Mystic Places: The Giant’s Causeway and the Legend of Finn MacCool

The naturally occurring rock formation known as The Giant’s Causeway is so surreal to look upon that it has been named the fourth greatest natural wonder in the United Kingdom. Created 50-60 million years ago, it has been a source of awe through the ages, not surprisingly inspiring all kinds of imaginative stories surrounding its origin.

The legend of the Irish giant Finn MacCool is one of strength, ingenuity, and a touch of heroic cowardice. The story goes that Finn MacCool (in gaelic: Fionn mac Cumhaill) had an ongoing rivalry with the Scottish giant Benandonner (sometimes referred to as the Red Man). The two giants would yell insults to each other from across the seas between Ireland and Scotland. Eventually, MacCool took it a step further and threw a large clump of earth at Benandonner.

The Scottish giant retaliated with a rock back to Finn shouting that if he could get his hand on him, he would make sure that Finn would never fight again adding that unfortunately he could not swim the short distance across the Channel, so Finn would be spared that fate. Finn tore large pieces from the cliffs, pushing stones into the ocean bed and made a sturdy causeway to Scotland, when he had finished he shouted, “Now you’ll have no excuse” to come over and do your best.*

Legend varies after this point, some describe how MacCool turns on his heel and flees upon realizing that the rapidly approaching Benandonner was much larger than he appeared to be when great spans of water separated them. Others state that MacCool, exhausted after a week’s worth of throwing rocks into the ocean, didn’t feel like fighting and went to bed. Most legends include some variation of MacCool’s wife, Oonagh, inviting Benandonner into their home for tea and inventing an elaborate story about her enormous baby, who was actually a swaddled Finn MacCool in disguise, and the even larger, amazingly strong father of the child who happened to be out hunting. In some stories, the “baby” bites Benandonner, and in other variations, Oonagh’s story is enough to terrify Benandonner, at which point he flees back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway in his path. What we see today, according to legend, is what’s left after Benandonner’s retreat.

The Giant’s Boot

The Giant’s Causeway, as it is now known, is on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland (map), and is made up of tens of thousands of naturally occurring hexagonal basalt columns. Tourism is heavy at The Giant’s Causeway (a list of vistor resources is available at the bottom of this article), attracting visitors from all over the world. The causeway also features tall, majestic chimney stacks and a large rock near the beach known as ‘Giant’s Boot.’ While these features are awe-inspiring to look upon, and seem remarkable in their geometric symmetry, they are not particularly unique. Bassalt columns are common near sites with volcanic activity, and large lava rocks are not uncommon. Particularly unimaginative vistors have been heard to refer to the giant’s boot as, “just a big rock.” 

Basalt columns

MacCool’s ‘causeway’ is actually the result of a volcanic eruption, during which molten basalt cooled and contracted unevenly, forming the amazingly intricate, honeycomb-like pillars and fractures. The fractures resemble six-sided cobblestones – stones one can imagine were built by the giant Finn MacCool during his large-scale property upgrade.

The Legend of Finn MacCool enjoys a modern-era postscript. In 1876, three men from England conspired together to sculpt a fake mummy of the notorious giant, which they buried near the Giant’s Causeway. They staged digging the “corpse” up, and announced their findings with a sixpence admission fee to view the petrified remains of the legendary Finn MacCool. The swindlers drew in hundreds of eager visitors. Today, this mystical place is accessible to the general public with a nominal fee to the National Trust to help preserve such places. It is free to children five and under.

Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album

MORE ABOUT THE GIANT’S CAUSEWAY:

  • The Giant’s Causeway’s bassalt columns were featured on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album (right). It is a collage of several photographs which were taken at the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland, by Aubrey Powell. Read more on Led Zeppelin’s role in folklore evolution here.
  • Fingal’s Cave, found in Scotland, is also made up of similarly-structured bassalt columns and is visually reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway. In some variations of the legend, after Benandonner destroyed the causeway, he retreats into this cave.

Fingal’s Cave

  • Admission to the Visitor’s Center is not mandatory to visit The Giant’s Causeway, but it still attracts many visitors for the ease and added experience, such as the opportunity to meet Finn MacCool and Benandonner in person (below).

VISITOR RESOURCES:

 * from the UNESCO site for The Giant’s Causeway