attract a growing stream of visitors, helped by an attractive and well-fitted out visitor centre. In 1998 the adjoining Cuilcagh Mountain Park was opened, fulfilling a vital conservation function as a place where a large concentration of endangered blanket bog – among the most unspoilt in Ireland – could be preserved.
In 2000 Richard Watson, the Caves manager (who has been in charge since the beginning), took a call from a geologist in the Geological Survey of Ireland, John Morris, who had been active in cross-border activities with his counterparts in the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland. Morris had heard about a seminar in Spain to discuss the new concept of ‘geoparks’, which he told Watson was ‘exactly what you’re doing at Marble Arch’. The concept was the identification, preservation and sensitive development of areas with a geological heritage of international significance where that heritage would be used to support local communities through sustainable tourism.
In the following year Marble Arch Caves became the first UNESCO-endorsed geopark in the United Kingdom, and one of the first eight in Europe. In 2007 Cavan County Council (where a good part of Cuilcagh and its mountain surroundings are situated) said it would like to join Fermanagh Council in applying to the UNESCO-endorsed ‘Global Geoparks Network’ for recognition for an expanded cross-border geopark, which would be the first of its kind in the world.
The expanded geopark was launched in the following year and has been managed as one unit since then. It is run by a Joint Operational Committee made up of councillors from the two councils and a joint Geopark Management Team led by Watson and Cavan area engineer Derry Scanlan. There is a joint development plan, joint projects (usually EU funded) and joint marketing and education programmes.
The geopark – endorsed by UNESCO as a ‘Global Geopark’ because of its international significance – stretches 50 miles from Lower Lough Erne near the Donegal Border to just north of Cavan town. It has overcome the potential problem of farmers’ property rights by choosing to base itself around scores of ‘serial sites’ – ranging from hundreds of hectares (much of this owned by the Northern Ireland Forest Service) to a single acre (such as the ‘Shannon Pot’ where the River Shannon rises) – rather than extensive national park-style public ownership. It has been visited by people from all over the world, including from China, where they have taken to geoparks in a big way and now run 26 out of the 88 in existence (and where Marble Arch has recently twinned with a geopark in Hong Kong); and from Slovakia and Hungary, Germany and Poland, where they have followed the Irish example and set up cross-border geoparks. Around 300,000 visitors now visit the geopark annually, of whom 60,000 take the guided tour of Marble Arch Caves.
The geopark’s latest project – with support from EU INTERREG funding – is to develop the wonderful Cavan Burren site, one of the best preserved megalithic burial sites in Ireland (and possibly in Europe), which because of its remote, border location and forested surroundings is virtually unknown outside the immediate vicinity. ‘This will be a truly iconic site in the future, which Irish people will come to value as an important part of their national heritage,’ says Richard Watson.
The cross-border success story which is the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark has not gone unnoticed elsewhere in Ireland. A few years ago the International Centre for Local and Regional Development – the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ ‘sister’ spatial planning body – featured Marble Arch as a case study of local authority cross-border cooperation in a research study aimed at identifying models of successful cooperation that Newry and Mourne and Louth councils might follow. This fed not only into an unprecedented Memorandum of Understanding between the two councils, but also a successful £1.7 million funding application to the EU INTERREG programme which will allow the councils, under the auspices of the East Border Region Committee, to develop a parallel Mournes, Cooley, Ring of Gullion cross-border geo-tourism project. How about that for the power of a good example!