On The Shoulders Of Giants: Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast

This article was published in SUITCASE Volume 17

Every Christmas since I can remember I have walked in the footsteps of giants. They are rough, blackened, hexagonal footsteps that slot together like honeycomb and lead to a wind-battered outcrop in the sea.

Getting there can be something of a giant task in itself; December in Northern Ireland is unpredictable and unforgiving. Wrapping up in almost anything we can lay our hands on ("or y'll catch a dose"), my family and I set out from a pebbledash cottage in Portballintrae, a seaside village overlooking a sand and shingle beach. The path rounds the harbour and leads to a crossing at the mouth of the River Bush, where last year we found a pair of otters chasing trout. We walk eastwards along kelp-strewn sands towards Runkerry Point and lean into the hill - sped along by the wind at our backs - as a narrow grass path rises over the cliffs and past the abandoned Bushmills railway. Topping the hill, we arrive at the Giant's Causeway.

According to legends, an Irish giant named Finn McCool was the architect of this coastline. Caught in a war of words with a Scottish giant called Benandonner, Finn built a series of hexagonal stepping stones across the North Channel for the Scot to come and face him. On sight of the gargantuan Benandonner, Finn fled home to his wife Oonagh, who dressed her husband as a baby in a cunning plan designed to deceive his enemy. When the Scotsman came knocking, Oonagh pointed to a cot where her "son" lay. Benandonner took one look at the monstrous infant and struggled to imagine the sheer size of the father. He turned on his heels and raced back along the causeway to Scotland, churning the earth of Ireland as he went.

The mythical tale of the causeway's creation may capture the imagination, but science has an equally impressive story to tell. Some 60 million years ago, the area known today as County Antrim was the site of intense volcanic activity, which formed the largest lava field in Europe. The plateau cooled quickly and formed a network of 40,000 blocks of layered basalt rock. The resulting hexagonal columns, some of which measure up to 12 metres in height, lead from the foot of the towering cliffs and form a pavement that disappears into the sea.

Standing at the edge of the causeway, which looks out accusingly across the water towards Scotland, I don't find it a stretch to believe in both stories. In fact, as the waves roar around me, it is more of a challenge to imagine the coastline flooded with miles of lava than it is visualising a giant crashing towards the sea. The Pipe Organ and Giant's Boot rock formations bring Finn McCool to life, but there are elements of human history here too - the remains of kelp walls, shoreline fields and the isolated ruins of fishermen's cottages tucked down sheltered slipways are signs of the hardships endured by past generations.

Perhaps these echoes of a more difficult and distant reality give us a greater appreciation of human comforts, and after a journey along the causeway we seek out the sweet, earthy smoke of an Irish peat fire. At the Bushmills Inn we peel off our coats, scarves, jackets, gloves and hats and settle down with a whiskey from the nearby Old Bushmills, the oldest licensed distillery in the world. With cheeks flushed by salt spray and ears throbbing from the wind, I know that the Giant's Causeway comes to an end in the sea - but I feel that my road will always end here.

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