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Published: August 5th 2022
The incredible and magical Giant’s Causeway
has awed and astounded millions of tourists over the years with its mystique and uniqueness, but long before it became easy or common for world travelers to journey to the County Antrim UNESCO World Heritage site, wonder has always surrounded the story of its creation. We know now the true yet still amazing reason for its existence and how the 40,000 interlocking basalt columns perfectly shaped into hexagons, were created through volcanic activity some 50 to 60 million years ago. And yet, with the mystical atmosphere that hangs over the mighty Causeway, it almost seems that the myths and legends that have been told by storyteller after storyteller (and I’m about to add myself to that list), would make for more appropriate tales.
My story begins when I boarded a coach in Belfast for a day-long tour of the northern coast and County Antrim. I was lucky enough to grab a front seat behind the driver, which afforded a clear frontal view for excellent photo taking. Again, very overcast skies and chilly – I expected a deluge at any minute, but surprise, surprise, I got thru the entire day without a drop of water
making an appearance – my climate luck is obviously holding. Our onboard guide was Gavin and Ciaron was driving. Two born-and-bred Irishmen with accents to match.
Leaving Belfast on a major highway, we began the approximate 120-mile drive to Whitepark Bay, home of this stunning World Heritage Site. Of course, being in Ireland there has to be a myth, right? And of course, the Giant’s Causeway is no exception. There are quite a few versions of the same myth, depending on who you talk to and which country (Ireland or Scotland) you’re in at the time, but they do relate very similar events. This is how it goes……. Mac Cumhaill (aka Finn McCool) was a mythical Irish hunter-warrior. He was not considered to be a giant, but in the case of the Causeway legends, he is almost always made out to be one, or at least of extraordinary height. Some say he was 54’ tall but that is no doubt an exaggeration? Due to the sharing of the same myth with Scotland, the Causeway is sometimes told to be a collection of steppingstones allowing Finn to travel at will between the two countries without getting his feet wet.
Many of the popular versions of this tale do include a link with Scotland, thanks to the same pattern of hexagonal columns appearing across the sea in Staffa, a Scottish island which can be seen from the Antrim Causeway. A second version of the story claims Finn was in love with a giant woman living on Staffa and the Causeway was built as an attempt to bring her back to Ireland. The most popular one (and the one I’m voting for) revolves around a local rivalry and an excellent piece of deception. A giant named Benandonner, aka Red Man, was believed to roam Scotland. Finn and the Red Man did not get along to say the least, and Finn challenged his Scottish nemesis to a fight, while they shouted and threatened each other across the water. Building the Causeway so he could reach his biggest enemy, Finn moves rocks from Antrim into the sea, and completes this new pathway only to discover that Benandonner is his biggest enemy in more ways than one. Benandonner was, in fact, much larger that Finn. Instantly regretting his trash talking, Finn hopes to run home and go unnoticed by the
Scottish giant, but unfortunately it isn’t long before he is spotted, and Benandonner gives chase to the Irish hero’s home in Fort-of-Allen, County Kildare. Finn runs as fast as he can back home, losing a boot in the process and there is no Cinderella story in this case, the boot remained exactly where it was and is still visible at the Causeway today. Having found himself in a world of hurt he wasn’t sure he would survive; Finn turns to his wife Oonagh who thankfully swoops in to save the day. Wrapping her husband in a bed sheet and telling him to climb into their son’s crib, she welcomes Benandonner at the front door, apologizing that Finn is currently hunting deer in County Kerry. Taking the giant around her home, she points out various pieces of fighting paraphernalia that she claims are Finn’s but in reality, would be much too large and heavy for the smaller man to carry. Telling Benandonner she will make him Finn’s favorite meal while he waits, Oonagh instead cooks a cake of griddle-bread baked with the iron griddle pressed inside, on which he breaks 3 front teeth – that’s followed by a strip
of hard fat nailed to a block of red timber, and the giant loses 2 further teeth. With Benandonner beginning to feel he’s bitten off more than he can chew, Oonagh then asks if he would like to meet their baby and the Scot is astounded and terrified when he meets their “son” who is in fact just Finn wrapped up in his sheet. Assuming Finn is enormous if this is just his child, the Red Man makes his excuses to Oonagh, and flees back across the Causeway, destroying it in his wake. As the Red Giant left, Finn is believed to have plucked a chunk of earth from Antrim and flung if after him to completely scare him off from venturing back to Ireland again. The chunk of earth missed, however, but still remains in between the two countries as the Isle of Man. The area where Finn had taken the earth from, filled with water and is also said to have become Lough Derg, the largest lake in Ireland.
As with much folklore, this version of events is not always told the same way with some storytellers saying that Finn was asleep in bed when Oonagh
heard the Scottish giant coming and took it upon herself to hide him. Others say that the Causeway was never completed, and the long-standing rivalry never came to a head as both giants fell asleep from the hard work involved just starting the passageway between the two countries. Perhaps the most gruesome version of the tale, however, tells that the “baby” Finn bit off the magic middle finger of Benandonner, causing the giant to lose all his strength, and leave Ireland for good.
The drive north was nothing less than spectacular, and this was just a major highway – our return trip via the Causeway Coastal Route (which runs between Belfast and Derry) was even better, if that’s possible. Once at Giant’s Causeway we were given 3 routes by which to get down to its location on the coast: the red route, the blue route and the shuttle bus (that’s 1 pound each way for the 15-minute drive). The red route is just less than a mile long and strenuous – for serious hikers only. The blue route is about the same distance but on fairly flat ground and sloping gently – I’m no fool, I opted for the
shuttle and so did many others!
