Whilst the pre-historic origins of the Giant’s Causeway are fascinating, the volcanic creation of these columns wasn’t suggested until 1768; 75 years after the Causeway was first discovered by Sir Richard Bulkeley of Trinity College Dublin in 1693 – and by this time people had conceived other explanations for how the Giant’s Causeway was formed.
Legend says the hero Finn MacCool (Fionn MacCumhaill in Irish Gaelic) was challenged by a Scottish giant by the name of Benandonner to fight, but there were no boats big enough or strong enough to carry such a giant over the sea and so Finn constructed the Causeway for Ben to cross the narrow stretch of North Atlantic to Ireland.
Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa is home to similar basalt columns and it’s likely that this helped shape the myth. There are several different versions of what happened when the hero and the giant met; one tale sees Finn defeat Ben in battle, whilst another has him go into hiding once he sees how much bigger his opponent is.
It is said that Finn’s wife, Oonagh, disguised him as a newborn dressed with a full night gown and bonnet. The hero climbed into a large, hastily made cradle, and Oonagh told him to keep quiet. With Finn pretending to sleep, his wife invited Ben in for tea and begged him not to wake the child.
When Ben saw the ‘child’, the giant fled back across the sea, destroying the causeway as he went to prevent Finn from following. Ben believed that if Finn’s young son was so large, his father must be truly massive even as giants go.
Visitors to the causeway today can see fascinating rock formations such as the Giants Boot, Giants Eyes, and the Giants Gate – all of which helps to reinforce the myth and bring it to life.
In Irish legend however, Finn wasn’t a giant but one of the great supernatural warrior- heroes of the Celtic pantheon and there are no pre-Christian tales about the Causeway in the ancient annals. Some believe the modern version of the tale may have evolved from tales of Ireland’s first inhabitants, the supernatural Fomorians – believed by some to be the gods of chaos and wild nature – who used Clochán na bhFomhórach or the ‘stepping stones of the Fomorians’ to travel across the ocean just like Benandonner used the Causeway to reach Ireland.