Aillwee Caves has been unlocking the secrets of the Burren underground since its first cave tour began in July of 1976.
A resource of education for the beautiful natural landscape, Aillwee Caves prides itself on sustaining careers and brining business to North Clare. Acting Managing Director Nuala Mulqueeney talks to The Clare Echo about the rich history and enterprising evolution of a second generation family run business, how Covid-19 has impacted the day to day running of the caves and of how the North Clare facility holds community and the loyalty of intergenerational family visitors near and dear to its heart.
Nuala’s father Michael, a teacher by trade, later became an original director and shareholder of the company. After meeting Roger Johnson, a mining engineer, they decided to set up a co-op in Kilfenora to bring the tourism industry to North Clare. Both men encountered a hydrologist from Trinity College who was familiar with the Aillwee Caves system, armed with the knowledge that it does not flood so easily. Nuala quips that although the trio all brought something different to the table, they were the perfect mix.
Since 1976, the Aillwee Caves has seen the building of an award-winning Access building built into the landscape. In 1985, Aillwee Caves began to champion their own cheese making factory, with produce sold on site in various flavours. The idea was to allow people to stay longer on site. Diarmuid, the cheesemaker, is a multi-talented man, tells Nuala, a shining example of flexibility that is required to survive in rural Ireland. In essence, a man of many hats.
Next up, was Santa’s Workshop which is now on its twentieth anniversary and Nuala feels that this really cements the Aillwee Caves as an all year-round attraction. Finally, the Birds of Prey Centre opened its door in 2008 and now houses thirty-five different birds, a mixture of owls, hawks and vultures. Nuala remarks the Birds of Prey Centre as a real hit with all generations, something that really brings the whole family together.
COVID-19 prompted a 14 week cancellation at the Caves. “It was a very lonesome place. A place that would ordinarily have been very welcoming to the public at that stage. There was myself here and the falconers. We had the birds well groomed, well fed and well cleaned. They don’t just go into storage. There was just a small team here for the fourteen weeks. We are delighted that we are open. It’s not the same. We are working and welcoming our visitors alongside Covid-19. Our Access building has been emptied to uphold the logistics of our cave tours. Our cave tours have been halved from 30 to fifteen to allow for two metres between groups. We can keep the tours flowing in one direction with an entrance and exit. We have lots of hand sanitizing stations throughout the buildings. We have asked people to wear face coverings. It is going well. Like everything, if you take a lead, people are grateful, comfortable and safe and get to enjoy their well-deserved holidays.”
Aillwee Caves prides itself on sustaining careers in the local community. A total of 35 full time staff are now back working on the twenty-six-acre site. Normally, this would double in the busy season and Nuala tells of one hundred and ten elves that take up residence alongside Santa during the winter months. Sustaining careers has always been part of our ethos here at Aillwee Caves, tells Nuala and it pays dividends, with other businesses in North Clare able to rely on Aillwee Caves to give people a good time. Like most businesses this summer, Nuala is missing out on international visitors, however; unlike many places which are heavily, if not solely reliant on foreign travel into the country, Aillwee Caves has maintained a 48 per cent domestic visitor rating and a 52 per cent international visitor rating.
Nuala finishes on the loyalty and reverence shown by intergenerational families and of how the staycation has really bolstered business since the Aillwee Caves reopening, “From day one, we have always wanted to be part of the community and North Clare. I think we have managed that. If you are part of that, the locals would have brought visiting family with them. The staycation has really gripped the imagination of the Irish people. What we have found is that, people who are brought here as children, are now bringing their children and the new and young retirees are now coming with their retiree friends. People are certainly not letting us down. We have always welcomed all nationalities here too”.