This time we weren’t going to explore the Republic of Ireland, we were going to change territory… and nation. Our destination was Northern Ireland, which belongs to the British crown and which, like everything on the Emerald Isle, also possesses that inherent magic typical of legendary lands.
The next day we got up early. We had planned a promising trip and had met our guide at an untimely time. The trip was going to take up the whole day, so it was worth getting up early. Without further ado, we prepared and set out to take the DART to Dublin, where our bus was waiting.
The day was overcast and we feared that it would make it impossible to visit our destinations. Fortunately, the inclement weather decided not to make act of presence and we only had to face a wind that punctually became annoying and a gentle rain, prolegomenon of the classic downpours that flood the island in winter. The trip was going to be long, but we were lucky enough to have a charismatic guide who would enliven the trip with dozens of stories and interesting facts about Ireland.
The Spire, an unloved monument
Before leaving the capital of the Irish republic, we were able to see some of its monuments on the way. Among them was the highest sculpture in the world: the Spire of Dublin, also known as the Monument of Light. It is located on O’Connell Street and has no loss. It is a gigantic stainless steel cone 120 meters high. At its end, only 15 cm in diameter, was placed a small light that would be operating 24 hours a day (although it has been melted several times). Like a sort of modernist lighthouse, the Spire serves as a point of reference and orientation from virtually anywhere in Dublin. Perhaps that is why it was given the allegorical title of Monument of Light, also because it was intended to inaugurate and “illuminate” the new millennium with it, although, among other things, its installation was delayed until the end of 2002 and the beginning of the following year. On the other hand, the material that constitutes it reflects sunlight in such a way that throughout the day the colour of the monument changes from a simple metallic grey to warm colours when the sunset approaches.
However, this monument is not much appreciated by the Irish for various reasons. In the next post we will relate the unstable relations that have been forged between Irish and British, because precisely this factor has a lot to do with the rejection of this sculpture. In the same place where this gigantic needle stands today, there was a sculpture in homage to the British Admiral Horatio Nelson, famous mainly for defeating the Spanish-French fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, where he lost his life. It consisted of a granite Doric column on top of which was the effigy of the Admiral. In total, the commemorative sculpture, erected between 1808 and 1809, measured almost 41 meters (another pillar crowned by Nelson, although higher than the Irish, is in Trafalgar Square, London). Visitors could climb up the column to the feet of the Admiral’s statue for spectacular views of Dublin. This was true until 1966, when Liam Sutcliffe, a terrorist member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), blew up the statue and part of the pillar in a thousand pieces.
Nelson’s presence on that avenue, which is also dotted with several effigies of heroes of Irish history, was an affront to the Irish nationalists, who believed that the huge sculpture, a symbol of British imperialism, eclipsed the humble statues of their national heroes. In addition, the IRA considered France an ally, all the more so since the French Revolution was a fundamental influence on the Irish Republicans, so they were not too comfortable with the presence of a pillar crowned by a British hero who defeated the French in Trafalgar. Indeed, there have already been several attempts to overthrow the sculpture. In the 1920s it was hotly debated its legal demolition (Ireland had already formally become independent of England) and in the 1950s a group of students tried to tear it down. Eventually, the monument was left in a pitiful state and had to be completely removed. The popular discontent with the cyclopean needle were fed with the facts that the firm that commissioned its construction, Ian Ritchie Architects Ltd, was British and its erection cost millions of euros at a time when Ireland was going through a period of economic need.
As we have mentioned, in addition to the gigantic needle, there are a number of monuments paying tribute to some heroes of Irish nationalism. Starting from O’Connell Bridge and heading towards the Spire, we first come across the statue of the character who gives his name to this street and to the bridge: Daniel O’Connell. This national hero has a prominent place in the history of 19th century. Scion of the once powerful aristocratic and Catholic family of the O’Connell, he was born in County Kerry on 6 August 1776. He was sent to France to study with the Jesuits in 1791, when the French Revolution was at its height. Daniel witnessed firsthand the violence that sadly characterized this event, which awakened in him a strong pacifist sentiment and a categorical rejection of the use of violence to achieve political milestones. Daniel O’Connell is considered the leading figure in Irish history in this period because he won various liberties for Irish and British Catholics to such an extent that in the nineteenth century he managed to get Catholics into the British Parliament, all without spilling a drop of blood. It should be borne in mind that Britain imposed a series of powerful restrictions through various criminal acts against Catholics (a confession which they have pursued incessantly since the 16th century, the century of the Lutheran Reformation), including the nullity of political representation. Thus, O’Connell is also known as the “liberator”. He also fought to repeal the Acts of Union of 1800, by which Britain engulfed Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a union that was also supported by the Irish Parliament under the promise that 100 Irish parliamentarians would obtain seats in the House of Commons of the UK Parliament, which would facilitate access to the Parliament for Irish Catholics. However, the union turned out to be a shrewd deception, as King George III subsequently cancelled that promise, until in 1829 Daniel O’Connell got his way. O’Connell was undoubtedly a reformist leader who would inspire later leaders, such as Gandhi.
