Myth of the Giant’s Causeway

by Waheeda Harris

The cliffs are sharp, the land a vibrant green and the sea a dark blue. After rolling along the green coast of Northern Ireland, I was arriving at the Giant’s Causeway. This unique combination of rocks is a geological rarity, and it’s no surprise it has fuelled many an Irish storyteller.

Squinting into the distance from the Causeway Drive, it’s almost possible to make out the distant shores of Scotland. And it’s this location that probably helped give rise to the myth associated with the Giant’s Causeway, which—like many of the Emerald Isle’s tales—is linked to the mythical hunter/warrior Finn McCool.

Waheeda Harris stumbles on the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and finds out about the mythical warrior, Finn McCool -- hero of many an Irish legend.Irish folklore spins many a tale about the prowess of McCool as he battled against the Irish kings, discovered the world’s secrets through the salmon of knowledge and went up against the fierce Scots.

As the story goes, Finn McCool awoke to find a Scottish giant, Benandonner, on his way to Ireland on the Causeway. He turned to his wife, Oonagh, to help him against the much bigger Scotsman, and she disguised him as a baby lying in a cradle. When Benandonner saw the sleeping babe, his assumption that the father would be many times bigger sent him running back to Scotland, destroying the Causeway as he went.

There are hundreds of people at this World Heritage Site, the most popular attraction of Northern Ireland. As I walked downhill on the path, the Giant’s Causeway was hidden from view until I descended and turned the corner at the bottom of the cliff.

As I got closer, I noticed the distinct shapes of the rocks—small pillars and tall columns, perfectly symmetrical hexagons made from basalt rock, a result of volcanic activity 60 million years ago. Although they looked like they were carved by machinery, the rocks are natural formations, at odds with the standard cliff outcroppings surrounding them.

Waheeda Harris stumbles on the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland and finds out about the mythical warrior, Finn McCool -- hero of many an Irish legend.As children leapt from rock to rock and adults analyzed and photographed, I walked along the coastal path, passing the main rocks to look at McCool’s “giant boot”—as the story goes, discarded by the warrior. I remembered my guide’s description of McCool, outwitting the large Benandonner, and I tried to picture this area as his home, nestled on the shores, wary of the giants across the sea. I heard kids pretending to be McCool—yelling his name and proclaiming Ireland safe from its enemies.

Could I imagine a bridge of these basalt columns stretching across the sea? Could there have been a rivalry between warriors of these two Celtic nations? I suspected a sense of one-upmanship when it came to keeping the Scottish away from Ireland, but as I’ve seen before, it’s the fairy tales and myths that offer explanations for things that make no sense. Despite the geological explanation, I wanted the story to be true—to know that Finn McCool relied on his wife and tricked the Scottish giant—protecting his beloved Ireland.