The UNESCO World Heritage Site in County Antrim is as culturally important as it is historically and scientifically validated. Proved now to be the result of unthinkably violent volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago, the causeway also casts light on the vivid imaginations of pre-historic man.
Before science was vindicated as a viable thing, humans created stories to explain the beautiful world around them. The Giants Causeway, iconic for its tall jutting columns and hexagonal stepping stones that disappear into the sea, conjured images of giants, mystical beings, surveyors of the land in ancient times.
The Causeway’s appearance has been attributed to various fantastical myths, usually involving Finn MacCool, an Irish giant who battles against a Scottish rival, Benandonner. In the most famous version Finn builds the causeway to connect Ireland to Scotland so that Benandonner has a dry path to cross before the fight can commence. But when Finn sees how big his competition is he disguises himself as a baby, causing Benandonner on his arrival to note how massive the baby is and wonder how huge its father Finn must be. And so he flees back to Scotland, destroying the Causeway in his wake. Not so much “walking” in Northern Ireland as stomping away from it.
It’s believed this myth evolved as humans noted the similarities in the rocks found at Fingal’s Cave on the tiny Scottish island of Staffa, 100 miles directly north from Antrim. Now of course, with the aid of scientific advances, similar formations have been discovered round hotbeds of ancient volcanic activity, sadly making the Giants Causeway less unique than originally imagined by the people of pre-Christian Ireland. But still, when walking in Northern Ireland, you can’t help but pause, sit on the descending steps or stand beneath the mighty stone pillars and look up in awe, with a hint of sympathy for how you would have comprehended this structure 10,000 years ago.