The next monument we find as we advance toward the colossal needle is that of William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), again, another Irish nationalist leader who was a member of Young Ireland. O’Brien is known to be the leader of the Ballingarry uprising in County Tipperary in July 1848. Unlike his predecessor, O’Brien did bet on armed struggle, and with a small group attacked the positions the police had taken in the house of a widow in Ballingarry. The tensions between the Irish Republicans and the British were increasing and the appearance of the great Irish Famine did not help to smooth things over, all the more so since the British administrations were insensitive and carefree in the face of the epidemic of hunger that was decimating Ireland. They treated the kingdom of Ireland more as a mere slave colony than as an integral part of their territory. The result of the uprising was a disastrous defeat and the deportation of O’Brien to Tasmania on charges of high treason. Even so, that battle became a myth to the nationalists and a motive for continuing the fight against British oppression.
Then there is the monument to Sir John Gray (1815 or 1816-1875), an English nationalist polymat that ran the Freeman’s Journal, spreading the ideals of O’Connell and the nationalist movement. He was also a physicist, surgeon, journalist, and politician. Finally, before reaching the needle, the statue of James Larkin (1876-1947), a stout socialist member of the Independent Labour Party and founder along with James Connolly of the Irish Labour Party, stands in our way. He was also the founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). His fame lies in his intense efforts to mobilise and improve the living conditions of Irish workers and to unionise unskilled workers.
The Dark Hedges
After leaving one of Dublin’s most symbolic streets, we head towards the M1 motorway towards the northern end of the island. Just over two hours awaited us until we reached our destination, constantly accompanied by a light drizzle ready to further green the Irish soil and a leaden sky.
We finally arrived at a place in Northern Ireland known as Dark Hedges. It is a walk along Bregagh Road and delimited by numerous beeches on both sides of the road. It is a peculiar place, in which you breathe an atmosphere of mystery and magic, and the leaden sky also helped to it. It is reminiscent of the archetypal setting of the enchanted forest that often appears in fairy tales or in Gothic horror stories. Fortunately the luminosity was generous, because we are sure that at night the face of this tree-lined promenade changes radically and presents its less kind face. The beeches of thick trunks are uncoordinated and branch out abundantly, to such an extent that in some sections of the path the canopy creates authentic domes that only let us see tiny pieces of sky, a sort of vaulted tunnels that, whether we like it or not, automatically transport us to other times. Seen from either end of the road, the beeches seem to pounce on the road, as if a spell were trying to prevent the visitor from entering.
At the end of the road we are welcomed by an 18th century Georgian style mansion. It was commissioned by James Stuart, who named it Gracehill Mansion after his wife, Grace Lynd. The owners of this place ordered the planting of the 150 beech trees that originally adorned the entrance road to the mansion to give visitors a sense of magnificence and to indicate that they were not accessing any place. Unfortunately, inclement weather and strong storms have not given this place a break and have felled some trees. Currently there are only about 90 beech trees left and the surrounding land is home to a golf club. Consequently, the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust was founded in 2009 to preserve and maintain the state of health of the surviving trees from inclement weather, the frequent movement of vehicles and vandalism.
Obviously such a place could not escape the influx of the paranormal. So much so that Dark Hedges is home to a ghost. This spectrum is manifested above all at night through a melancholic lament that freezes the bones of even the bravest. It is said that it wanders along the road, moving sibilinately between the beeches and their tortuous branches, until it vanishes when it reaches the last tree at the end of the road. It is popularly known as the Grey Lady and its identity varies depending on who you ask. Some claim that this is the spirit of Mrs. Lynd who, deeply in love with her old house, refuses even after death to leave her property. Others, on the other hand, claim that it is the ghost of a poor servant of a nearby house who died in strange circumstances. Perhaps she still wanders through Dark Hedges until someone solves the mystery of her death. Other versions claim that this is a lost ghost who has not found eternal peace and whose body is buried in an abandoned cemetery located near this road. Be that as it may, in 2015 the photographer Gordon Watson, from Ballycastle, claimed to have captured for the first time the famous ghost in a photograph. When he took the photograph in broad daylight he saw nothing strange, it was when he examined it on his computer that he noticed the presence of a strange mist floating in front of the camera. Of course, there is no lack of those who give a more mundane explanation to all these phenomena. The guilt of the ghostly whispers perceived at night would be caused by the wind or the breeze crossing the labyrinth of branches that cover the path and the sighting of presumed ghostly entities would be a consequence of suggestion. Independently of all this, we invite the reader to visit for himself the place to impregnate himself with the magic that floats there and to check for himself if there is a ghost or not…
Dark Hedges, due to all its facets, is therefore a place that attracts everyone at any time. So much so that filmmakers and producers of television series have not thought twice and have chosen this place to record some scenes and add more magic without the need for too many special effects. In fact, Dark Hedges became famous thanks to the successful HBO series Game of Thrones, where part of the second episode of the first season was shot. It was also the setting for the film Transformers: The Last Knight. Needless to say, both productions caused a boom in visits to this place.
