Newest Review: ... (which now also holds the visitor centre) and the stones. There's also a dedicated bus service between Bushmills and the Giant's Causeway... more
Striding in the Footsteps of Giants
Member Name: LovesTravel
Advantages: Dramatic views clothed in the mysteries of both legend and science
Disadvantages: Access for the handicapped is restricted by the landscape
THE LEGENDARY FINN
The legend of the Giant's Causeway features Finn McCool (also rendered as MacCool or MacCumhaill), a wee lad of a giant merely 52 and a half feet tall, who is said to have built the Causeway. Details associated with Finn's remarkable feat vary considerably with the telling. One common version holds that the gentle, fair-haired Finn found himself in a shouting contest with another giant, the mighty Benandonner (whose name is also subject to variations in spelling), who lived across the Irish Sea in Scotland. The two giants challenged one another to a contest of strength, and Finn set about building a great causeway that would allow Benandonner to cross from his liar in Fingel's Cave to the beautiful shores of County Antrim without getting his feet wet.
As this version of the legend maintains, late one evening the tired Finn, having nearly completed his work on the causeway, broke away from his labors and fell into a sound slumber--intending to finish his task the next morning. Meanwhile, Benandonner, a much larger giant with a longer stride, found the nearly completed path and strolled over to fulfill the challenge with his Irish neighbor. Oonagh, Finn's wife, was awakened from her own sleep by the thunderous footsteps of the approaching Benandonner. Realizing that her work-weary husband could never win a test of strength with his enormous rival, Oonagh hurriedly covered her husband in her own nightdress, put a sleeping cap on his head, and bundled his sleeping form like that of a child. When Benandonner appeared, she shushed him and warned him to be quiet, lest he wake her baby. The Scottish giant quickly decided that if this be the child, he had no wish to meet the father. As Benandonner retreated back across the causeway, he used his great strength to tear up the causeway as he went, leaving only bits of the path as it entered the sea.
One variation on the Causeway legend features Finn as a great warrior who built his path in a rage, the better to defeat an enemy that threatened the Antrim Coast. Yet another makes him a lonely giant who built a path across the sea to win the heart of his lady love, a giantess who lived on one of the Western Isles. And, of course, the Scots have their own versions that, not surprisingly, are far different!
As a final note, the ancient name for the Causeway, "Clahain a Fomhaire" (stepping stones of the Fomorians) connects local lore on this magnificent strip of coastline to the Fomorians--Ireland's pre-Celtic inhabitants. Whether or not the Fomorians were giants, who can say?
For those among us who are more impressed by science than by legend, the Giant's Causeway may be explained as a field of polygonal basalt columns (each with from five to eight sides), caused by the rapid cooling of molten rock pushed up from below the earth's crust some 60-odd million years ago. Over the millennia, the crystallized basalt has been weathered by wind and water to create the magnificent formations we see today as part of Ireland's spectacular northern coast.
Over the centuries, the Causeway Coast has provided refuge for Viking raiders and settlers, presented deadly perils to Spanish galleons, and proven itself a haven for smugglers slipping goods into Ireland beyond the grasp of the tax collector.
The Causeway's fame as a tourist attraction and as a destination for scientific expeditions began in the early 18th century, apparently spurred by a 1692 account published by the Bishop of Derry, who noted the area's unusual formations. The basalt formations of the Antrim Coast provided crucial source material for the study of igneous rocks and have contributed significantly to our understanding of their origin.
As the Causeway's fame escalated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, an entry gate was established to collect fees at the cliff's edge and local people--most notably the "grannies"--offered food, drink, and keepsakes from makeshift stalls on the Causeway itself.
THE CAUSEWAY TODAY
However you explain its origin, the Causeway today is a dramatic stretch of coastline in Northern Ireland. Administered by Britain's National Trust since 1961 and designated as a World Heritage Site, the Giant's Causeway attracts as many as half a million visitors a year.
