The Giant's Causeway

 

Hotels Near Giant's Causeway

 

The Giant's Causeway is a spectacular rock formation on the rugged north coast of Ireland. It is hugely significant both scientifically and in terms of Ireland's heritage and history. For decades, it has also been important to the economy of Northern Ireland, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting the attraction every year. It is steeped in Irish folklore and legend and, more recently, has been tinged with controversy.

Below you will read how the Giant's Causeway was formed - both the scientific explanation, and the one from Irish legend. We also outline its more modern history, including its significance in Northern Irish and World heritage. Then we have more practical advice, including details on the Visitor's Centre, how to get to the Giant's Causeway, and other things to see and do while in the area.

 

Giant's Causeway

 

How the Giant's Causeway was formed

The Giant's Causeway is made up of 40,000 basalt columns in a formation jutting out of a small piece of coastline on the north coast of Ireland in County Antrim. It is thought they were formed around 60 million years ago. Today County Antrim is made up of some rugged countryside but it is mostly serene farmland. Fifty to sixty million years ago it was a hotbed of volcanic activity. This volcanic activity meant the area was part of the Thulean Province, a huge basalt lava plain. At the Giant's Causeway, this molten basalt lava started to cool rapidly. This caused the basalt to contract and fracture, much the same way mud does when it dries. The cooling process left behind pillar-like objects which remain largely intact to this day.

That is the proper and widely accepted scientific explanation of how the Giant's Causeway was formed. However, this is Ireland (more specifically it is Northern Ireland) so the story does not end there. First, there is the Irish folklore, the story of how the rock formations were formed handed down through the generations. Secondly, there is the religious explanation, which is important to note as there is a very significant proportion of the population living in the area around the Giant's Causeway who dismiss the scientific explanation.

For a full understanding of the Giant's Causeway story, it is important to understand these stories and viewpoints, which are outlined below.

 

Irish Legend

The Irish are famous for their story telling, and there is no better Irish story than how the Giant's Causeway was created. In the story, an Irish warrior giant, Finn McCool, was goaded by Scottish giant Benandonner. Benandonner was ridiculing Finn McCool by shouting insults at him across the Irish Sea. Finn McCool was incensed by the ridiculing and challenged Benandonner, but the Scottish giant replied that he could not swim. Unable to fight for his honour, Finn McCool was further infuriated. In his anger he started tearing up chunks of the Irish Coastline and throwing them into the sea to make a bridge - or causeway - between Ireland and Scotland. Now there was a way for Benandonner to get across.

Finn McCool's exertions building the bridge had made him tired and therefore nervous of taking on the bigger Scottish giant. His wife, Oonagh, had the idea to disguise Finn McCool as a baby. When Benandonner arrived, Oonagh told him Finn McCool was out cutting wood and invited him in to wait. She served him tea and "cake", which had been replaced with stones. Benandonner broke his teeth eating the fake cake. This started to make him nervous about his adversary as Benandonner thought Finn McCool must be bigger and stronger than him if he could easily eat the same "cakes" that had just cracked Benandonner's teeth.

Oonagh then played her masterstroke. She introduced Benandonner to Finn McCool's "son". Of course, it was really Finn McCool himself lying in the crib. When Benandonner saw the size of the "baby" in the crib his fears of Finn McCool's enormity were confirmed and he took flight, racing back across the causeway to Scotland. As he went, he ripped up the stone bridge so Finn McCool could not follow him.

All that remained of the causeway once Benandonner had escaped was the section just outside of Finn McCool's cave - the site of today's Giant's Causeway.

 

History

The Giant's Causeway first came to the attention of the world in 1693, when Sir Richard Bulkeley, a baronet and Irish politician, wrote a paper about it to the Royal Society. From then, its popularity has grown.

We know that others had visited or encountered the Giant's Causeway before 1693. A year before, the Bishop of Derry visited. And in 1588 a Spanish Armada met tragedy on the rocks. It had been sent to attack England by King Philip of Spain, however the English navy was too strong. The Spanish ships beat a retreat via Ireland, sailing along the north coast. One ship, the Girona, hit rocks around the Giant's Causeway with 1,300 men on board. Only five survived. Four hundred years later, in 1967, the Girona's wreck was found on the sea bed.

Giant's Causeway 1743 EngravingOne of the first known images of the Giant's Causeway is by 18th century Irish painter Susanna Drury. She painted watercolour paintings of the Giant's Causeway in 1739 which were in turn created into what are now famous engravings in 1743.

