Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The amazing story (science and legend) of Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

The first time Larry and I visited Giant’s Causeway the weather was cold and damp, so we tried again a few years later when on a cruise around the United Kingdom. As expected, the coast of  Northern Ireland was still chilly, but sunshine made our second visit more pleasant and we were able to explore more of this unique landmark.

Giant’s Causeway, named a UNESCO site in 1986, was created from lava flows 65 million years ago. Lava flowed into the valley, but as the liquid basalt layers cooled, spectacular columns were formed. Looking at the mostly hexagonal columns (some have five, seven, or eight sides) of different heights and sizes, with perfectly even sides, it’s difficult to imagine that they were formed only by natural processes.

In fact, there are several Irish legends to explain the formation of these columns. In one story the Irish giant Finn MacCool was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel so that the two giants could meet. 

Another legend, possibly influenced by identical basalt columns (part of the same ancient lava flow) across the sea in Scotland, says that Fionn's wife, Oonagh, disguised Fionn as a baby and tucked him in a cradle. When Benandonner saw the size of the 'baby', he assumed that its father, Fionn, must be an enormous giant. He fled back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn would be unable to chase him down.  

Looking at the columns from a distance it occurred to me that the landscape resembled a giant jigsaw puzzle. Always curious to see details of such natural wonders, I climbed to the top of one section, scaling each column as I came to it. Later Larry and I posed for a photo on another section and then wandered along several trails to get a greater grasp of the geology of the area.

There is a series of color-coded trails that will take you to see different formations with names like Organ Pipes, the Camel, Giant’s Granny, and Giant’s Boot. After walking the blue and green trails, we hiked the longer and more difficult Red Trail back to the Visitor’s Center (a shuttle is also available). 

That trail goes high above the Causeway and Atlantic Ocean for spectacular views of the scenic landscape. Extended views included lush green farm land and pastures with grazing sheep. As we looked back down over the area where the basalt columns are located, we could barely see the throngs of people we knew were meandering there.  

The basalt field extends 60 miles to the west and along the coast of Northern Ireland, but the most remarkable section of columns is found at Giant’s Causeway. Located in county Antrim, Giant’s Causeway covers about four miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline. You can reach it by car in about three hours from Dublin or an hour and a half from Belfast.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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