44 Causeway Road Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU
More than forty thousand many-sided columns of basalt of varying heights but each slotted neatly together, beehive fashion, stretching along our shore and forming a pavement out to sea . . . small wonder that this astonishing natural phenomenon has been described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
It’s an amazing sight and one which has inspired visitors for hundreds of years, but its origins go back much further. Created over 60 million years ago after intense volcanic activity, the Giant’s Causeway was formed as a result of fast-cooling lava. Today it is a World Heritage Site, managed by The National Trust.
The typically five sided column formation (there are also six, seven and eight sided columns to be found here) is one which you’ll spot often as you travel around Northern Ireland, for it is so distinctive that it has become a symbol for the wider region. Indeed, the Causeway is also an iconic ‘snapshot of Ireland’.
From the steep hill which leads to the Causeway there are fabulous views of the North Antrim coastline and Scotland, but the eye is immediately drawn to the marvel of the causeway itself . . . fantastic whatever the weather. Dramatic and inaccessible as many of the formations may be, particularly as you explore further along the coastline, the majority are easily accessed by all.
It’s a massive favourite with children who can scramble around to their heart’s content re-enacting the myth of Finn McCool, the giant who is said to have thrown those columns into the sea in the first place . . . . well this is Ireland and you didn’t think we’d be satisfied with a purely scientific explanation, did you?
Life and Legend
The Giant’s Causeway is the most visited place in Northern Ireland. It was first officially discovered in 1693 when Sir Richard Bulkeley presented a paper on it to the Royal Society. It became known to the wider world when Susanna Drury made watercolours of it and prints of her pictures were distributed in 1743. The Causeway became popular with tourists in the 1800s and there were many huts at the entrance where guides could be hired and souvenirs and refreshments were sold.
One man found a small outcrop of another stone, laterite, beneath the water at the shore. Laterite is a strange rock because when it is wet, it is very soft and it gradually hardens as it dries. He made his living by selling models of the Wishing Chair, which he cut out of the stone with his penknife.
The Giant’s Causeway was formed about 60 million years ago when the whole of north Antrim was covered in molten lava. In some places, pressurised lava exploded into the air over and over again and the volcanoes it formed became the Antrim Hills and Slemish. Mostly, it forced its way through fissures in the limestone beds and spread out over the land. When it met the sea, it cooled in an endless haze of mist as the water became steam in a fraction of a second, rose high in the air and then rained down onto the rock again. The cycle went on for months until the supply of lava began to diminish and solidify into basalt. At the Causeway, the lava cooled in a peculiar way and split into regular columns.
Most of the columns are six sided but there are a few with four, five, seven and eight sides. The tallest are about 12 metres high, and the basalt in the cliffs is 28 metres thick. Over the years, the guides made up stories about the different formations.
On the first bay at Brenther Harbour, there’s the camel’s hump, but how the ship of the desert came to live at the Causeway, no one can say.
The Granny Rock is a stone standing free on the hillside of the Stookan’s peninsula. From a distance it looks like an old bent woman climbing the hill. The story goes that as he built the Causeway the Giant was constantly being nagged by his grandmother who knew how to do everything better than him and one day, when he had had enough, he turned her into the stone.
The next bay is Port Ganny which leads to the Little Causeway. Within its rocks is the Wishing Chair, which, of course, grants any wish to whoever sits in it, one of the most popular places on the Causeway.
The Middle Causeway is the Honeycomb. The larger headland that follows is the Grand Causeway and holds the Keystone that is said to hold the whole Causeway together. Further out on the headland are the Lady’s Fan and the Giant’s Coffin.
The last bay is Port Noffer or the Giant’s Port, which begins with the Giant’s Loom. The Giants Boot lies on the foreshore. The Boot is sometimes called the Giant’s Chair.
A few years ago, scientists who took it to be a boot, and working out from his purported shoe size, calculated that the giant was 16 metres (52 feet 6 inches) tall. The Shepherd’s steps rise from the centre of the bay to the cliff top. The Giant’s Organ dominates the cliff face and finally there are the Giant’s Eyes. The Giants Eyes are red and worn, as if the giant had discovered some Bushmills whiskey the night before.