No matter how many photos of this place I have seen, nothing compares to being there. The soaring basalt columns must be manmade, right? Wrong – they are courtesy of Mother Nature and what a fabulous job she did. Tourists clambered over them like ants on a mission but even that, didn’t detract from the stunning vista. The clarity of the sea water was impressive and lack of any trash or graffiti was a welcome sight. I spent almost an hour exploring the area and taking pictures before returning to the shuttle and back to the visitor center on the headland.
As with any major tourist attraction, it doesn’t take long for it to be totally overrun and it has become a zoo, virtually impossible to move around freely. Cars by the dozens were lining up to park in the limited space and don’t get me started on the massive coach buses trying to navigate the narrow roadway, it was total chaos all round.
Another tourist attraction lies just a few miles east along the coast – Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge – but since its recent sale by the National Trust to
a private buyer, it is only now accessible to cars and not to tour buses….such is life. This rope bridge near Ballintoy links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede (means rock of the casting), it spans 66’ and is 98’ above the rocks below. A Little Bit of History: It is thought that salmon fishermen have been building bridges to the island for over 350 years, and the bridges have taken many forms over the years. In the 1970s it had only one handrail and large gaps between the slats. A new bridge, tested up to ten tons, was built with the help of local climbers in 2000. There have been many instances where visitors, unable to face the walk back across the bridge, have had to be taken off the island by boat.
Lunchtime was fast approaching, so it was Harry’s Bar in Cushendall that was next on the agenda. A very typical Irish neighborhood bar, serving beer, wine, cocktails, and of course Irish whiskey, along with outstanding pub food. I only had to see Fish & Chips with mushy peas on the menu to know what I was ordering, and I wasn’t
disappointed when it arrived. Enough chips to sink the Titanic for a second time, and a large slab of delicate white cod encrusted in a beer batter – is there anything better than this? I think not. Needing to walk off a few calories after that feast, I explored this village for the remainder of the lunch hour and took my photographs. Cushendall, with a population of approximately 2,100 people, is a coastal village and prior to the arrival of the Causeway Coastal Road, it was far easier to arrive via boat than attempt an overland trek of the Antrim Plateau. It’s seen its share of “The Troubles”. On June 23, 1922, in the aftermath of the Irish War of Independence, several trucks of Ulster Special Constabulary officers and British soldiers arrived here and fired on civilians. Three young Catholic men were shot and killed at close range. Three other Cushendall residents claimed they were ambushed by the IRA and returned fire, but a British government inquiry concluded that this was not the case. The report wasn’t made public until almost a century later. There were further violent incidents during The Troubles of the late 20th
stop before returning to Belfast was Carrickfergus Castle, which is one of Northern Ireland’s most striking monuments and earliest Norman castles. It was begun in 1177 by John DeCourcy on the shores of Belfast Lough, shortly after the invasion of Ulster and continued to play an important military role up until 1928.
In popular legend, the town of Carrickfergus claims its roots back to the late 5th
and early 6th
centuries, and to its alleged namesake, King Fergus Mor Mac Eirc. The story is often told that King Fergus left Ulster around this time to forge a kingdom in Scotland. He is said to have returned to Ulster in search of an ancient healing well to cure his leprosy. The well could be the one which still exists beneath the castle keep or possibly what would become St. Brigit’s Well located north of the town center. The well was quite familiar to pilgrims and would undoubtedly have been connected to monastic activity in the area during the 10th
centuries, about which very little is known. During a heavy storm, it is said that Fergus’s ship was wrecked on a volcanic dyke by the lough shore, which became
known as the Rock of Fergus, providing the area with a new name. The king’s body is said to have washed ashore and been buried somewhere in nearby Monkstown by the monks. Even though local tourist information reflects this myth almost as fact, there is no evidence that any such event ever occurred. Don’t you just love all these myths and legends – I know I do!
As we arrived back in the capital city, Gavin gave us a short drive around the Harland and Wolfe shipyards, famous for building the Titanic at the turn of the century, with its towering mobile cranes named Samson and Goliath – still in operation more than 100 years later. Close by are the Belfast studios where much of Game of Thrones was filmed, and you can still see the stage set of King’s Landing. A little further into the city we drove thru the Falls Road and Shankill areas, both neighborhoods at the heart of “The Troubles” in the 1970s. Buildings and walls are bedecked with colorful murals painted by talented local artists. Some of these murals recall significant events of the Troubles, like the civil rights marches and Bloody Sunday. Some
are markers of political allegiance; some are tributes to dead paramilitary fighters, and some are heartbreaking memorials to murdered children.
The Troubles is a term used to describe a period of conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted about 30 years, from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, the Troubles can be traced back hundreds of years. Beginning as early as the 17th
century, two groups emerged in Ireland with differing political and religious outlooks. Catholics predominantly considered themselves Irish and held nationalist views – they wanted an independent Ireland free from British control. Protestants identified largely as British and unionist, meaning they wished to remain linked to the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland today seems to have traveled well down the road to peace. Belfast, where once only the bravest traveler might have ventured, now hums and bustles with tourists.
I like Ireland a lot, particularly Northern Ireland, and plan to return to explore Belfast in-depth in the near future. And no doubt with the “luck of the Irish” that is exactly what will happen…..cheers
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