But if this curious place already seemed like a delight for the senses, the best was yet to come…
A rope bridge over the abyss
Back on the road, our next target awaited us a little further north. Without leaving County Antrim, we headed for the coast. In the first part, we already pointed out that one of the most beautiful attractions in Ireland is its coastline and stately cliffs. Not only because of the incredible and unforgettable views they offer, but also because they are the best places to contemplate the great force of Gaia, the geological dynamics and the constant erosion of the rocks. Well, this is what we were going to see in our next destination, albeit from a somewhat unusual perspective.
The bus left us in a parking lot practically stuck to the cliffs. Only a hedge barrier and a wire fence separated us from the cliff. As the entrances were included in the tour, we lost no more time and we set out to travel the approximately 1.3 km that separated us from our objective. The ocean and imposing rocky elevations surrounded the road from one side to the other. We could not ask for more. After crossing the scarce kilometre with parsimony and enjoying the wild landscape, we finally reached our goal, where the Carrick-a-Rede Island (“foundry rock” in Gaelic) awaited us, and as a good island, it was separated from us by a strait of sea. And uniting that piece of land that had been split off for millennia with our location, there was a bridge about 20 meters long: the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, owned by the National Trust. No problem then. Well, there was one, and that is that the bridge is suspended 30 meters above sea level. The bridge, moreover, is made of rope, and to cross it you have to step on narrow wooden boards held by the rope. Bearing in mind, moreover, that with the slightest gust of wind and with two steps the structure swayed, fear slowly emerges from the bowels.
This fear is quickly dispelled by the fact that the structure has strongly withstood all kinds of storms and blizzards since 2008, the year in which the current bridge was installed. And we underline “current” because it is not the first one, far from it. In 1755 several fishermen installed a bridge linking the coast of Ireland with the small island. On this promontory these same fishermen and future generations installed a fishery dedicated primarily to salmon and whose remains can still be seen. They fished with nets, tying one end to the rock of the island and with the other they formed an arch to catch the absent-minded salmon that came from the procelose ocean to, passing through this territory, complete their life cycle in the rivers where they were born. To do so, they had to descend with a boat to direct the salmon towards the island, with the dangers that this entailed, especially when the swell was strong and the threat of crashing into the rock wall increased. Even so, those fearless fishermen risked their lives almost daily, not only during fishing but also everytime when they crossed the bridge. Because the bridge they built did not include the adjective “safe” among their features, especially because there was only one rope to hold on to and the wooden rails (separated from each other and also arranged horizontally) were rickety. So if the present bridge already imposes respect, imagine that of 3 centuries ago.
However, those fishermen were made of other sort. They had to cross that battered bridge (let’s bear in mind that they had to do it loaded with all the fishing gear), or they were left without eating. They had no other choice. Even so, the bridge held up well, because there were seasons when more than 100 people crossed it. The fishing season used to cover the summer, when the sea was calmer. The rest of the year the bridge was retracted to prevent its degradation. Something similar happens with the current bridge. The administration is sometimes forced to close in winter by inclement weather. These activities lasted until 2002, when they ceased and give way to tourism. As a curious fact, it is worth mentioning that salmon has been one of the most appreciated foods by the Irish, although it is true that fish has not been a habitual food in Irish gastronomy since certain stigmas have been attributed to it, since fish has been associated with the diet of the poor. Meats, especially beef, are much more important. In fact cows (and also pigs) have been one of the most important food sources since Ireland was populated by the first Neolithic farmers. Even during the Celtic era of Ireland, the first thing the leaders of the different Celtic tribes tried to seize from the tribes they faced was their cattle. Even so, such has been the importance of salmon that it is an animal that has been mythologized and is part of Irish legends. In the Irish pantheon of magical beings appears the Salmon of Knowledge, a fish that acquired absolute wisdom after ingesting the fruits of a rowan that accidentally fell into the lagoon or spring in which the animal lived. Whoever tasted it would acquire that gift.
The fact is that we finally crossed the rope bridge and, certainly, we would have regretted it if we had not done so, since from the Carrick-a-Rede Island we obtain a clearer and more panoramic view of the entire landscape as there is no obstacle that stands in the way of the vision. In addition, from the island you can see some of the caverns that perforate the coastal walls and the most palpable proof that we were on a millenary volcano, namely the black rock pillars integrated into the cliff wall. That black rock is basalt that emerged from the dormant volcano beneath our feet about 60 million years ago. As if that weren’t enough, the island is a wonderful observatory for birds and cetaceans. If the reader-traveller ever visits this unforgettable place, don’t forget to look at the distance. In the distance, the coasts of Nessie’s home will greet you…
Before getting back on the bus, we crossed the car park to visit a site we had yet to see. A hundred meters from the main car park, the closest to the ticket counter, is a second car park, this one made of earth, in what used to be Larrybane Quarry, from where lime was extracted. To process the lime, kilns were installed all along the coast of Antrim and the ruins of one of them can be visited in this same place. We recommend a visit to this area, as there is also a short walk that practically descends to sea level and reveals tiny rocky beaches where you can rest feeling the ocean breeze. In addition, fans of Game of Thrones have another place to take pictures. This car park is where Renly Baratheon’s camp was set up and where Queen Margaery Tyrell witnessed a tournament.
