Along the Coastal Causeway

I recently toured the North Coast of Ireland with some other international students: Americans Jessica and Steph, Spanish Carlos and Czech Martin.  No trip to Northern Ireland is complete without a visit to the Giant’s Causeway, and that’s exactly we were headed.  Along the way, we stopped at a variety of other magical places on the Coastal Causeway Route and Tom, our Scottish tour guide/bus driver, entertained us with useful information, thoughtful commentary and very cheesy jokes.

Our first stop was a quick one at Castle Carrickfergus, a well-preserved Norman castle built around 1170.  The town of Carrickfergus, which means “Rock of Fergus,” is even older than Belfast, and was for some time a more prominent city.

Castle Carrickfergus.

From right, Jessica, Steph and I take advantage of the photo op!

Carrickfergus was mostly just a photo op, so we were soon back on the highway headed for Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, a rope suspension bridge linking the mainland to a tiny, rocky island.  The bridge was initially built several hundred years ago for the purpose of salmon fishing.  The current bridge, made of rope, wire and wood, is only a few years old, and tourists who are willing to part with £5.60 can actually cross the swinging bridge.

I was not willing to part with £5.60 this time, because a fierce wind was blowing and there were even predictions of hail and snow.  When I return to the North Coast in the spring, I’ll be sure to give it a go.

Struggling against the wind in the parking lot at Carrick-a-Rede, I saw at a short distance a young woman who looked a lot like my roommate, Kathryn Dean.  Oh – it was!  You will remember Kathryn from my post about Belfast Castle.  Kathryn had gotten halfway over the bridge when the guides deemed it unsafe to cross in the weather!  I believe she was allowed to continue crossing, and made it back safely.  So brave, that Kathryn!  We chatted for a few minutes, delighted with this chance meeting.  Then, it began to hail.

This is how hard the wind was blowing.

Kathryn took cover with her friends in the National Trust Tearoom while I trudged after my crowd on the path to the rope bridge.  The journey was fairly miserable in the cold hail and rain, but it was a great adventure.  Every step felt like an exhilarating struggle with the wind, who seemed pretty intent on blowing us into the choppy sea.

The dramatic landscape at Carrick-a-Rede. By the way, Carrick-a-Rede means "Rock in the Road" in Irish Gaelic. Carrick means "rock" if you haven't figured it out yet. One of many things I learned on this tour!

Thankfully, there were guardrails along much of the path, so we were never in real danger as far as I know.  We held on to our cameras, hats and gloves and finally arrived at the bridge, which had been reopened for the time being.  Extreme weather is necessary to bring things to a halt in Northern Ireland; a little wind and hail is no big deal.

A few brave souls cross the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. I was not among them.

Another exhausting, wind-afflicted walk and we were back in our warm tour bus.  We ate lunch as Tom drove us on to the Bushmills Irish Whiskey Distillery.  To the disappointment of some, we did not have time to tour the distillery, but did tour the gift shop.  The entire Bushmills premises smelled of whiskey, which was presumably boiling away in the giant silver vats we passed on the way to the gift shop. I have no idea if that’s an accurate description of how whiskey is made; I missed the distillery tour, remember?  But I was very pleased to buy a whiskey chocolate truffle bar in the gift shop.  It was delicious.

Once everyone had lugged their bottles of Bushmills onto the tour bus, we had a brief photo opportunity down the road at the medieval ruin Dunluce Castle, C.S. Lewis’s inspiration for Cair Paravel in The Chronicles of Narnia.  The castle is dramatically set on a cliff above the sea, and part of it actually collapsed into the sea in 1639, when it was still residential.  Encompassing my love for castles, ruins, dramatic seascapes and children’s literature, Dunluce Castle is a place I’d love to explore.  I’m hoping to make a return trip in the future.

Dunluce Castle, through the mist.

The Causeway! My camera battery was low, so I didn't get any good closeups, but you can get the idea:)

Finally, we arrived at Northern Ireland’s most famous tourist destination: Giant’s Causeway, where we had over an hour to climb about, explore and enjoy the view.  There are two generally accepted versions of how the hexagonal columns of Giant’s Causeway were formed.  One is that rapidly cooling lava created the geological wonder, so long ago that Europe was still connected to the eastern coast of North America.

