Stick a geologist in front of the Giant’s Causeway and this is what they’ll say. Sixty million years ago, give or take a week or two, molten lava erupted through the chalk beds of the Irish Channel and formed a huge, bubbling lava field, hundreds of thousands of square kilometres in size.
When this volcanic plateau cooled, it contracted and cracked, leaving a honeycomb of polygonal basalt columns of varying size and height, ranged across the landscape between what’s now Northern Ireland and the Scottish Inner Hebrides. The famous outcrop on the Antrim coast and similar columns in Scotland are the remnants you can see today of a mighty Paleocene geological event.
I’m sure that’s all true – why would they lie? what’s in it for the geologist? – but as a writer I want a better explanation, and by better I mean an account of a natural phenomenon with some romance and soul that I can turn into a story.
An Irish songline
Luckily for me, the Irish look at the same fractured, otherworldly landscape and see a songline that reaches deep into their past. Not lore and legend exactly, more a collective memory of what happened at this windswept corner of their windswept island; a telling of the tale that not only spoke the landscape into existence but sustains its rolls, folds and contours even today.
It concerns the mighty Fionn mac Cumhaill, known to sasanachs as Finn MacCool, a fair-haired (fionn) hero of Irish mythology. Sasanach, by the way, being derived from the word for ‘Saxon’ and what the Irish and the Scottish (sassenach) call the English and not in a good way. If you want to know where you stand when someone calls you ‘sasanach’, the dictionary simply says ‘noun: derogatory’.
Anyhow, in ancient Ireland Finn was a fighting man, head of a fierce band of warriors called the Fianna, who guard him still, asleep in a cave, ready to awake and defend the honour of Ireland at any time. Finn wasn’t a giant per se, but a huge and powerful hero, and you messed with him at your peril. For evidence, look at the Isle of Man and the islet of Rockall – respectively a clump of earth and a pebble scooped by Finn from the earth of Ireland and flung at a taunting rival.
Clash of the giants
So when the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged him to a fight, Finn built a path of stones to avoid getting his feet wet and set off for Scotland and battle. Unfortunately for Finn, Benandonner turned out to be simply enormous – a giant amongst giants – so Finn ran back across the causeway to Ireland, losing his boot in the hurried retreat. His resourceful wife Oonagh hid Finn in a cradle covered by sheets and devised other deceptive ruses to bamboozle the pursuing – and now very cross – Scottish giant. Having gatecrashed their home, Benandonner took one peek at the ‘baby’ and decided, reasonably enough, that if that was the size of Finn’s child, he wasn’t going to stick around to meet the father. Exit Benandonner, back to Scotland, whereupon both giant and hero pulled up their respective ends of the causeway to avoid future misunderstandings, leaving just the ragged edges on both shores.
Standing on the stones today, I’d say the story is pretty conclusive. The causeway is on a scale that almost defies comprehension – only giants can have been involved in its construction, and any geologist who wants to argue can take it up with Finn. There are over 40,000 basalt columns stretching out from the surrounding cliffs, creeping into the sea in layers that rise and fall – like a pathway that ultimately disappears into the crashing waves. In places the interlocked columns tower over eighty feet high; elsewhere, the fractured pavement runs flat before climbing in steps to peaks and outcrops that look out on the wild Antrim coast.
And this is the best way to approach the Giant’s Causeway – not by car, via the visitor centre, but on foot along the coast, placing one very human foot in front of another along the four-hour shoreline footpath from the village of Ballintoy. This is also ‘Game of Thrones’ country – Ballintoy harbour is one of its many Northern Ireland film locations – but we’re on the look-out for giants, not dragons. Or at least, traces of giants, for as with all songlines there’s evidence in the landscape of the fundamental truth of the story, not least the natural formation long taken to be Finn’s discarded boot.
For a couple of hours you’ll have the coast to yourself – sweeps of pristine beach, rock arches, fishermen’s huts, wheeling gulls and cliff steps – before the first sheer walls hove into view, riven with columns that plunge down to the thundering sea below. Cross a final grassy approach and you know you’re there once you start to pick out groups, then crowds of people funnelling through a canyon of columns and out onto the fractured coastal plateau.
So – geology or giant?
The National Trust visitor centre at the site does its best to persuade you about the science; I feel their heart is not really in the whole made-by-giants thing.
But I simply ask you to stand in Finn’s footsteps on the wave-washed promontory, where the stepped-column pavement slides into the sea.
Listen to the cry of the seabirds and the whip of the wind, and admire the line of the coast which shelters your green and pleasant inland realm. Look north to Scotland, where an angry red-haired giant stomps and wails, and give thanks for the strength in your hands and the warriors of ancient Ireland ranged beside you. Not to mention a quick-witted wife, rolling her eyes behind your back and muttering An té nach bhfuil láidir ní folair dó a bheith glic (Whoever is not strong must be clever).
Walking with giants: the video
See the full length of the walk along this remarkable part of the Irish coastline in my Giant’s Causeway video – or Google ‘jules told me giant’s causeway’.
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Giants Causeway, Alex Ranaldi, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Giants Causeway, Chris, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Giants Causeway, David Stanley, Flickr CC BY 2.0
Giants Causeway, Johan Wieland, Flckr CC BY-ND 2.0