Following the footsteps of the giants
Back in the bus, we would travel about 15 minutes west, always under the leaden sky typical of these latitudes. We were going to explore some structures that, according to legends, were erected by giants, those same beings that mysteriously swarm through the mythologies of the world, as if they wanted to point out their real existence centuries ago. These constructions, for some elaborated by erosion and for others by giants, are part of what is known as Giant’s Causeway. But previously we stopped at The Fullerton Arms restaurant to recharge our batteries with a delicious veal stew typical of Northern Ireland. By the way, this restaurant houses one of the 10 carved doors scattered throughout Northern Ireland (specifically number 6) that pay tribute to the successful Game of Thrones, a series to which the Emerald Isle seems to be consecrated.
With the stomach full, we returned to the bus in the direction of the Causeway. We descended into the car park and began the walk that would take us to our goal. We left the interpretation centre on the left, whose façade, made up of a series of black basalt columns, figuratively represents what we were about to enjoy. This was not an usual path, because we were walking directly on a mythology in itself. Specifically, that of some giants who modeled the landscape to their liking, leaving us samples of their activity throughout the area. It is normal that people had linked all these geological structures to giants, not only for their size, but also for the capricious forms that they manifest, easily identifiable with the elements that the legend tells us. Because it is said that an Irish giant named Finn McCool lived here with his family. His life was quiet until other giants appeared to which Finn, brave and gullible in equal parts, wanted to challenge.
Our first stop is Portnaboe or Bay of the Cow, because the shepherds took the cattle to the lower areas of these hills to graze. In this section of the road there are several elements that should be highlighted. On the one hand, there are still remains of an economic activity to which the inhabitants of this coastline were dedicated. They are the “kelp walls”, a series of low walls arranged parallel to the coast and that, as their own name indicates, served to hang and dry the collected kelp algae. These algae were then burned in a series of stoves or ovens and both the smoke and the final product were used for various purposes. Doctors used the smoke, whose smell was very unpleasant, to treat bronchitis, while the calcined material was useful for decalcifying the water, for obtaining minerals, for bleaching and for making Irish linen. On the other hand, in this bay there is a cove known as Brenther (Nordic word meaning “steep harbour”) from which guided boat routes started in the middle of the 19th century, allowing tourists to enjoy beautiful views, another important economic source for the inhabitants of the area. From Brenther, the humble and ramshackle boats took tourists to the Causeway, to several marine caves, including the Runkerry cave, considered the largest marine cave in Ireland and where a sound show was carried out that consisted of firing a weapon for tourists to experience the acoustics of the cave in exchange for a few coins, and to Port na Spaniagh, a place we will talk about below.
However, if this place is famous again it is because of the legend concerning the giant Finn McCool. It is said that once the absent-minded giant was so far from home that he had to resort to an animal to return quickly. That animal was a giant camel. Of course, that camel is lying for all eternity (or at least until nature decides) in Portnaboe, with one peculiarity: it is petrified. For science, moving away from the romanticism of popular tradition and legend, Finn’s camel is nothing more than a mound of dolerite originated from the infiltration of lava through layers of soft rock that eroded over the millennia to leave us this curious illusion.
The views were repeatedly spectacular. Little by little, we understood why the giant had chosen this area to settle down: seclusion and contact with nature are supreme here. We constantly saw the artistic abilities of nature, with incredible and curious geological formations on both sides of the path. In all of them, traces of the legendary biography of Finn and his family were glimpsed. Just before leaving Portnaboe they appear on our left, just at the cape that delimits the aforementioned bay and marks the beginning of Port Ganny, a pair of miniature hills known as the Stookans (“haystacks” in Scottish), and which, of course, are related to Finn. In these hills Finn stored his straw. But as we’ve already mentioned, Finn is very distracted, because placing a haystack near the sea is not a good idea at all…
In this same cape is the “Windy Gap”. The layout of the rocks has generated a sort of corridor that in the windiest days is a real challenge to cross. The Windy Gap has the reputation of being the place where the wind reaches the highest speeds in Ireland. Such a force can have the wind here that it is capable of knocking a person down.
After overcoming the Stookans and the Windy Gap we arrived at another bay: Port Ganny. “Ganny” is a Gaelic term meaning sand (gaineamh), as it is one of the few places on the Causeway that has sand. Possibly there was more before, but farmers of the area took it for their particular use. In the distance we could see our goal constituting the next cape. However, before arriving there it is worthwhile to scrutinize the rock wall that we have on our right. A series of rocks shyly emerge from it and seem to be embedded in a “sandy” wall. Again we see the hand of erosion in this place, which has been removing the softest rock layers to expose the hardest rocks, which better withstand the onslaught of winds and water.
