The Giant’s Causeway is an ancient and natural phenomenon, and one of the most beautiful places in all of Ireland. It has been in the international spotlight for the last few years as the driving force of tourism in Northern Ireland, along with the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. If you’ve ever visited the Causeway, it’s easy to see what the fuss is about. At the most basic level, the Causeway is a long stretch of hexagonal pillar-like rocks that seems to flow up and down along the coast, making for a truly unique and unforgettable view – especially when the waves of the North Atlantic come crashing over it again and again. Everything about the Giant’s Causeway, from its formation to the mythology that surrounds it, is very intriguing. If you’ve ever wanted to know what exactly made the Causeway and how it got its name, look no further…
How the Giant’s Causeway was Formed
The Giant’s Causeway is made up of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, on the coast of county Antrim. The nearest town is Bushmills (where the whiskey of the same name originated), and it’s around an hour’s drive from Belfast. It was formed long before either of those places existed, however – in fact it was formed long before Ireland was inhabited by humans, some 60 million years ago. During the Paleogene period, the land mass that would eventually become Ireland was subject to high levels of volcanic activity. On the surface of the land were extensive chalk beds, which some very fast moving molten basalt pushed up through to form a lava plateau. As the lava cooled and solidified, it contracted and the surface fractured – similar to when mud dries out in the sun. As it cooled down further, the cracks continued in a downward motion, leaving hexagonal pillars of basalt.
The cliff edge of the Giant’s Causeway that visitors can see today is in fact the edge of the lava plateau. The larger fissures can be clearly seen in the cliff edge as bands of dark rock which cut down the cliff face and jut out towards the sea. This occurred in three periods of volcanic activity which resulted in three flows, now known as the Lower, Middle and Upper Basalts. It’s the Middle Basalts that formed the famous columns; variations in the cooling rate resulted in its undulating appearance. Weathering has created various other formations that have been given romantic (and not so romantic!) names such as the Giant’s Eyes, the Chimney Stacks, the Harp, the Organ, the Wishing Chair and the Camel’s Hump. Although the majority of the columns are hexagonal, some have up to eight sides. The tallest basalt column is around 12 metres high, while the solidified lava in the cliffs is up to 28 metres thick in some places.
If you’re slightly baffled by the mention of volcanoes, lava, and Ireland in the same sentence, you shouldn’t be. 60 million years ago the land mass that the Causeway formed on was actually attached to the eastern seaboard of America and would have had the same latitude as northern Spain has now, with hot and humid conditions prevalent. The tectonic plates that all of earth’s land is part of moved over the subsequent millions of years, and we eventually ended up where we are now! Similar formations can be found at the opposite point of the coast in Scotland (more about that later), as well as in parts of America, Australia and Vietnam – none are quite as spectacular as Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway however!
Mythology of the Giant’s Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway has long been associated with Irish mythology, especially in relation to one particular folklore hero – Fionn Mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool to give the English version of his name. Fionn was a mythical hunter gatherer who occurs most frequently in the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology (‘Fenians’ being the name of his followers). He was the son of Cumhall, leader of the Fianna, and Muirne, daughter of a respected druid. His birth name was actually Deimne, but he acquired his more famous name, which means ‘fair’ or ‘bright’, when his hair turned white prematurely. He studied under the druid and poet Finnegas, during which time he caught the Salmon of Knowledge and acquired its wisdom (another famous Irish folklore tale).
Somewhere along the way, Fionn became a giant, and was seemingly responsible for carving out many geographical features in Ireland and the UK. He once scooped up a piece of Ireland to throw it at a rival in Scotland who was taunting him, but missed. The land dropped into the Irish Sea and became the Isle of Man, while the hole left behind in Ireland became Lough Neagh. The same rival, known as Benandonner, continued to taunt him and said that if he could ever get to Fionn’s land, he would make sure that Fionn never fought again, but since he couldn’t swim, he would spare Fionn’s life. In retaliation, Fionn tore the cliffs apart and began to build a pathway across the sea to Benandonner so that they would be able to fight, after all.
