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.

Rock Art Ramblings… away from home!

Ireland? No - it's Rock Art in Italy

Ireland? No – it’s Rock Art in Italy

At our talk in Ballydehob yesterday I mentioned briefly the world-wide context of Rock Art: this generated a lot of interest during and after the event so I thought it worthwhile to write a post about non-Irish Rock Art. portugal stamp The carvings in Ireland appear to be part of a cultural phenomenon that runs down the Atlantic coast – from Scandinavia to Iberia – taking in Ireland and Britain on its way. However, Rock Art is widespread across the world, and over the whole time spectrum of human occupation of land. There is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Portugal – the Côa Valley Archaeological Park – which is based on finds of Rock Art. When the project was opened in 1996 its Director stated: “…The Upper Paleolithic art of the Côa Valley is an exceptional illustration of the sudden development of creative genius at the dawn of human cultural development…” That’s quite an announcement! The Park is home to some 25,000 carvings created at various periods over the last 10,000 years. Some of it is visually similar to our own Neolithic / Bronze Age examples (which were probably made within the last five Millennia) but other earlier examples seem – surprisingly – more sophisticated: mainly very beautiful representations of animals.

Canary Island example

Canary Island example

Where do we find the oldest Rock Art? Possibly in India: the Bhimbetka Caves show evidence of human habitation dating back more than half a million years, and in one particular site – known as the Auditorium Cave – carved cupmarks were found under human debris deposits that could be dated to at least 290,000 years ago. This means that the cupmarks must be as old as that date. Some scientists claim that they could be twice this age. Those cupmarks are exactly the same as the ones we have in Europe – and when found they contained traces of red pigments, suggesting that the carvings might have been painted.

India – Norway – Africa – Europe – the Americas – Australia… Ancient rock carving has been found in all continents of the world excluding Antarctica. It’s not all the same as Irish prehistoric Rock Art – where the simple motifs are familiar to regular readers of this blog – but cupmarks do seem to predominate as a common occurrence, and are usually apparently carved in the same way wherever you find them: shallow circular indentations are picked out using one hard stone tool striking another.

What does it all mean? Finola did a good job of sidelining that question during yesterday’s talk but came up with some plausible pointers: it is, of course, impossible to be certain when we are so out of touch with the peoples who produced the marks. We should also be careful of making any assumptions based on our own cultural ways of thinking. An archaeologist (Mountford) witnessed cupmarks being carved in central Australia in the 1940s: he reports that these were made as an increase ritual for the Pink Cockatoo (Kakatoe leadbeateri). The particular rock the cupmarks were hammered into was thought to contain the life essence of these birds, so the mineral dust rising from the activity was believed to fertilise the female cockatoos and thus increase their production of eggs, which the Aborigines valued as food.

I have mentioned before the cupmarks which are found carved into the lava stone in Hawaii’s Volcanoe National Park: it’s worth noting again that they are very similar to those we find in Ireland and Britain – even to the extent of having concentric rings around some of them. Hawaian families who go a long way back will tell you that they are made to receive the umbilical cords of newly born babies – to ensure health, long life and fertility. The carvings are known as ‘Puka’.

Rock Art is fascinating. I want everyone to be excited by it. It’s a ‘poor relation’ archaeologically speaking: it’s very easy to miss. It’s also an ‘endangered species’: in Ireland, some examples which have been recorded in the past can no longer be found. Perhaps our exhibition and talk will at least have raised awareness.