What is the Giant’s Causeway?
The Giant’s Causeway (Clochán an Aifir or Clochán na bhFomhórach) is a coastal area with roughly 40,000 interlocking basalt columns on the north coast of Northern Ireland, in County Antrim. Most columns are hexagonal, with some having four, five, seven or eight sides, up to 12 metres (39 ft) high.
In 1986 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 1987 a national nature reserve. The designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty also has the shipwreck if the La Girona from the 1588 Spanish Armanda off nearby Lacada Point.
The Causeway Coast is part of the Ulster Way, and the 33-mile route is one of the most celebrated walks in Ireland as it takes in the Giant’s Causeway, the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, Dunluce Castle and Fairhead Cliffs. The latter two some of the many film locations for Game of Thrones in the area.
The rock formation is not completely unique, there are indentical basalt columns North across the Scottish sea at Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Scaffa in the Inner Hebrides in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. This formation was caused by the same ancient lava flow cooling, and it may have given credence to the story of Benandonner the Scottish Giant. Although it’s worth pointing out that it is not a direct route between the two areas as you can see on the map.
In the case of both areas, we have Geology to thank. Itense volcanic activity 60 million years ago in the Thuleam Plateau forced molten basalt through the chalk beds, and fractured when cooling with the cracks leaving the columns.
Most of the stunning columns are hexagonal, but there are also some with 4,5,6 and 8 sides. The solidifed lava in the cliffs is 28 metres thick in places.
Arguably the lesser known Fingal’s Cave is visually more stunning, and the 227 foot cavern is only accessable by boat. Tours only run from Scotland that I am aware, and you are allowed to walk into the cave.
After millions of years of being battered by winds and rain, some of the natural geology structures in the area now resemble objects linked to the Finn McCool legend by imaginative story tellers. Such as the Giant Boot, the Giant’s Eyes, the Organ, the Shepherd’s Steps, the Chimney Stacks, the Honeycomb, the Giant’s Gate, the Giants Harp, and the Camel’s hump.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Beyond the Fenian Cycles
Other than the historical documentation of the Fenian Cycle, there are other stories of Finn McCool. Fionn is most known for the myth of the Giants Causeway, which is the most apparent fabrication and the only story that portrays him more than a mortal man. For the life of me I also cannot fathom why the man from down south got the credit while the local hero of the Ulster Cycle and son of the God Lugh, Cú Chulainn, was ignored. Only getting the prestige of his name spawning the 90’s Irish TV station Sétanta.
Benandonner and the Giant’s Causeway
The most famous story told of the exploits of Finn MacCool is about the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. It’s undoubtedly mysterious and unique, but also appears on the Scottish Island of Staffa which is North of Antrim.
There are many versions of the story, with different variants. Some say this was a complete path of hexagonal columns so Fionn McCool could travel to Scotland without getting his feet wet. Others claim Finn was in love with a giant woman from Staffa and built the Causeway to bring her back to Ireland.
The most popular and famous involves the Scottish Giant Benandonner, the Red Man, who shouted abuse and threats over the North Atlantic Ocean.
So Fionn built the Causeway with rocks from Antrim to complete a pathway over the North Channel and went to pick a fight. On arrival, he discovered Benandonner the Buggane was larger and stronger than him (which makes sense if he wasn’t a giant himself). So he turned tail and ran back home, losing his boot in his retreat which remains in Antrim to this day.
Back at home in Fort-of-Allen in County Kildare, Finn’s wife Oonagh had a plan and wrapped him in a sheet and pretended he was their baby. She told Benandonner he was out hunting and welcomed him in for some food. She baked him her husbands favourite food but left the iron griddle inside the bread, breaking the Red Man’s front teeth. She then introduces the “baby”, which gives Benandonner a false impression of Finn’s size. Terrified, he flees back to Scotland and destroys the Causeway so Finn could not follow.
As he ran, Fionn picked up a chunk of earth and threw it after him to scare him off. This missed and created the Isle of Man, with the hole filling with water to make Lough Dergh. He would have missed by some distance though as Staffa is North and the Island of Man to the East. If you count a pebble landing North-West to make the tiny islet of Rockall, then the master hunter’s aim could certainly be called into question.
Disproving the Giant’s Causeway Myth
Quite when the Causeway became associated with Finn McCool is unclear, or why the place is named after him according to popular legend. Especially when most of his adventures were further south and it was local Demigod Cúchulainn who was associated with the Ulster Cycle. In fact his Champions of the Red Branch are often mistaken for the Fianna, so have these two stories been mixed in all the scribes? It makes a lot more sense that the son of the God Lugh have such strength. The two groups were seperated by geography and timelines, but some characters appear in both the fenian cycle and the ulster cycle which give credence to the theory. CuChulainn and the Giants Causeway does not sound the same of course.
Also, the Causeway’s name in Irish is Clochán na bhFomhóraigh or Clochán na bhFomhórach which translates to “stepping stones of the Fomhóraigh“. So arguably there is another more logical reason why it is called the Giant’s Causeway, which is not related to Finn McCool at all.
The Fomorians are a race of supernatural beings in Irish mythology, and lived beyond the sea so this seems a more solid connection as they were sometimes described as giants. The Fomorians were gods who represented the destructive powers of nature; and were personifications of darkness, chaos, death, drought and blight. They were opponents to the other race of supernatural beings in Irish mythology, Tuatha Dé Danann, who lived in the underworld and represented the gods of growth and civilization.
And it could appear to the early Irish settlers that these steps were a path direct into the sea where the Giants lived. My personal views is this a more logical and likely scenario.
Dál Riata and Iona Abbey
The Giant’s Causeway is situated in the historic barony of Cary which sits on the North Antrim coast. To the south-east is Glenarm, and both were consider part of Dál Riata. Dál means portion or share, and Riata or Riada is assumed to be a person. So Dalraida literally means Riata’s share. Said to have been founded by the legendary 5th Century king Fergus the Great (Fergus Mór)
Dál Riata is said to have been founded by the legendary king Fergus Mór (Fergus the Great) in the 5th century, the Gaelic kingdom stretched from the western seaboard of Scotland and the north-eastern corner of Ireland.
St. Columba and the Twelve Apostles of Ireland set up the ancient monastery of Iona in 563, and it was here that the Chronicle of Ireland and the Book of Kells were produced.
So in brutal honesty, if there was anything at all in the Finn McCool legend, you would have expected to see some documentation or influence in the abbey.
Frequently Asked Questions
The coastal causeway is approx. 40000 interlocking solidified lava basalt columns and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site estimated to be 60 million years old.
The area is managed by the National Trust and can be found at the following address:
44 Causeway Road
Geology suggests that some 60 million years ago lava flows cooled to create interlocking basalt columns in both areas. Volcanic activity forced hot fluid molten basalt through the chalk beds and as the lava cooled it cracked and fractured to leave pillar-like structures.