The wishing well is hardly mentioned now, but old women used to sit at the side of it, wearing traditional dress and selling tourists cups of water. Sometimes they sold a wee drop of still too…If they bought the water, the tourist was also granted a wish.
The Giant of the Causeway was the Irish warrior Finn McCool. He built his road across the sea to walk to Scotland to meet the Giant Benandonner who had challenged him to a fight. When Finn had completed his bridge, he was very tired, he went home and fell asleep. When he did not arrive, Benandonner crossed the bridge to look for him. And when Finn saw how big Benandonner was, he was very scared. Finn’s wife Oonagh had a plan. She put him back to bed and wrapped him in sheets, tied around to look like baby clothes. Benandonner went to Finn’s house, Oonagh let him in and offered him a cup of tea. He asked where Finn was and Oonagh said he was out cutting wood but he would be home soon. She said there was only herself and Finn’s baby in the house and she begged Benandonner not to wake the baby. When he saw the size of the child, Benandonner thought that if the baby is that size then its father Finn must be enormous. Benandonner couldn’t get out of the door quickly enough and ran home to Scotland, terrified. And as he ran he ripped out the stones of the Causeway and threw them in the sea, in case Finn followed him.
The Causeway School
The Causeway School is an Arts and Crafts building designed by Clough Williams Ellis. It was opened in 1915 in memory of the landowner, Sir Edward Macnaghten who lived in Runkerry House at Bushfoot. In its day the school provided local children with a modern building and teaching methods. Some things didn’t change and each child had to bring a turf to school each day to keep the classroom warm. It was closed in 1962 and gradually fell derelict. It was still owned by the McNaghten family who gave it in trust to the North Eastern Education and Library Board to be used for educational purposes. It was restored in 1987 and is used as a living history museum, visited by many schools during the year. There are children’s activities such as practice copperplate writing and Edwardian children’s toys to play with and classes are re-enacted in the Edwardian style, except there is no caning of mischievous children.
The museum has many authentic artefacts and some artwork by the sculptress Rosamund Praeger. She was commissioned by the McNaghtens to make a bronze plaque for the entrance steps. She chose the legend of the Children of Lir for her theme and her bronze shows Finuola as a young girl sheltering her brothers from a storm on the Sea of Moyle.
The Children of Lir
King Lir and his wife had two beautiful children. One day when they were playing outside, they got a message that their father wanted to see them. When they got home, their father stood in tears while he told them that their mother had died, giving birth to twin boys. The four children lived with their father for a time, but he was despondent and lonely after the loss of his wife. His wife’s sister Eva took on the family, but her real aim was to win the heart of Lir. She soon grew very jealous of the strong love they had for each other and their father and his love for them, so she plotted to get rid of the children. She took the children to visit another king called Bov Derg (Red Crow). And when they stopped to rest, she ordered her servant to kill them but the servant refused. She didn’t have the courage to do it herself but instead she cast an awful spell on them. They were immediately changed into swans and the only part which remained human was their ability to speak and their beautiful singing voices. Long chains of strong fine silver bound them together so they would never be apart. They were condemned to spend 900 years as swans.
First they were 300 years on Lough Derravaragh in Westmeath on a lake near their father’s castle so they were able to see him as they flew, wandering his estates demented with grief, not knowing what had become of them. Then they were 300 years on the cold and cruel Sea of Moyle. And finally they were 300 years on the North Coast of Mayo and made their home on Inishglora Island. Over the long years the children were swans, Ireland had changed and Saint Patrick had converted Ireland to Christianity. There was a dertach or small oak church on the island and the saint of the place, Mochua looked after the swans that sang so beautifully. He fed them and gave them shelter when the fierce Atlantic gales blew. But the fame of their singing spread despite their isolated home and the daughter of the King of Munster craved them for herself. She ordered her husband, Lairgean to attack Inishglora and seize the swans. On the very day of the attack, the 900 years of the spell expired, the silver chains dissolved away and the swans transformed into the enchanted children. Lairgean was so frightened that he ran away.
But just as quickly as the swans had become children they began to grow up and age all the years they had been in exile. As they withered and became 900 years old, the old saint Mochua took pity on them and baptised them before they died. They were buried on their island in a single grave, standing upright. Fionnuala stood in the middle with the twin boys on either side and Hugh in front of her and they are there to this day.
Video produced by Ambient Light Productions