Folklore: Mis-steps of an Irish Cultural Icon

Giants' Causeway4

Whenever people talk of ‘must sees’ in Ireland, the Giants Causeway in country Antrim tends to be at the top of everybody’s list. As a natural topographical feature alone, the place is certainly unique but combined with the beauty of the rugged Antrim coastline and (the more recent) local filming of the Game of Thrones, it’s become something of a ‘tourist destination par excellence’ over the last decade’. I’ve walked over those strange rock formations on several occasions and must admit that, on each occasion, I’m freshly struck by just how impressive they are.

In Irish, the Giants Causeway is generally known as Clochán an Aifir (in Rathlin Island Gaelic) or Clochán na bhFomhórach  (the Stepping Stones of the Fomorians).  It was also known as Tóchar na dTréanfhear (Causeway of the Strongmen). Because of the shape of the overall rock formation, the Giants Causeway has consistently been associated with the concept of a stepping stone or causeway of the Gods (or other mythological creatures/heroes) and most of the folklore tales tend to be linked in some way with this striking physical characteristic.

The most well-known tale associated with the site is also the most comical – Legendary Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhal (in this version described as a giant) is challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant. After accepting the challenge, Fionn builds the causeway across the North Channel to Scotland. When the Scottish giant arrives, however,  Fionn realises how enormous his opponent actually is and, terrified, he runs back to his wife to hide. Fionn’s wife disguises him by making him put on some baby clothing and tucks him into a cradle. When the Scottish Giant arrives, he plays with the ‘baby’ while waiting for his father to return and pokes it with his thumb. Out of fright or bravado, Fionn clamps his teeth on the other giant’s thumb and bites it off. The startled giant, terrified at the thought of how brutal the “baby’s” full-grown father must be, flees Northern Ireland and rips the causeway up behind him so that he cannot be followed.

This particular tale is noteworthy in that it’s the first recorded comic or derogatory depiction of the famed Irish mythological hero, Fionn mac Cumhal. It’s fascinating, but it appears that Fionn was held in such reverence by the native Irish population, that no other comic depiction of him existed prior to the printing of this version of the tale in the mid eighteen-hundreds. It probably comes as no surprise to find that this legend was actually reworked by an Anglo-Irish writer called William Carelton (whose patron, Caesar Otway, seemed overly keen on travestying traditional narratives).

These days, the National Trust (the British One) control both the Causeway and all of the surrounding land and in July 2012 opened a new visitor centre there. Unfortunately, the new visitor centre resembles a shopping mall and a cafeteria more than an interpretation centre or museum and seems predominantly focussed on selling cartoon figurines of Fionn mac Cumhal and other plastic doo-dahs. The National Trust is widely disliked by many local people because it has essentially restricted access to the national site by depriving visitors of anywhere to park. The only parking site available (controlled by the Trust) requires you to also pay a substantial entry fee for the ‘MacDonalds of local culture’.

It’s hard to see where things are going to go with this particular cultural site. Certainly, the Giants Causeway is worth a visit but the price, both on your pocket and your sense of fair play, might be too high.  There’s also a definite sense that the National Trust and their commercial partners lack any true respect for the original cultural heritage of this area and are more interested in skin-deep history and its use as a touristic cash cow.