A (not-so) Little Irish Tale


On the north coast of Northern Ireland, in the County Atrim, sits the Giant’s Causeway. This wonder of nature is built of almost 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the tops of which are reminiscent of a cobblestone path. Almost 83 miles north on the Scottish Isle of Staffa lies Fingal’s Cave, the opening of which has the same geological formation. The areas are so uniquely similar that it is easy to envision a bridge of basalt connecting one point to another. If a bridge existed, who could have created such an intricate piece of architecture? Giants, of course.

Many Irish legends tell of the mighty giant, Finn McCool (or Finn Mac Cumhaill). In one story, McCool got word that a Scottish giant named Benandonner was boasting that he was the toughest giant in all the world and would teach those Irish giants a lesson. This so enraged McCool that he began throwing boulders into the sea. As the boulders landed, he got the idea to build a causeway to Scotland to settle with Benandonner, giant-to-giant. Once the causeway was complete, McCool shouted a challenge and Benandonner accepted. As the Scottish giant drew close, however, McCool got spooked. Benandonner was the biggest and meanest giant he had ever seen!

McCool ran home to tell his wife that he had picked a fight and was in over his head. His resourceful wife, Oonagh, quickly came up with a plan. She had him lie in their great tub and cover himself with a blanket. When Benandonner arrived to call upon McCool, Oonagh fooled him by making him believe that her husband was even larger and stronger than he. She offered the Scot a cake of griddle-bread – baked with an iron griddle pressed inside it. Benandonner bit it hungrily and broke many teeth. Oonagh assured him that this was odd as McCool ate the same cake daily. To prove her point, she gave another such cake – without the iron griddle – to the couple’s baby son sleeping under the blanket who was none other than McCool in disguise! He ate it easily, which frightened Benandonner. He thought, “If that is McCool’s child, then McCool himself must be large indeed! Too large to tangle with!” He thanked Oonagh for her hospitality and quickly left, destroying the causeway behind him less McCool make his way to Scotland. All that is now left of the great causeway are its beginning and end.

Today, the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave are two of the most sought-after tourist destinations in all of the Isles. We know now that the basalt formations at the Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave were formed by a volcanic fissure eruption that happened more than 50 million years ago, but it’s easy to see how earlier civilizations could have believed in the causeway and the battle of McCool and Benandonner.

Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day! And, if partaking in a bit of libation is in your plans, why not drink a toast to Finn McCool and the giants of the past? Sláinte!


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