JANET QUINLIVAN tells us the story behind one of Northern Ireland’s most famous landmarks, the Giant’s Causeway
Most Northern Irish and Manx folk are aware of the tale of how the Giants Causeway was created. The story is taught at a very young age, either passed from parents or learned in school. This natural wonder of hexagonal coastal stones is an amazing sight for any tourist or local.
The story goes that Finn McCool built the pathway to Scotland. He was an Irish giant and while building the pathway over to Scotland he got a message that the Scottish giant Benandonnar (in the Isle of Man he is known as Buggane) was coming to fight him. Finn sneaked to Scotland in the dead of night across his pathway to take a look at the Scottish giant and saw that he was twice his size and strength. Finn knew that he couldn’t beat Benandonnar in battle so he then turned to his wife Oonagh for help. She decided that she would dress him as a baby, so they spent most of the night stitching blankets as baby clothes and making a massive crib for Finn. Then Oonagh made griddle cakes with some containing griddle irons inside and others not.
Soon Benandonnar arrived and Oonagh said that Finn Snr was out for a walk but would be back soon for the battle. In the mean time Oonagh offered Bennanonar some cakes from the oven. He agreed but when he bit into one of them he broke his tooth. Oonagh told him off for being weak, she said that even their baby Fionn Jnr could easily eat the cakes. With that she gave Finn a cake without a griddle inside and he wolfed it down. Benandonnar decided to test this infant’s strength and put a finger into his mouth and Finn almost bit it clean off. Because of the size of the baby and the strength that he showed Benandonnar decided he didn’t want to meet the child’s father. With that he ran back to Scotland across the path smashing the pathway as he went so that Finn could not follow him.
There is a lot more to the story of Finn McCool, his name in Irish is Fionn Mac Cumhaill. He was the son of Cumhall leader of the Fianna and his mother was Muirne. She was the daughter of a druid of Kildare, he refused to let Cumhall marry Muirne so Cumhall and the Fianna kidnapped her and he married her anyway. The druid went to the King of Ireland (Conn if the Hundred Battles), and Conn decided to fight with Cumhall at the battle of Cnucha. During the battle Cumhall was killed by Goll Mac Morna and Goll took control of the Fianna. By this time Muirne was already pregnant with Fionn and her father had requested that she be burned at the stake. She decided to flee and have her baby in secret.
She had a son which she named Deimne, who she left in the care of Cumhalls sister (who was also a druid) and a warrior woman. They looked after the child and raised him in the art of war and hunting, this is where he was given his name Fionn. One day young Fionn met a leprechaun druid called Finnegas near the River Boyne. He stayed and learned from Finnegas for seven years. During this time Finnegas never gave up his quest of catching the Salmon of Knowledge. One day Finnegas caught the fish and asked young Fionn to cook it for him, while tending the fish Fionn burned his finger on it and put his finger in his mouth and gained all the knowledge of the world.
Fionn gained the favour of his father’s men by battling Aillen a fire breathing man of the Sidhe (fairy folk). In Tara Aillen would send the city to sleep with wonderful music and while he slept he would burn the palace to the ground. All the men including the Fianna were powerless to stop him. Fionn arrived and managed to keep himself awake with a sharp spear which he used to pierce his forehead. He chased Aillen and killed him with the very same spear, Goll saw the boy’s birth right and stood aside for him to take leadership of the Fianna.
Fionn in history had a few wives but the most well-known of these was Sadhbh, a girl who has been magically transformed into a deer by an evil druid. While out hunting one day Fionn’s hounds discovered the deer, having been transformed themselves they recognised that she was human. When she stepped onto Fionn’s land the spell was broken and she returned to her true form. Soon they were married and Sadhbh was expecting their first child. However, while Fionn was out in battle the evil druid found Sadhbh and changed her back into a deer. She ran into the woods and though Fionn searched for many years he could not find her again. His baby was discovered again by the hounds in the form of a fawn. It was a boy, they brought him back to Fionn who named him Oisin and this boy would go on to become one of the greatest Fianna to ever have lived (but that’s another story).
There are still many stories of Fionn’s battles along with the Fianna throughout Irish history.
It’s said in fact that Fionn never died, some say he remains a sleeping giant in the cliffs surrounding the Giants Causeway and others that he lies in sleep with an army of Fianna guarding him. A lot of folk believe that he and his army will rise again to protect Ireland when she is at her greatest need. It’s also been said that when the horn of the Fianna is blown three times he will rise again. Locals in Antrim have claimed to hear the snores of the giant echoing off the cliffs, and some even claimed to have seen him sneaking back into the hidden door in the rocks.
Maybe on your visit to the Causeway if you listen closely enough you might hear the peaceful snores of one of Irelands greatest hero’s, ready and waiting to come back when he is called.