Folklore has it that the Causeway was built by the legendary giant Fionn MacCumhail (anglicized Finn MacCool).  Finn ruled Ireland in the days of giants, but he had one great enemy:  the Scottish giant Benandonner.  They had never actually met, but liked to thunder insults at each other from across the Irish sea.   Benandonner constantly threatened to overthrow Finn MacCool and conquer Ireland.  One day, Finn decided he had had enough of Benandonner’s threats and decided to shut him up once and for all.  He hammered the hexagonal columns out of rock and pounded them into the ground all the way from the northeast coast of Ireland to the west coast of Scotland.  Then he called out to Benandonner, something like, “Come and cross my causeway, if you think you’re so brave,” expecting the Scottish giant would be too afraid to act upon his threat.

Naturally, Finn was wrong.  Benandonner did start to cross the causeway, and as Finn caught a glimpse of him, one thing was clear: Benandonner was MUCH bigger than Finn MacCool.

Finn sprinted home to his wife Oonagh.  “Oonagh,” he cried, “We’ve got to get packed up and leave right away.  We can never return.”

“What’s th’ matter?” Oonagh asked him, bewildered.  He explained the situation.  Oonagh began thinking of a plan right away.

“Alright, Finn, we’ll get ready to go, but first you’ll have to take your breakfast.”  She gave him his regular fry up with a giant-sized pint of beer, into which she put a strong sleeping potion.  Once her husband was fast asleep, she quickly went about building a gigantic pram and dressed Finn in massive baby clothes.  She tucked the snoozing Finn into the cradle and popped his thumb into his mouth just as there was a knock on the door.

“I’m here for Finn MacCool!” Benandonner roared when Oonagh answered the door.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Benandonner,” she apologized politely, “Finn has already gone out to the fields to work this morning.  He’s already forgotten about that little challenge he made yesterday.  But you’re welcome to come in for a cuppa if you promise not to wake the baby.”

Benandonner came inside and immediately noticed the startling size of the baby’s pram.  He peered into the pram and saw the sleeping “baby” Finn MacCool, then turned back to Oonagh in amazement.

“This is Finn MacCool’s child?” he asked her.

“Oh, yes,” she responded cheerfully.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Benandonner said, backing away, “I don’t think I’ll be staying for tea.  If that’s the baby, I’d hate to see the size of his da!”

With that, Benandonner hurried back across the Causeway as quickly as he could, smashing Finn’s handiwork behind him so that the giant couldn’t follow him to Scotland.

People climbing on what's left of Finn's Causeway.

When he discovered what Benandonner had done, Finn was so angry that he picked up a huge piece of rock and hurled it after his enemy.  He missed, and the rock landed in the middle of the Irish Sea, where it is now known as the Isle of Man.  And that is how the Causeway was really formed:)

The waves were so intense that the sea foam was as thick as cake batter. I suggested giants baking as a potential folkloric explanation.

Exhausted after a long day of traveling, we returned to Belfast around 6:30 pm, ordered pizza, and let the adventure soak in.


In Dublin’s Fair City

Last Friday morning,  I arrived at Belfast Central Station at around 6:30 AM to catch a 6:50 train to Dublin Connolly. After redeeming my web voucher for a proper ticket (remember, only £10 round trip!), I approached the ticket barrier in a slightly sleepy state.  Here was my first challenge of the day: I could see Platform 2 beyond the barrier, but couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to get there.  Feeling very much like Harry Potter in his awkward early-wizard days, I asked a station staffperson, “Sorry…how do I get to onto the platform?”

The man smiled kindly.  “We’ll call you when it’s time to board.  It’s still a bit early.  We’ll call you and open up the gates.”


The journey to Dublin was about two hours, but I took some time in Dublin Connolly to locate maps and get my bearings.  I had a loose itinerary in mind, but my general plan was to wander about the city on foot and see what I could see.  This plan was not a complete failure, but I ended up with very sore legs and a determination to plan my next trip, to Dublin or elsewhere, more thoroughly.  Even after consulting the maps, I had very little idea where I was, but I eventually found my way to Trinity College and the Book of Kells, which was first on my list.

