In the days of ancient yore, a Scottish giant named Benandonner challenged an Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill to a fight. Fionn accepted the summons, but the giants had a problem. A sea lay between the two colossi, so Fionn constructed a causeway across the North Channel.
The exact details are sketchy and lost to the mists of time. In one version of the tale, Fionn smites Benandonner mega-mano-a-mega-mano. In another variant, Fionn sneaks a peek at his opponent and realizes that Benandonner is actually a much gianter giant than himself. Fionn’s wife, Oonagh, disguises him as a baby so when Benandonner sees him in a cradle the Scottish behemoth believes Fionn to be the child of the giant, instead of the giant himself. And if his baby is that size, how large must his actual opponent be?? In fear, Benandonner retreats, destroying the causeway as he goes to prevent the Irish giant from following him.
The remnants of the highway built for the bout that never materialized is today known as Giant’s Causeway.
Way back in Issue #8, we explored Devils Tower, the famous structure in Wyoming. We learned it is formed mostly of hexagonal columns of cooled lava. The best way I can explain Giant’s Causeway is to envision Devils Tower chopped off, but spread out like butter. Instead of forming a tower of hexagonal columns, it’s a tableau of geometric shapes.
Located on the coast of Northern Ireland, the causeway likely earned its name because the columns look like the tiles a giant would use to build a walkway. 50-60 million years ago, the region was subject to intense volcanic activity. Molten basalt intruded through a layer of chalk beds to form a vast plateau of lava, called the Thulean Plateau. Just like Devils Tower, when the lava cooled it contracted and cracked. So, originally, the tower and the tableau were one uniform structure but cracked into many distinct columns.
For the 100th issue of the newsletter, I wanted to feature a spot that I’ve visited that created a lasting impression on my memory and imagination. In 2015, fortune smiled upon me, as I was able to visit the Emerald Isle with my wife, sister, and mother. The entire journey was phenomenal. I chronicled the Cliffs of Moher in Episode 6. Probably another half dozen locations are worthy of a stand-alone article. Toward the end of the stay, we ventured into Northern Ireland, mostly for the purpose of seeing Giant’s Causeway.
Walking into the area honestly felt like Jurassic Park, minus tropical trees. The cliffs of the Irish seacoast are incredible and, near the Causeway, they were dotted with the signature green of Ireland, giving the jagged, vertical feel of equatorial islands. The walk to the hexagons was worth an expedition on its own.
Emerging to the Causeway proper was like encountering an alien ground. I can think of no other landscape that approaches the breadth of stony geography. Devils Tower has a similar foreign attribute, so perhaps it is something about the columnar jointing and polygons that cause a wonderful dissonance. It is rare to encounter geometries in our natural world; usually, the forms are free-flowing and asymmetric. Even though the angles at Giant’s Causeway are not perfect, they are close enough to imagine a mythical giant playing with legos.
In 1986, UNESCO named the area a World Heritage Site. The spot is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Northern Ireland, for good reason. Though we hardly had the area to ourselves, the crowds were not oppressively large.
In addition to the Causeway table itself, several other structures are famous at the site. Some of the named formations include Giant’s Boot; the Organ; the Shepherd’s Steps; the Honeycomb; the Giant’s Harp; the Chimney Stacks; the Giant’s Gate and the Camel’s Hump.
Going through the photos for this article has been a wonderful flashback for me. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Giant’s Causeway, make it a destination.
Interestingly, the Thulean Plateau extended all the way to Scotland, though most of it is now submerged by ocean. Perhaps the origin of the battle between Scotish and Irish giants arises because the spots physically connect. On the other side of the sea, in Scotland, lies Fingal’s Cave. It features the same columnar jointing as Giant’s Causeway. I find it very satisfying when ancient stories match with geographic reality. I have not yet made it to Scotland, but the cave will be one of the must-see locations when I finally get there!
Thank you for reading through the first century of articles. On to number two!
I’ll end with a dump of some of the beauty of Giant’s Causeway!
Further Reading and Exploration
Giant’s Causeway – Official Website/National Trust
Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast – UNESCO Profile
Scientists solve mystery of how Giant’s Causeway was formed – The Guardian
Giant’s Causeway Geology – USGS