Millions of years ago, back when giants ruled the Earth, a massive Irishman named Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Now, as everybody knows, giants can’t swim, so MacCool, an expert mason, built a stone walkway across the North Channel to the coast of Scotland so the two behemoths could meet.
Gunning for a fight, Benandonner stormed across the sea on the walkway and pounded on MacCool’s door. Peering through the keyhole at his oversized opponent, MacCool lost his nerve. His wife, Una, told him to put on her bonnet and get in bed, then she answered the door, telling Benandonner her husband was out and she was home alone with their baby. When Benandonner saw the size of MacCool’s “baby” he said, “If that’s the baby, how big is the giant?!” and ran all the way back to Scotland in fright, tearing up the walkway as he went.
That’s one version of how the Giants Causeway came to be. Another version: around 60 million years ago, a spate of violent volcanism pushed molten basalt up through the soft chalk beds of Northern Ireland, erupting a massive lava plateau along what is now the Antrim Coast. In some places, the lava cooled so rapidly that it contracted along natural joints in the solidifying rock. Over time, erosion sculpted out three causeways, paved with more than 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns known as the Little, Middle and Grand Causeways. Many more columns can be seen overhead along the cliffs along the coast.
That’s maybe a more scientific explanation, but Scottish geology does corroborate the Finn MacCool legend: a similar causeway of hexagonal columns from the same lava flow is found all the way across the Irish Sea, on the Isle of Staffa!
I came to Northern Ireland for a week mainly to visit the Giants Causeway. I’ve sought out columnar basalt in a few other places, most notably at Cabezon Peak in New Mexico, the Devils Postpile in the Sierra Mountains of California and the Devils Tower in Wyoming.
As Ireland’s only World Heritage Site and a major tourist draw, the Causeway can get crowded, so I spent the night at the Whitepark Bay Hostel just up the road, arrived at the Causeway at dawn and had the place all to myself for over an hour. I’m always amazed by how few morning people there are in the world! As with many much-anticipated attractions, the Causeway wasn’t nearly as big as I expected – Cabezon, the Postpile and the Tower are all more formidable – but the setting along the coast was spectacular and I walked over the columns all the way down to where Ireland meets the sea.
The Giants Causeway juts out from under Ireland’s towering northern coast (just east of Bushmills, home of the famous Irish Whiskey distillery), and the morning light on the dark, north-facing rocks wasn’t quite right for photographs. So after reveling in my quiet morning at the Causeway, I left to explore more of the coast, planning to come back in the evening for another round of photos.
After hiking a loop up the Shepard’s Steps to see the Causeway from above, I headed to another nearby attraction: the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. Every spring for nearly 200 years, fishermen have strung a rope bridge between the mainland and the small island of Carrick-a-Rede to gain access to the salmon-rich fishing grounds around the island. At five pounds, the bridge toll is a bit steep, but I was first in a very short line and got to cross the bridge back and forth a dozen or so times, so I feel like I got my money’s worth. Plus, while I was there, the sun came out in force for a few minutes. And here I thought it rained all the time in Ireland!
By the time I returned to the Causeway it was literally crawling with people. I don’t know if everybody was conspiring to recreate that famous Led Zepplin album cover, or if tourists really are that unsteady on uneven rocks. I found an out of the way spot to sit and people watch, catching snippets of German and Japanese as people from all over the world swirled around the rocks. Then, miraculously, just before sunset, almost everybody boarded a shuttle bus and left, right before the sun splashed across the Causeway for 15 minutes and made my day:
I’m not done with the Causeway Coast quite yet- I’m planning an 11-mile hike linking the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Giants Causeway on the Coast Trail! Stay tuned!