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