Giant’s Causeway is located in County Antrim, on the northeast coats of Northern Ireland, about 3 miles northeast of the town of Bushmills. It was declared a ‘World Heritage Site’ by UNESCO in 1986 and a national natural reserve in 1987, by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. In a 2005 poll of Radio Times readers, the Giant’s Causeway was named the 4th greatest Natural Wonder in the United Kingdom.
Around 50-60 millions of years ago, during the PALEOGENE PERIOD, Antrim was subjected to intense ‘volcanic activity’, when highly fluid molten BASALT intruded through CHALK beds to form an extensive LAVA PLATEAU. As the lava cooled, ‘contraction’ occurred. Horizontal contractions ‘fractured’ in a similar way to drying mud, with the cracks propagating down as the mass cooled, leaving pillar-like structures, which are also fractured horizontally in BISCUITS. In Many cases, the horizontal fracture has resulted in a bottom face that is CONVEX, while the upper face of the lower segment is CONCAVE, producing what are called BALL & SOCKET joints. The size of the columns is primarily determined by the speed at which lave from a volcanic eruption cools. The extensive ‘fracture network’ produced by the distinctive columns seen today. The BASALTS were originally part of a great VOLCANIC PLATEAU called the THULEAN PLATEAU, which formed during the PALEOGENE PERIOD.
According to legend, the columns are the remains of a ’causeway’ built by a giant. The story goes that a giant FIONN macCUMHAILL (Finn MacCool), from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant BENANDONNER. Fionn accepted the challenge and built the causeway across the North Channel, so that the giants could meet. In one version of the story, Fionn defeats Benandonner. In another, Fionn hides from Benandonner, when he realises that his foe is much bigger than he. Fionn’s wife Oonagh, disguises Fionn as a ‘baby’ and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the ‘baby’, he reckons that its father (Fionn), must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland, in fright, destroying the ’causeway’ behind him, so that Fionn could not follow. Across the sea, there are identical ‘basalt ‘ columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) at Fingals Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa, and it is possible that the story was influenced by this.
In overall Irish mythology, Fionn is not a giant —— but a hero with supernatural abilities. In Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) it is noted that, over time, “the pagan gods of Ireland […] grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies ; the pagan heroes grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the giants.
Much of the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast World Heritage Site is today owned and managed by the National Trust and it is one of the most popular attractions in Northern Ireland. The remainder of the site is owned by the Crown Estate and a number of private landowners.
The discovery of the Giant’s Causeway was announced to the wider world in 1693 by the presentation of a paper to the Royal Society from Sir Richard Bulkeley, a Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, although the discoverer had, in fact, been the Bishop of Derry who had visited the site a year earlier. The site received international attention when Dublin artist Susanna Drury made watercolour paintings of it in 1739 ; they won Drury the 1st award presented by the Royal Dublin Society in 1740 and were engraved in 1743.
The site, first, became popular, with tourists, during the 19th century, and only after the opening of the Giant’s Causeway Tramway, and only after the National Trust took over its care in the 1960s were some of the vestiges of commercialism removed. Visitors can walk over the ‘basalt columns’ which are at the edge of the sea, a half-mile walk from the entrance to the site.
Some of the structures, in the area, having been subjected to several million years of weathering, resemble objects such as the ORGAN and GIANT’S BOOT structures. Other features include many reddish, weathered low columns, known as GIANTS EYES, created by the displacement of basalt boulders ; the SHEPHERD’S STEPS ; the HONEYCOMB; the GIANT’S HARP ; the CHIMNEY STACKS ; the GATE and the CAMEL’S HUMP.
The area is a haven for seabirds such as fulmar, petrel, cormorant, redshank and razorbill, while the weathered rock formations host a number of unusual plants including sea spleenwort, hare’s-foot, vernal squill, sea-fescue and frog orchard.