The first explosion in visitors to the Giant's Causeway came about with the launching of the Giant's Causeway Tramway. It opened in 1883 and ran for 65 years. It was the world's first hydro-electric tram system, built using ground-breaking technology created by Siemens. The tramway ran until 1949.

Throughout the Northern Irish Troubles, the Giant's Causeway continued to be popular, often acting as a respite for the violence that was going on elsewhere in the country. During and after this period, however, controversy raged about how best to capitalise on the natural gift bestowed on Northern Ireland. It had a lot to do with politics and money, but it was a very localised argument and never stopped the visitors coming (although previous sub-standard facilities might have lessened the quality of their experience).

 

National Trust and UNESCO

The Giant's Causeway has been under the management of the National Trust since 1961. It is a UK wide charity that works to protect and preserve historic places and spaces. The National Trust has millions of members and looks after locations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At the Giant's Causeway, the National Trust works to protect the local wildlife and general environment, while at the same time hosting the thousands of people who visit the Giant's Causeway every year.

In 1986 the Giant's Causeway was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. UNESCO is a United Nations organisation that, through its World Heritage initiative, seeks first to identify cultural and natural heritage sites around the world considered to be of "outstanding value to humanity" then protect and preserve them. The Giant's Causeway is one of only 188 natural world heritage sites in the world. It is the only one on the island of Ireland is one of just two in the UK, the other being the Devon Coast.

 

Visitor's Centre

The Visitor's Centre at the Giant's Causeway, run by the National Trust, is impressive now, but for many years it was an embarrassment to the people of Northern Ireland. Because of petty squabbling and imcompetence, there was no Visitor Centre at the Giant's Causeway between 2000 and 2012. This travesty was finally corrected in July 2012 when the current building was opened.

It is a beautiful building that has been nestled into the landscape to become part of the countryside, rather than simply sitting on top of it. It also uses many environmentally friendly features, such as the recycling of the rain water that falls on the roof.

The Giant's Causeway Visitor's Centre features an interactive exhibition. There is also an outdoor audio guide with further information. Other facilities include a coffee shop, gift shop and tourist information.

The stones and the coastal path are open from dawn until dusk all year. The Visitor Centre and Shop are generally open during daylight hours, which means 9am to 5pm in the winter months and 9am up to 9pm in the summer months. Bank holidays and Sunday opening vary slightly so, whenever you are traveling, it is best to check opening times on the specific date you will be visiting.

It is important to note that you do not have to pay in to the Visitor's Centre in order to see the Giant's Causeway. The stones themselves are free to access. This has been the case since the late 1800s when a public right of way was created in the courts. The Visitor's Centre, however, will enhance your Giant's Causeway experience.

 

Controversy

The Giant's Causeway is in a part of Ireland were many people hold very strong Christian religious beliefs, such as Ian Paisley, the firebrand preacher who was the MP for the area for decades. This part of the population do not believe the scientific explanation of how the Giant's Causeway was formed, particularly the part about it being created 50 to 60 million years ago. Instead they believe the Giant's Causeway was created 6,000 years ago, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Ever since the opening of the new Visitor's Centre this viewpoint has been part of the interactive exhibition. The inclusion of the creationist theory has been controversial and has been tempered, with the National Trust being at pains to point out that it fully supports the scientific view.

 

Getting to the Giant's Causeway

The easiest and most obvious method of getting to the Giant's Causeway is by car or on a dedicated coach tour. It is 63 miles from Belfast (43 miles from Derry) and is away from main population centres. While public transport is an option, travelling directly by car or coach is strongly recommended. Once in the north coast region of Northern Ireland, the Giant's Causeway is very well sign posted.

There are two car parking options, with the first being to drive right up to the Visitor's Centre site and park in the car park. The other option is to use a free park and ride service in the nearby town of Bushmills. It is just 2 miles from the Visitor's Centre. There is a reduced rate for entry to the Visitor's Centre for people using this option.

Once at the Visitor's Centre and car parks, the next stage is to get to the stones themselves. The walk down to the stones will take about 10 to 15 minutes. If the walk does not appeal there is a shuttle bus service from the Visitor's Centre down to the stones. There is a small charge for this bus.

 

Other things to do and see

There are other things do see when visiting the stones at the Giant's Causeway. The area surrounding the attraction is rugged and beautiful and there are many walks to take, particularly along the coastline.

The Giant's Causeway Tramline is also worth a visit, while other interesting landmarks include the Causeway School (which was built in 1915) and the Causeway Hotel.

 

Where to stay

See our dedicated page listing the best hotels near Giant's Causeway.