I couldn’t take pictures in the Book of Kells, but the exhibit was well worth the admission price.  The Book of Kells is an elaborately illustrated volume of the four Gospels, handwritten and decorated by monks, probably in the early 800s.  The exhibit showed how the monks prepared the vellum, or calfskin, on which the book was written and traced the diverse influences on the Celtic art that embellishes its pages.  It also documented the history of the Book of Kells, including the frequent Viking attacks on the monastery at Iona, where it may have been begun.  I particularly enjoyed the quotes and poems by various scribe monks, all of whom were simply delighted to be able to write, praised God for the opportunity to write, and discussed being happiest while writing:) I thought this was cute, and I could definitely relate!  Finally, we got to see a few pages of the Book of Kells itself, as well as selections from the Book of Durrow, decorated by monks in a same general time period.

While at Trinity, I also peeked inside the Museum Building, which houses the Geology Department and a tiny exhibit about Irish stones and fossils.  My favorite part of that exhibit was the Giant Irish Deer skeleton, which was tremendous and scary-looking and reminded me of a dragon.

The Giant Irish Deer, from the floor.

The Museum Building and Geology Department. What a beautiful place to have class!

By the time I was finished at Trinity, I was hungry for lunch.  Passing by Molly Malone and a pianist in the streets, I found my way to the Davy Byrnes, a pub made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Molly Malone!

I enjoyed a delicious goat’s cheese tart with salad and a pot of tea and listened to the conversations swirling around me.  A group of three older Irish men sat at the table next to mine swapping stories.  Someone’s mother had died, and one of the men made a phone call to discover the funeral arrangements.  They mentioned the pianist I had seen along the way and recalled another pianist who used to play in Grafton Street many years ago.

The pianist in Grafton Street. He was quite talented and had drawn a large crowd!

The most talkative of the men inquired about my food, “If you don’t mind me asking, is it the country pie you’re having?”

“No, actually, it’s the goat’s cheese tart,” I answered politely, and assured him that it was quite good.  He ordered the goat’s cheese tart as well, and thanked me for the recommendation!  It was a fun lunch.

The pub has a 1930s art deco sort of ambience.

After lunch, I meandered toward St. Stephen’s Green, where I spent quite a bit of time looking at monuments, admiring the scenery and people-watching.  My favorite monument took me a while to find, but I was glad I did.  The Fountain of the Three Fates, pictured below, was a gift from Germany to Ireland in thanks for their aid after World War II.

The pond and stone bridge at St. Stephen's Green.The Fountain of the Three Fates

My next stop was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but I took an unexpected detour when I spotted this lovely gate, tucked demurely into the brick wall alongside St. Patrick’s Close.  I moved closer to take a picture of the gate and discovered that it led to Marsh’s Library, the first public library in Ireland!  A sign on the door said “Welcome to Marsh’s Library.  Please ring bell for assistance.”  When I did, I was greeted by John, one of the library’s cheerful curators.  He gave me some background of the library, which was built in 1701 by Archbishop Narcissus Marsh.  The library has been used by the likes of Jonathan Swift and James Joyce, who may have been locked in cages while they studied, which was commonly done to prevent readers from stealing books.  There was a special exhibit of the library’s early medical texts on display.  Among many fascinating tidbits, I learned that a good way to cure and prevent the Black Plague is to drink ale mixed with saffron and egg.  No wonder so many people died! (Totally kidding).

The mysterious library gate, beckoning to me....

I finally made it to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and had a good look around before it closed.

St Patrick's Cathedral, from across the street.

By that time, it was about half five, so most places were closing.  I started to look for a nice place to eat dinner.  I ran across an Indonesian restaurant called The Chameleon in the Temple Bar area of Dublin.  It was quite pricey, but there was an early bird special, and the foodie in me couldn’t resist trying a new cuisine.  When the hostess informed me that I would be sitting on cushions at a low table, I couldn’t say no.  Sitting on cushions was exactly what I needed after a ten hour day walking around Dublin by myself.

My meal consisted of a sweet potato spring roll with spicy mango dip, red curry with squash, courgette, bamboo shoots and Thai basil, wok fried rice with sweet soy, garlic and ginger, and a salad with cucumbers, mango and black sesame dressing.  Yum!

All in all, it was a satisfying, exhausting day of sightseeing in Dublin’s fair city.