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Posted by on Apr 1, 2015 | 0 comments

My Favorite Place in Northern Ireland: Giant’s Causeway

One usually gets to the Giant’s Causeway by way of Bushmills. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a distillery in the village that makes that great Irish whiskey.

I’d driven north from Belfast on narrow roads that stitch the Irish hills together like an old quilt. Somewhere in County Antrim I encountered a snag: The lane was closed to facilitate a game of road bowling.

Men hurled steel balls down the hedge-lined path while bookies shouted their wagers and drowsy cows looked on, unimpressed by the scene. (Only in Ireland.)

I was behind schedule, and, with sundown looming, passed on an intended stop at the Old Bushmills Distillery. (I guess 1608 counts as old, even in Ireland.)

But you don’t need spirits to bring the Causeway to life. It does that just fine all by itself. As I would soon discover, this bit of primordial geology is loaded with spirits of another stripe.

Like most everyone else, I’d seen photographs of the hulking, interlocking columns that grace Northern Ireland’s wild Atlantic coast.

The result of an ancient volcanic eruption, the basalt shafts comprising Giant's Causeway stand up to 40 feet tall. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

The result of an ancient volcanic eruption, the basalt shafts comprising Giant’s Causeway stand up to 40 feet tall. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

The pictures don’t prepare you, I can tell you that.

A sea of basalt blocks, black and hexagonal, a long step from one to the next, descending into the sea, like primal pistons thrusting out of the earth.

The thought that they might rise and fall beneath our feet, but very, very slowly, out of all reckoning by human time, made me giddy. I hopscotched across the stones, a feckless man-child cut free. I got too close to crashing waves that thundered in with the hollow thump of power, then drained away like a chorus of hushed whispers.

The sun was going down. I was listening for the Giant.

There are two incredible stories connected with Giant’s Causeway—one is factual, the other mythical.

I like the mythical one more. But here are the facts. The hulking pillars are the remnants of a vast volcanic outpouring some 60 million years ago. The molten basalt cooled just so, spawning the 40,000 or so blocks we see and clamber across today.

Now, insist on doltish facts if you must, but this is Ireland; if you’re not going to let your heart loose from that sheep pen where it’s been locked up while you’re here, you might as well stay at home.

Finn MacCool (Fionn MacCumhaill in Gaelic) built this causeway.

I could see his steps leading out into the North Channel, off toward Scotland. If I could have followed them into the sunset, I’d have reached Fingal’s Cave on uninhabited Staffa, an isle in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, by morning.

Fingal's Cave was produced by the same tectonic shifting that created Giant's Causeway. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Fingal’s Cave was produced by the same tectonic shifting that created Giant’s Causeway. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Depending on who’s recounting the tale, MacCool strode across the ocean to see his enemy/lover—a giant like him—in order to battle/tryst with him/her, and found his way to Gaelic legendary fame.

You can see that there is fair bit of wiggle room to the story and that, given a few centuries (and the Irish being Irish), the yarn could grow—and it has. Like the six-sided stones beneath my feet, fact and fiction fit together seamlessly, all snug and just right, like a well-told Irish tale.

There is one more fact that I found compelling. Where the stone pillars have horizontal joints, one side will be convex, where the other is concave.

You know by walking across them that they are not perfectly flat, but slightly cusped—each missing its particular partner, now gone missing. Seawater pools in them after the waves ebb. It’s just the physics of cooling lava at play, I know. But the night I first stepped foot onto the Giant’s Causeway, it was a bit eerie, too.

Jim Richardson is a contributing photographer at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow his story on Twitter and Instagram @JimRichardsonNG. 

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