After crossing the small walk that separates both capes of Port Ganny, finally we arrive at our longed for goal: the Giant’s Causeway. It’s fascinating, there are no words to describe how incredible this place is. It doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before, although this structure can be found in more parts of the world. One really does not know what to think when sees this spectacle, since thoughts of the possible artificiality of place quickly come. What the traveller contemplates in this place is a set of tens of thousands of basalt columns that are progressively gaining height, formed by a sort of superimposed ashlars, some of them forming almost perfect polyhedral prisms (predominantly hexagons), so they seem artificial. In fact, the most popular legend tells us the same thing. Again, the author of the work would have been Finn McCool. According to this story, Finn would have it in for a giant living on Staffa Island, Scotland, called Bennandoner. From a distance, the Scottish giant looked like little, a shorty that wasn’t going to cause too much trouble. So Finn began the arduous work of building a huge causeway to the island, the remains of which can be seen today. What was his surprise when, about to finish his great work, he realized the deception his eyes had perpetrated: Bennandoner was much bigger than he was. So, in a show of cowardice, he took to his heels. The Scotsman saw the arrogant Finn flee, so he decided to finish the road to pursue him and give him what he deserved. The former quickly hid in his house and asked for help from his wife, Oonagh, the only one with some intelligence. Without further ado, Oonagh disguised her husband with the clothes of her baby, Oisin. Just in time, because Bennandoner had started knocking on the door violently in search of his enemy. Oonagh invited him in cordially for a cup of tea. Finn was taking care of the cattle, his wife told him, but while he could wait and meet the little boy of the family. When Bennandoner saw the “little one,” he recoiled with a pale face. “If the baby is that big, what did the father have to be like?” he must have asked in terror. The trick worked and the Scottish giant returned like a bat out of hell to his island, not without first sinking part of the causeway into the sea to prevent the Irish giant from retaliating and chasing him. That’s why today we see the road incomplete. However, on the island seen in the distance, Staffa Island, there is another formation similar to the Giant’s Causeway, as if it were the continuation that formerly united the two territories.
But Ireland and Scotland are not the only places with such structures. More can be found in the Faroe Islands, in the Stapi Fjord in Iceland (a region that Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew and pupil travel through in search of the entry to the earth centre in the Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where the Giant’s Causeway of Ireland is briefly mentioned, so it’s posible that the French writer may have travelled to these places), in Greenland, in the Azores, in La Gomera (Canary Islands).
The history of these structures, known as basaltic columns by geologists, is tens of millions of years old. Specifically, the history of the Giant’s Causeway begins about 60 million years ago. At that time, the supercontinent Pangaea was in the process of division and the Atlantic Ocean was progressively widening. These colossal movements of the tectonic plates originated dozens of eruptions and the filtration of lava towards the exterior. Once cooled, these gigantic masses of lava formed plateaus and mountains of basalt. In the Causeway we can also see how, alternating with the dark basalt, bands of a reddish rock known as laterite appear in the rock, which has seen the light thanks to the erosion of the outer layers of basalt. On the other hand, the curious polyhedrons that are generated are due to the slow cooling of the basaltic lava that, during the process, loses volume, generating cracks that, when joined together, form these prisms, mostly hexagonal. It is a process similar to the one observed when the mud solidifies. With consecutive eruptions over millions of years, layers of basaltic lava were superimposed and those columns were formed, which in some cases can reach hundreds of meters. Of course, wind, water, ice, etc. have given the final touch.
The genesis of the Causeway is now clear, but in the 18th century there was intense debate on this issue. The scientific interest on the Causeway begins with the analyses made by the physicist and naturalist Sir Thomas Molyneux, from Dublin. Although he did not personally visit the site, he sent a person of his confidence to dig around one of those columns to study its depth and to get some fragment for analysis. Molyneux was the first to postulate that the rocks were basalt, although it was not yet known where it came from. Since then, various authors have been engaged in the mission of discovering the geological origin of basalt and, therefore, that of these structures. For 200 years, two theses clashed fiercely: Vulcanism and Neptunism. The former, headed by French geologist Nicolas Desmarest, suggested that basalt was a volcanic rock generated from the cooling of lava. Therefore, basaltic columns would have their origin in the earth’s depths. Neptunists, on the other hand, claimed that all rocks formed in a primordial ocean through sedimentation. Therefore, the basaltic columns came from the bottom of the ocean. Fire against water. Vulcan against Neptune. This problem arose from ignorance of plate tectonics and the existence of fissures through which lava can seep. Until geology did not advance a couple of centuries and the discoveries were accumulated, it was not known that the genesis of the Causeway were multiple volcanic eruptions during millions of years.
But if the Giant’s Causeway caught the attention of scientists and tourists, it was thanks to the testimonies and pictorial representations. Possibly the most important paintings are the two landscapes perfectly sketched by Susanna Drury, with which she won a contest of the Dublin Society. The importance of these and other works by other authors lies not only in the popularization of this place but also in the inspiration they had for many scientists when deciphering the enigma of its origin.