After a week the causeway was complete and he called to Benandonner to cross it to Ireland. Once the other giant arrived, Fionn realised that he was no match for him due to his huge size, so he ordered his wife Oona to disguise him as a baby. Oona welcomed Benandonner and told him to wait for her husband to arrive, offering him a griddle cake with a griddle iron hidden inside. When he chipped a tooth after biting it, she taunted him, saying both her husband and the baby could eat them easily. She fed a non-iron griddle cake to the ‘baby’, and Benandonner fell for the trick, believing that if the baby was that strong, his father must be unbeatable. He fled back across the causeway, destroying it as he went so that Fionn couldn’t chase him. The only remants of Fionn’s path are on the Antrim coast and its opposite point over in Scotland.
The Giant’s Causeway in History
The Giant’s Causeway laid almost completely untouched until 1692, when the Bishop of Londonderry visited the site with a student. Before that, the only people who would have seen or used the land would have been the hunter gatherers who settled at Whitepark Bay around 10,000 years ago. With no knowledge whatsoever of natural forces, these primitive people would surely have thought of the Causeway as an otherwordly phenomenon, and this is probably where the mythological associations come from. Regardless, the Bishop passed on the account of what he found to the scholars of Dublin and London.
One year later the first scholar, Sir Richard Bukeley of Trinity College, presented a paper on the Causeway to the Royal Society, initiating a long debate about how it was formed. More than a few people insisted that it must have been created by man due to its uniform shape and the lack of any other known hexagonal rock formations – the Fionn Mac Cumhaill giant story was also seriously considered for a while! Starting in 1697 and for some 50 years beyond, various draughtsmen visited the site making detailed sketches, the best of which were completed by the artist Susanna Drury, whose beautiful drawings from 1740 were credited for making the Giant’s Causeway an essential stop on the aristocracy’s Grand Tours. By 1771, the general consensus was that the rock formation was actually a result of volcanic activity.
During the 19th century the Causeway became an increasingly popular tourist attraction, especially after the opening of the Giant’s Causeway Tramway, a steam train that ran along the coast offering excellent views. Naturally, this lead to multiple arguments over ownership and access rights, with the matter being taken to the High Court of London in 1897. It was decided that while the access road was a public road and therefore free for all, they could not recognise free access over the Causeway’s stones – and so began the commercialisation of the Giant’s Causeway. To their credit however, the Giant’s Causeway Company who took over access to the stones did their best to improve the site for visitors whilst ensuring the conservation of the site.
In 1961 the National Trust took over as custodians of the Causeway, and in 1986 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the same year, the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre opened to the public, and it once again became a tourist attraction for the modern age.
The Giant’s Causeway Today
Today the Giant’s Causeway welcomes over 300,000 visitors a year, a number that is always rising. As well as humans, it is also a haven for a variety of native sea birds including fulmars, petrels, cormorants, shags, redshank guillemots and razorbills. There are also several rare plants on the site that have miraculously survived all of those feet trampling on them over the years. These include sea spleenwort, hare’s foot trefoil, vernal squill, sea fescue and frog orchid.
The Causeway can be accessed by car or on foot from the visitor centre and carpark, with a number of longer circular walks for the more adventurous visitor. The visitor centre was reopened in 2012 after a fire to mixed reviews due to its placement along the causeway walk descent, its modern design, and its original suggestion that the Causeway could equally have been formed by deities as by nature! The visitor centre and the site itself are used regularly for a myriad of weird and wonderful events – including a Potato festival! A few summers ago it was also the starting point for the Irish leg of the Giro D’Italia, one of the biggest international cycling races in the world. The Giant’s Causeway is the crowning glory of a road trip known as the Causeway coast which many people undertake every year, travelling from Belfast up to the Causeway and along the northern coast.