Finn McCool’s Causeway

In a recent post this year I said how much we liked to go off the beaten track and find Ireland’s gems hidden away among the narrow boreens of West Cork and elsewhere. But sometimes it’s also worth going to the better known hotspots around the country – and being prepared to regard them objectively in spite of the sometimes intrusive crowds that you might meet along the way.

Last summer our trip around the coast of Northern Ireland took us past the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim. I had never been there before (Finola had) so I was keen to see what all the fuss is about. After all, I knew the causeway had been built by one of Ireland’s greatest heroes – Finn McCool – and that it once extended all the way to Scotland: the other end of it can be seen at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa (Staffa is a Norse word meaning ‘Pillars’ and is named from the rock formations there): the Gaelic name for the cave is An Uaimh Bhinn, meaning ‘the melodious cave.’ It has been suggested that the name ‘Fingal’  is linked to the name ‘Finn McCool’ possibly after an 18th century Scots poet, James Macpherson, wrote an epic poem loosely based around the Finn story. Later, the composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the cave and celebrated it in his Hebrides Overture. It’s worth looking at this Youtube video of the piece as it is well illustrated with dramatic views of the Scottish end of things:

Before leaving Scotland – and this atmospheric music – I was intrigued to find mention of a tradition that the Staffa cave is fully illuminated by the sun on only one day of the year: on or around the 16th of December (quite close to the winter solstice), and the teller of this tale will point out that it was exactly on that day – 16 December – in 1830 that Mendelssohn completed his overture . . .

Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway has been a popular tourist destination for as long as there has been tourism in Ireland. I hadn’t realised that it had been served by a dedicated tramway since the 1880s (the photo above dates from that time). The line, running from the mainline railway at Bushmills, was the world’s first to be powered by hydro-electricity – fed by a generating station at Walkmill Falls near Bushmills via 104 horsepower 78 kW Alcott water turbines providing 250 volts at 100 amps. Sadly, the line closed down in 1949 but has been revamped over the final 3.2 km of the original tramway during the main tourist season, carrying its first passengers at Easter 2002.

Another modern development is the tourism and visitor centre, which opened in 2012: the previous building was burned down in 2000. As an architect (happily retired!) I always take an interest in large public buildings and their design. This one was very controversial when it was mooted, partly because there was concern about the way it was being commissioned – initially it was to have been privately financed and run. In the end funding was raised from the National Trust (who own the site), the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the UK Heritage Lottery Fund and public donations. I think it is a successful building: it has gravitas while also being quite playful with the references to the hexagonal basalt formations of the Causeway. It has to achieve a difficult job: handling thousands of tourists (in 2016 there were 851,000!)  as efficiently as possible while providing a good informed experience.

Top – the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre has a well designed interactive information area. Above – Fare on offer at the Visitor Centre includes basalt column-shaped chips, and souvenir travel sweets!

The popularity of the causeway has ensured that it has been well recorded by artists, topographers and postcard publishers. Here are a few examples, beginning with one of our favourite antiquarians, George Victor Du Noyer.

Top to bottom – George Victor Du Noyer c1850; Thomas Rowlandson c1812; Susanna Drury, c1740; tourist postcard from 1907

The Giant’s Causeway was supposedly discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692, and announced to the world the following year when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a fellow of Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper on it to the Royal Society . . . I wonder if he mentioned Finn McCool? Just in case you don’t know this story yourself, here’s a good version of it, narrated by Tom Purves and beautifully accompanied on the Uillinn pipes:

We went fairly late in the season (October) and on a wet and windy day. It was a worthwhile visit and I do recommend it: the Antrim coastline is spectacular enough to warrant the journey, even if the causeway wasn’t there – but what a legend! It links one of Ireland’s best known heroes with the nearby Scottish coastline, and credits him with the creation of both Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest inland mass of water) and the Isle of Man. Today it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site – in fact the only one in Northern Ireland.

Monoliths, Mysteries and Marriages

"The Fingers" on the skyline

‘The Fingers’ on the skyline

All across West Cork – in the middle of pastureland, in isolated bogs, on the tops of mountains – you see standing stones. Mostly single but also found in pairs, or rows of three or more, they are as ubiquitous as they are mysterious. A scan of the Ordnance Survey map of the valleys running eastwards from Bantry, just north of us, shows a great proliferation of standing stones, and we have been tempted into the field often to hunt for them. We usually find them, but even when we don’t the search brings us into magnificent countryside.

Standing Stone Country

Standing stone country, east of Bantry Bay

The most numerous are, of course, single standing stones. The practice of erecting monoliths dates from the Neolithic and many of the stones we see may indeed be as old as that, or Bronze Age. Some may be medieval or more recent still – local people occasionally have memories of a grandfather placing a stone to act as a cattle scratching post.

Bishop's Luck Stone - wonder what's under this one?

Bishop’s Luck Stone – wonder what’s under this one?

If the stone has rock art on its surface, as is the case with the Burgatia stone near Rosscarbery, for example, we can safely conclude that it’s probably Bronze Age. Ogham incisions, or an inscribed cross will assist with an Early Medieval date. But the vast majority are unmarked and their functions may have varied. Some excavated examples have yielded evidence of burials at the base, and some seem to mark boundaries or entrances to mountain routeways.

Stone pairs and stone rows often occur in close proximity to other Bronze Age monuments such as stone circles and boulder burials. Some are further away from the monument but clearly visible from it.

Like the stone circles, the pair or row has an alignment – generally northeast/southwest, and a further alignment is formed from the two to the boulder burial or stone circle.

Irish folklore is rife with stories about standing stones. Many were said to have been hurled there from a nearby mountain by Finn McCool. Kevin Dannaher in his book Irish Customs and Beliefs relates several instances of petrification. Here’s an example:

…our early saints are…credited with passing fits of choler during which several miscreants were rendered harmless…When St Fiachna discovered that a dairy woman was stealing his butter he did not hesitate to loose a mighty curse against her, which turned not only herself, but her dairy and all her utensils as well, into stone. In proof of which they are still plain to be seen close to the saint’s church at Teampal Fiachna, a few miles south east of Kenmare.

The Three Fingers at Gurranes, near Castletownshend, probably once a row of five or six stones

The Three Fingers at Gurranes, near Castletownshend, probably once a row of five or six stones

One kind of standing stone is particularly intriguing – the holed stone. Tradition has it that these are marriage stones. Click here to read Amanda Clarke’s account of the Caherurlagh stone, and a curious experience she had there once.

A marriage stone? Wait…I think I might be getting an idea…..

*Both holed stone photographs are by Amanda Clarke