The Giant’s Causeway is divided into three zones as we advance through Port Ganny. First we find the Little Causeway, so called because the basalt columns are the tiniest. In this first part we can contemplate the Marbles of the Giant, some spherical rocky blocks with which Finn used to entertain himself. Also, until the 1950s a small freshwater well could be seen, a sort of natural container surrounded by several hexagonal stones. That water was originated from the surface runoff of rainwater. According to legend, this is the place that supplied with water to Finn, although it also served to satisfy tourists. In fact, it became a key point of this place. Its protection and exploitation was carried out by a team made up exclusively of women: the Old Marys, thus known because many shared a name and because most of them were of advanced age. They were the keepers of the well and were dedicated to the sale of a glass of well water and wishes, although some also gave a shot of local whisky (many think that this drink was invented in Scotland, but the truth is that there are previous records of whisky distillation in Ireland, although its true origin is controversial). In 1950 this business ceased due to several health problems acquired by the water of the well, it seems that by some pollutant element that rainwater dragged here. Therefore, the itinerant merchants of the Causeway had to look for new sources of income, which they found in the sale of some curious souvenirs known as “specimens”, fossil remains supposedly extracted from the Causeway, although they really came from Devon and Dorset.
The next section is the Middle Causeway, possibly the one with the most snapshots and postcards. Among the mound of columns stands out a cavity known as the Wishing chair, in which the surrounding columns seem to be arranged as the backrest and armrests of a throne. The ritual for making a wish is simple: first of all, as with any wish, it must be kept secret. The wish you ask for must be humble, something that can be fulfilled, and while you ask for it, you have to shake your butt on the seat. This natural chair has received the royal butt of Prince Charles, as well as those of former Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson, former Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness or former British Prime Minister James Cameron.
Finn’s Causeway ends in the Grand Causeway, the place where the columns reach the highest altitudes (the highest reaches 10 meters). We again find new impressions of the Irish giant. At the top of this part of the Causeway appears a set of sunken rocks with a perfect pentagonal shape that, when flooded, form the silhouette of a fan. Legend has it that it is the imprint of a fan that Finn gave to his wife Oonagh. Behind us is the Aird Snout promontory, in whose bosom the giant’s cannons are inserted, horizontal rock columns covered with vegetation pointing towards the sea, which Finn would have installed in case Bennandoner came up with the idea of returning. Between the great Causeway and the promontory is a sort of corridor that connects Port Ganny with the next bay, Port Noffer, built, of course, by Finn, although the least romantic point to the hand of man. Finally, at the entrance to Port Noffer, visitors can enjoy the Giant’s Loom, a palisade several meters high with polyhedral basaltic columns that Finn used to weave his garments. But surprises don’t end here.
From our position in the Grand Causeway we could see some curious columns attached to the wall of a promontory. From afar they looked like the jaws of a cyclopean beast. But according to legend, it would be the pipes of Finn’s organ, some 60 columns 12 meters high. Although the giant is presented to us as someone gullible, he also had its artistic facet.
On a farther promontory is Finn and his family’s home. The columns against the sky, identified as the chimneys of the house, betray their location. On a smaller promontory next to the previous one we could see the silhouette of Finn’s son’s favorite toy, a teddy bear, although the passage of time has also petrified it.
If we go down to the coast, we’ll see a rock with a very peculiar shape. It looks like a shoe and, in fact, it would be a shoe that Finn would have lost during his untimely escape from Bennandoner. It is another of the most photographed elements of the Causeway. Victorians called it the giant’s chair because they rested on it to contemplate the landscape. By the way, from this rock and the size of Finn’s feet, several scientists have tried to calculate its height, concluding that it would measure about 16 meters tall (54 feet). Finally, on the slope of the elevation opposite Port Noffer is a narrow ascending path known as the Shepherd’s Steps, thus known because it was the path frequently used by shepherds to descend to the coast. In the 1960s it was restored by some locals, thanks to which visitors can ascend the promontory through its 162 steps.
This indescribable tourist attraction continues beyond Port Noffer and awaits more wonders to the traveler. As we had a limited time, we could not go any further, but we encourage those who can to continue the tour and share their secrets. Before returning to the bus, we stopped briefly at the modern interpretation center to find out more about the Giant’s Causeway. In 1961, the National Trust acquired the Giant’s Causeway for its protection. In 1986 it was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, not only for the beauty of the landscape but also for the important scientific information that has bequeathed to us to know a little better the past of our planet. As it also houses a great and rich diversity of habitats, in 1987 it was granted the title of National Nature Reserve. Many other recognitions show the inherent importance of this place, whose care is in the hands of all of us; the least we can do to thank the Causeway for the enormous amount of sensations and emotions it gives us is to respect and take care of it.
