One of the most magical things about Ireland is that no matter where one goes in the country, that area is guaranteed to have a local legend of some sort. From Saints, to Holy Wells, to ghosts, monsters, the Devil himself, sprites, fairies, leprechauns and more, the land is inhabited by magical creatures and secret portals to other magical realms. And, with many places of otherworldly scenery, even if you are a non-believer, it is easy to see how such myths, legends, and stories came about. Out of all of these places, however, there is only one spot where one can visit where two giants battled, or depending on the account, where one giant tricked another, and that is the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
While the Giant’s Causeway has many fascinating facts and plaudits, especially as it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the site’s main legend is the most interesting to me. The main (and most popular) legend has it that an Irish giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill (Literal translation: Finn MacCool) was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant Benandonner, and Finn builds the causeway in order that he can cross the channel to fight him (one version has him tearing off chunks of the Antrim coast and throwing them in the sea to build the causeway). While some versions of the story have Finn defeating Benandonner, other versions have Finn running away from Benandonner in fright once Benandonner’s true size is revealed. In these versions, Finn has his wife hide and dress him as a baby. And, in these versions, once Benandonner sees the size of the “baby” Finn, he runs away in fear of Finn’s presumably larger father, tearing the causeway up behind him. If all of those variations weren’t enough, other legends also exist where Finn himself is not a giant, but a party with superhuman strength and abilities. No matter which version of the story one chooses to listen to, these tales are a great example of Ireland’s oral tradition.
While the various stories about Finn are compelling, what the Giant’s Causeway actually is is a unique geologic feature known as basalt columns. These columns were formed by molten lava that cooled in the Antrim region some sixty million years ago. As the lava cooled, it formed cracks - similar to how mud dries. These cracks then extended down toward the bottom of the masses, forming “pillars” and other features, that once were part of a gigantic volcanic plateau known as the Thulean Plateau. While distinctive, basalt columns such as the Giant’s Causeway are somewhat common, and are also well-known in locations such as Iceland, and in North America at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. What the Giant’s Causeway possesses that these other spots do not is an impeccably breathtaking coastal view from along, or atop the basalt columns that has been featured in many television shows, movies, and iconic photographs.
Directions/Fees. The Giant’s Causeway is located at the tip of Northern Ireland, and from Dublin, is a three hour one way drive when there is no traffic. Similarly, from Belfast, it is a one and one-half hour one way drive. Visitors to Ireland that do not have access to a car, or a rental should be aware that there are a number of day – and multi-day tours that include the Giant’s Causeway as a main part art of their tours due to its popularity. However, tourists that are driving should strongly consider having a portable GPS unit as part of their rental package to aid in route and location finding, along with their passports as Northern Ireland is a separate country from the Republic of Ireland. The Giant’s Causeway is part of the United Kingdom’s National Trust, and entry into it as of 2017 is £ 10.50 for adults, around $14.00 USD. It is worth noting that the National Trust does have discounts online for tickets, and also offers a “Family Pass” as well.
What to Do. From the modern parking area and visitor center, visitors to the Giant’s Causeway have a number of excellent interpretive options, including movies about the Causeway, a museum, and a very informative audio tour. In addition to all of these options, there are busses that leave on a regular basis to and from the Visitor Center toward the Causeway and several other stops. While each visitor should enjoy the area in their own fashion, in my opinion, the best way to experience the Causeway region is to walk the Blue Trail. This .8 mile (1.2 kilometer) one way walk leaves directly from the Visitor Center and heads downhill past a number of spectacular locations that provide great views of Portnaboe Bay, the Camel, the Windy Gap, and ultimately, the Causeway itself. Along this walk, visitors can deviate slightly at certain spots, and can spend as much time as they like exploring the Causeway (and other trails at the end). Although the return - another .8 miles - is not daunting, visitors who aren’t interested in walking back can wait for a shuttle back to the Visitor Center.
Tips. Along with the Cliffs of Moher, the Giant’s Causeway is one of the top natural wonders of the island, and the top natural tourist attraction in Northern Ireland. While the Giant’s Causeway will never be empty, visitors who are looking for a slightly less crowded experience should consider visiting during the off-season - September through April - even though the weather at this time is more unpredictable. Like many things when traveling, crowds are somewhat dependent on chance, as when I visited in December, it was not that busy. Also, if one can time it correctly, the Giant’s Causeway is a stunning spot for a sunset in Ireland, no matter what time of year it may be. Finally, if one is visiting the region, both the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge and the Dark Hedges are great spots to fit in during a day trip to the area.