A Cross-Border Geopark that leads the World

A Note from the Next Door Neighbours (71)  – July 2012

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!

Andy Pollak

  • Andy,
    Very interesting post, I’m gonna get this out of the way fast so, “his extensive cave system was formed some 330 million years”
    Are you sure?…. (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

  • innis

    The limestones that host MAC formed 330 Million Years ago. The caves are old, but nowhere near that old. One calcite flowstone in the cave has been dated at 76,000 years old but obviously the cavity into which it grew has to be much, much older.

  • DT123

    As long as it doesn’t get in the way of the fracking, it sounds like a good idea.

  • banfrackingni

    Fracking is a potentially serious threat to this area as it has proved incompatible with tourism and farming elsewhere in the world. Please sign and share. Thanks. http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/northern-ireland-no-fracking-required-here/signatures.html

  • Reader

    banfrackingni: Fracking is a potentially serious threat to this area as it has proved incompatible with tourism and farming elsewhere in the world. Please sign and share. Thanks.
    You might want to remove jimmy riddle from the list. And Viviane Tits has signed 6 times on 6 different dates.
    By the way – I see the site has 8544 facebook recommendations and 4108 signatures so far. Why would someone do one but not the other?

  • Pete Baker


    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.

    Well, certainly “a world-class natural attraction”.

    But, as I noted at the time, the significance of the 2009 launch was Unesco’s endorsement of “the first Geopark in the world to cross an international border“.

    As you note, the Marble Arch Caves themselves had previously been designated as a Global Geopark, “the first UNESCO-endorsed geopark in the United Kingdom, and one of the first eight in Europe”, along with Cuilcagh Mountain Park. But according to Unesco that was in 2004.

    Wikipedia potted history – their references no longer exist.

    The two areas became one of the first European Geoparks in 2001 and gained the status of Global Geopark in 2004 following the Madonie Agreement between UNESCO and the European Geoparks Network. In 2007 the Geopark was extended to cover many thousands of hectares of afforested upland to the north west of Cuilcagh Mountain and in September 2008 it became the world’s first transnational Geopark in the European and Global Geoparks Networks as it was extended across the international border into County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland.

  • SK

    Jesus Pete, you to tell me there’s a border on the island? How come you’ve never mentioned it before??

  • Mister_Joe

    For those who haven’t visited the Marble Arch Caves, it’s a great visit; I highly recommend it. I’ve been twice.

  • Urgent! Important Early Christian Crannog in Fermanagh in danger of destruction – help needed! People are definetly starting to take notice! One of Irish Heritage members has been invited to talk on the Good Morning Ulster show on BBC Ulster tomorrow morning to explain about the site and the cultural value of what is threatened.

  • Pete

    Wikipedia is just plain wrong. I interviewed the manager of Marble Arch Caves, Richard Watson (in post since 1985), and the dates I use are the dates he gave me.


  • Pete Baker


    Well, the dates on Wiki match the 2004 date on the Unesco site for Global Geopark status.

    And it seems quite specific about the European Geoparks and subsequent Madonie Agreement.

    Perhaps Richard Watson was being a bit economical with the actualité?