The story we have given about the mythological biography of Finn McCool is not the only one, although it is possibly the most classic and known. It was first written in the 1840s in The Dublin Penny Journal. On the contrary, Finn’s legend has undergone countless changes over time thanks to the tour guides, boatmen, innkeepers and souvenir sellers of the 18th and 19th centuries who have worked for decades on the Causeway. Among all of them, we will highlight the most romantic version of this legend, believed lost but fortunately rescued. It was recorded on paper by Mary Anne Allingham in 1830 after a visit to this place, who heard it from one of the many guides who offered their services. This story goes like this: Finn had fallen madly in love with a Scottish maiden, but despair had settled in her soul as he could not overcome the strait of sea that separated them. One day, while he was strolling along the beach, he thought to build a gigantic causeway with the rocks of the place in order to cross the sea and met his beloved. The first day he made great advances, practically building more than half of the causeway. Tired of a hard day, he left work half-heartedly and went to rest. According to this story, Finn had a sorcerer grandmother who was worried about losing her beloved grandson forever if he achieved his goal, so she used magic to invoke a nocturnal storm that would sink into the sea the causeway Finn had been building during the day. The next day, the giant saw with regret that his work had allegedly been destroyed by the elements, but tenacious as he was, he set to work again. Again, during the night, his grandmother’s spells knocked down the causeway again. The same thing would happen for several more days. Finally, Finn, about to die exhausted, decided to build the road at night, facing the elements directly. Each stone he laid was sunk by lightning or by heavy tides. Even so, he finally managed to cross the strait of the sea and meet her beloved, although the causeway succumbed one last time to grandmother’s magic. Unfortunately, the effort had been excessive and, just as he embraced his maiden, he perished. Grandmother climbed a promontory to see what had happened. Observing that her magic had caused the death of her beloved grandson, sadness and sorrow preyed on her and she petrified… to this day. Because if we look back from the easternmost part of Port Ganny, we will see Finn’s grandmother’s petrified silhouette ascending the promontory.
Finn the Giant is a modern character from Irish mythology. However, there was another Finn McCool, or Fionn mac Cumhaill (Fionn means “blond” or “fair” in Gaelic), which acquired a fundamental role in the mythology of the Gaelic Celts, specifically in the sagas of the Fenian Cycle (an Fhiannaiocht in Gaelic), on which storytellers relied to fabricate the modern myth of the giant. Finn’s mythological adventures were so popular that they even reached Scotland and the Isle of Man.
His biography, like that of so many other characters in Irish mythology, is closely related to the mythological origin that the first settlers of the Emerald Isle, including, obviously, the different Celtic tribes, believed they had. Although we will dedicate an article to this fascinating subject, we will only point out that, according to Irish mythologies and, specifically, those included in the Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn in Gaelic), a compilation of Celtic myths with Christian touches of the 9th century, Ireland was conquered on several occasions by different civilizations. These stories have an enormous resemblance to the battles and internecine wars that took place on the island between the different Celtic tribes. Among them, the most outstanding is that of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mysterious ethnic group that literally landed in Ireland, because they are said to have arrived by air. During their invasion, they bequeathed their knowledge and technology to the natives, repeating again that “monomyth” that appears in diverse cultures all over the world, that of the instructing gods. The Tuatha would become the gods of the Irish Celts. For many, behind these legends there could be indications of the presence of unknown and extremely advanced cultures.
Fionn mac Cumhaill was sometimes described as a god, but in the Fenian Cycle he is treated as a mythological hero, a sort of Celtic Heracles who dedicated himself to war and hunting. Fionn was the leader of the Fianna (“wild animals”), gangs of warriors or mercenaries who lived isolated in the Irish forests and who could be called by the Gaelic kings to participate in battles. Possibly Fionn was destined for this, as he was the son of Cumhal, the former leader of these warrior gangs who died in the battle of Knock against the Morna clan. Fionn’s biography is surrounded by magical and druidic elements. When Fionn grew up, he was under the tutelage of Finnéces, a wise poet who lived on the banks of the Boyne River longing to catch the aforementioned Salmon of Knowledge, which lived in a nearby lagoon. Finally, he managed to catch it and ordered Fionn to cook it. Accidentally, the young pupil burned his thumb with the fish’s fat, so he put it in his mouth in a reflex act. That’s how Fionn acquired absolute knowledge and eventually became the leader of the Fianna. Clearly we are dealing with the archetypal myth of the path of the hero’s initiation.
Fionn had a son with Sadhbh, a woman who had been cursed by a druid, known as the Dark Man, who had condemned her to be a deer. As we have already mentioned, Fionn was also a hunter. In one of his hunting expeditions he came across precisely what would become his future wife transformed in a deer, breaking the curse. However, the draconian Druid will kidnap and curse her again some time later. Later, in another hunting party, Fionn found an abandoned child in the forest who claimed to be cared for and fed by a deer. Then Fionn realized it was his son, whom he called Ossian or Oisin (just like Finn the giant’s baby) who, according to legend, came to know St. Patrick. Oisin is also the narrator of his father’s biography. The end of Fionn is not known for sure, perhaps perished in some of the numerous battles he led along with the Fianna. However, the end of the Fianna is known: they were defeated definitively in the battle of Gabhra by a high king. Other versions tell us that Fionn is still alive but that he is asleep somewhere. This is the classic and repeated legend of the eternal sleepers, characters who at the end of their lives enter into a permanent dream until an event returns them to the kingdom of vigil, as is the case of some legends about King Arthur.