The National Trust Visitor Centre, located on the cliffs along the edge of the Antrim Plateau above the Causeway, offers visitors an orientation to the site and to the 12 miles of trails it maintains. In clear weather, the clifftop paths feature astonishing views along the Causeway Coast. Paths from the Visitor Center down to the Causeway and portions of a so-called mid-cliff paths offer hikes of varying degrees of challenge and, of course, provide closer views of individual formations. Less foolhardy folk may elect to purchase tickets on the Causeway Coaster, a minibus ferrying visitors back and forth between the Causeway and the Visitor Centre.
Himself and Yours Truly opted to walk down the steep but well-maintained path to the Causeway. The National Trust has provided a number of interpretative placards offering descriptions of the local floral and fauna, not to mention the local geology. As we walked, we enjoyed truly spectacular views of the surrounding headlands, points, and bays on either side of the Causeway. Arriving as we had under an Irish blessing, the weather had obligingly cleared just in time for us to make the best of the scenery. With Great Stookan on the left and Port Roesdan on the right, we could see the full sweep of that portion of the Antrim Coast. We even imagined that, like Finn McCool, we could see the coast of Scotland in the distance.
The Causeway itself consists of roughly 40,000 basalt pillars. The closely packed stones of the Grand Causeway in particular project the very image of an ancient roadbed disappearing into the sea. Some of the Causeway's stones rise as high as 40 feet above the "pavement" level, creating what has been referred to a "moonscape" effect--though Yours Truly saw far too much water to think of the moon as an appropriate metaphor. Like millions of other visitors, we moved from pavement stone to pavement stone, admiring the artistry of Mother Nature in creating the Causeway. We climbed among the irregularly graduated pillars of the Small Causeway and we sat on the Wishing Chair--wishing mainly for a more prolonged stay.
Other formations visible along the paths near the Causeway include aptly named protrusions of polygonal basalt along the cliff face such as the Giant's Organ and the Harp. A brown boot-shaped slab of basalt known as the Giant's Boot lies on the rocky beach not far above the water line, for all appearances a discarded remnant of some long-ago antics by the likes of Finn McCool.
The climb back to the Visitor Centre is all uphill and, of course, seems much longer than the climb down. The climb up provided Yours Truly with a welcome excuse for stops along the way to search for specimens of the rare flora native to the area, including the red broomrape and the oyster plant.
At the end of the climb awaited the revitalizing refreshments of Centre's Tea Room--and other amenities. The National Trust also maintains a gift shop and stocks a number of books on the history and geology of the Causeway.
Himself and Yours Truly drove to the Giant's Causeway from Ardee, which is located just south of the border between Ulster and the Republic. Our plan was to head east to the Cooley Peninsula, then travel as much as we could by the coast roads until we reached the Causeway. The only problem with that plan was that there was simply too much to see for a day trip. Having rounded the peninsula, we caught the A28 at Newry, then the A29 at Armaugh, and headed north. At Portrush, we caught the A2 to Bushmills, then followed local signage on the B146 to the Causeway.
For those who might be worried about the enduring impact of the Troubles and their effect on travel between the Republic and Northern Ireland, don't. The border is so widely ignored and poorly marked that we didn't know for sure when we made the crossing. As for currency, we carried pounds sterling as well as euros, but we noticed that a great many businesses in both Northern Ireland and the Republic accepted both currencies.
Other means of getting there include:
By Train - Check service offered from Belfast or Londonderry to Coleraine.
By Bus - The Causeway Rambler (Ulsterbus No. 376) between Bushmills and Carrick-a-Rede runs in the summer; or Ulsterbus No. 252 is a circular route via the Antrim Glens from Belfast.
By Car from Belfast - Follow the M2 to the A26, heading north. At Coleraine take the A29 to Portrush, then the A2 to Bushmills, and the B146 to the Causeway. Drive time from Belfast: approximately 1 hour 15 minutes.
FEES (per 2009)
Admission: Free (donations welcome)
Audio-Visual Presentation at Vistor Centre - Adult £1.00, Child 50p, Family £2.50
Causeway Coaster minibus to stones: £2 Adult, £1 Child
Parking (not operated by the National Trust): Car £6, minibus/RV £7.50, coach £20
Summary: The Giant's Causeway offers visitors spectacular scenery and a satisfying stroll through Irish legen
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