In The Footsteps Of Giants

Located in County Antrim on the coast of northeast Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is a renowned tourist site not only because of its unusual beauty, but also for its mystical and geological history. Legend has it that the giant Fionn MacCumhaill (otherwise known as Finn McCool) spent six days building a pathway to the Scottish island of Staffa to confront his enemy Benandonner.

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It looks like the beginning of the world, somehow: the sea looks older than in other places, the hills and rocks strange, and formed differently from other rocks and hills—as those vast dubious monsters were formed who possessed the earth before man…When the world was moulded and fashioned out of formless chaos, this must have been the bit over—a remnant of chaos!

Writes the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in his book ’The Irish Sketch Book of 1842’, about the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland:

GIANT’S CAUSEWAY - Bushmills, Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway is a rock formation that consists of 40,000 columns. The rocks would have resulted from a volcanic eruption, some 60 million years ago. Legend has it that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) built a path through the sea (a causeway) to Scotland, to fight his Scottish rival Benandonner. The moment Fionn arrives in Scotland, he sees that Benandonner is more gigantic than himself, and he flees back to Ireland.

Arrived in Ireland, pursued by the Scottish giant, Finn McCool asks his wife to disguise him as a baby. At the moment Benandonner arrives in Ireland, he sees the woman with the baby. He is startled by the size of the child and he thinks that the father of such a big kid has to be much bigger and stronger than himself. So he flees back to Scotland. On his way back, Benandonner destroys the path. Only the beginning in Ireland (Giant’s Causeway) and the end of the path in Scotland (Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa) remain. Since 1986, the rock formation is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The location is the most visited tourist attraction in Northern Ireland.

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Giant’s Causeway - Northern Ireland

How was the natural wonder formed?

Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhail) an Irish Giant lived on an Antrim headland and one day when going about his daily business a Scottish Giant named Fingal began to shout insults and hurl abuse from across the channel. In anger Finn lifted a clod of earth and threw it at the giant as a challenge, the earth landed in the sea.

Fingal retaliated with a rock thrown back at Finn and shouted that Finn was lucky that he wasn’t a strong swimmer or he would have made sure he could never fight again.

Finn was enraged and began lifting huge clumps of earth from the shore, throwing them so as to make a pathway for the Scottish giant to come and face him. However by the time he finished making the crossing he had not slept for a week and so instead devised a cunning plan to fool the Scot.

Finn diguised himself as a baby in a cot and when his adversary came to face him Finn’s wife told the Giant that Finn was away but showed him his son sleeping in the cradle. The Scottish giant became apprehensive, for if the son was so huge, what size would the father be?

In his haste to escape Fingal sped back along the causeway Finn had built, tearing it up as he went. He is said to have fled to a cave on Staffa which is to this day named ‘Fingal’s Cave’.

This gruff-looking dude is Finn McCool, a central figure in Celtic folklore. Some branches of his lore claim he was a giant, stomping around the Celtic highlands and creating a wide variety of geologic features. Believers still attribute bizarre areas such as Giant’s Causeway to Finn McCool. Giant’s Causeway in particular was said to be a product of Finn’s desire to to walk to Scotland to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. Why he’d want to go to Scotland remains unclear. 

I once saw one of the supposed “marks” of Finn McCool. In Donegal County, there is somewhere a peculiarly shirt-shaped indent in a hillside that you can view from down in the glen. Supposedly, this is where Finn McCool laid his shirt down after doing battle with various other giants.

This is a far more awesome explanation for the phenomenon than shifting rocks and under-grown botanical life and all that boring miscellanea. So whenever you see something odd in the Earth, think about the coolest possible explanation for it. The Irish are pretty good at it.