Our next destination was 10 minutes west of the Causewaya. Once the bus stopped in double row we could see Dunluce Castle, or rather its ruins, for a few minutes. Perfectly and strategically raised at the edge of a rugged cape to force potential invaders to access from a single site, dates from the early sixteenth century. Their architects were the McQuillan clan. It did not last long in their hands: in the middle of that century, the McDonnell clan, commanded by the warrior Sorely Boy McDonnell (famous because Queen Elizabeth I of England tried subdued him on several occasions unsuccessfully), besieged and conquered it. In 1565 it changed hands again, this time to those of Shane O’Neill, another famous Irish warrior, who faced McDonnell in a war orchestrated by Elizabeth I and her ministers with the aim of breaking both characters, thorns nailed to English pride. However, in 1585 McDonnell managed to retake his former bastion.
Chronicles say he did it in the most unthinkable way possible. Instead of attacking from the only possible point of access, Sorely Boy and her forces sought their own entrance through the cliff, climbing the complicated and steep slopes of it to reach the defensive towers. Dunluce was part of a medieval territory very disputed by the different family clans known as the Route, which included several points of County Antrim.
Three years later, in 1588, Dunluce Castle would become a small piece of the history of the Spanish Armada (the Great and Most Fortunate Navy) disaster in the context of the Anglo-Spanish war (although it is better known as the “Invincible Armada”, the truth is that this label is a trick and a mockery invented by English chroniclers). As a brief review, we will simply remember that the Spanish Armada, composed of 130 warships, aimed to fulfill the “evangelizing” wishes of Philip II of Spain i.e., dethrone the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and convert to Catholicism the English heretics. Understood this way, it is possible to conceive this enterprise as an authentic religious crusade in the name of God. However, God was not at the side of the Spaniards during those months. The defeat of the Spanish Armada came when the English sent several brulotes (incendiary ships) to break the order of the fleet. They succeeded and the fleet dispersed. Those who had a worse fate were those ships that were forced to move north, to Ireland and Scotland, where strong storms sank several of them, while others ended up crashing into the steep cliffs. One of them, the Girona, was destroyed by a violent collision at Lacada Point, one of the two capes that delimit the bay of Port na Spaniagh (the reader will have guessed why it is so called), located a little further east from Port Noffer. Only 5 of the 1300 crew members survived. Fortunately, the few survivors were rescued by the McDonnell family and were accommodated in their quarters at Dunluce Castle. The McDonnell, as expected, were allies of Spain against the British queen, so they helped without hesitation to rebuild the Girona. On 26 October, the Girona left renewed for Scotland, although it now welcomed new survivors of other shipwrecks that had occurred along the Irish Atlantic coast. Among them, Don Alonso Martínez de Leyva, survivor of two shipwrecks, stood out. He saw his end along with thousands of people when the Girona ran aground again and sank definitively. On the other hand, some stories say that some Spaniards stayed longer in Dunluce and took the opportunity to leave offspring. Some families from the nearby town of Portballintrae, in fact, claim to be descendants of the Girona castaways. The remains of the ship were used to make some improvements to the castle: some cannons were installed in the fortress and the rest of the materials were sold to pay for the restoration of the castle.
In 1608, the castle became the focus of the settlement that would be organized under his protection, now disappeared. It had a prosperous trade, especially with the contacts that were established between the inhabitants of Dunluce and Scottish merchants. At this time, Sorely Boy McDonnell had long since surrendered to the pressures of Queen Elizabeth I and had promised obedience to the British crown. The castle consisted of an outer ward, an inner ward, a gate house, a manor house, two defensive towers and a kitchen. This latter room would be involved in the end of the castle, although this story wanders between reality and myth. It is said that in 1639 a storm threw part of the kitchen off the cliff, dying 7 cooks. For some authors, this story would be apocryphal. The proof would be found in various paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that show that part of the castle relatively intact. Be that as it may, the truth is that the village was not destined to survive, fundamentally because it had no port for commerce, as historian Linda Stewart indicates. Finally, a series of attacks, rebellions and looting precipitated the abandonment of Dunluce. The decisive event was the battle of the Boyne (1690) in which the Protestants of William of Orange (William III of England) clashed with the deposed Catholic king James II of England on the Boyne River. The McDonnell clan supported the deposed king, who was defeated in the battle, which had economic consequences for the Irish clan, who was forced to leave Dunluce and establish their royal residence at Ballygamarry House. About 50 years earlier, the town of Dunluce burned to the ground. Obviously, the population was displaced, as were the merchants who breathed life into the village. All this determined the end of Dunluce.
Ireland is really an extrapolation of all these places we have visited. Once you land on the Emerald Isle, it’s like crossing a portal and entering an immortal and changing legend. That same day we finished our tour in the city of Belfast, but to avoid prolonging this part we will talk about Belfast and the history of Ireland in the following post. If you have stayed with desire of more, you can consult the article that we dedicated to our stay in Dun Laoghaire, a place also fascinating and with a lot of history to tell:
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