Finn McCool, a giant among Irishmen, never bested in a fight, thought himself invincible. Then he saw the Scottish giant Benandonner charging down the causeway with blood in his eye, and he shivered in fear.
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The Giants Causeway is a peculiar land formation on the north coast of Ireland. Made up of hexagonal columns of basalt, joined in a way that only a colony of bees or a master of Tetris could emulate; it is an uncommon sight on our planet.
Naturally, explaining this curiosity in the days predating geologic science leads to some interesting stories. As a similar structure exists across the channel, at Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish isle of Staffa, this could be behind the legend of the Giants Causeway.
For those that don’t know, a causeway is a raised road or track across low or wet ground. As the North Sea is very wet ground indeed, it would take a tale of giants to create such a causeway, and giants we have.
* * * * *
Once upon a time, there was a gigantic Irish lad named Finn McCool, and an even bigger Scottish lad named Benandonner.
Being big burly boys, both gents had rather high opinions of themselves and their ability to thump anyone in a fight. This triggered a bit of long-distance bragging, yelling their boasts across miles of open sea.
“Och, you little weakling, the earth quakes when I stomp. I keep a lighting bolt stashed in my pocket – I flattened it with my fist.” Benandonner had a little sneer on his lip as he tossed that one across.
Finn lost his McCool. Scooping up a nearby glob of earth he hurled it at Benandonner, creating Lough Neagh in the process. But his aim was poor, the glob landed well south and created the Isle of Man.
And so it went. Each hurling insults and boulders, reshaping the land. Finally, enough was enough. They agreed to meet, face to face, and have it out.
At this point the two had not seen each other, they only knew of each other’s reputations and heard the boasts. Soon they would remedy that, but first they needed a causeway to meet.
Each started from his own side. Grabbing up clumps of earth, they squeezed them through strong hands, forming columns of rock and setting them in place.
Finally, Finn set the connecting pieces. Looking far off in the distance, he saw Benandonner coming. “God be with us!” exclaimed Finn, “I see the biggest giant that was ever known.” He trembled, turned and ran home.
“Oonagh, Oonagh, you’ve got to hide me. Benandonner is coming, and he’s twice my size!”
Finn may have been big and powerful, but Oonagh was the sharpest knife in that drawer. “Be easy, Finn,” replied Oonagh; “troth, I’m ashamed of you. Leave him to me, and do just as I bid you.”
Oonagh made her preparations. First, she made three loaves of bread, but in two she kneaded in her cast iron frying pans.
She then took a large pot of new milk, making it into curds and whey, and gave Finn instructions on how to use the curds when Benandonner should come.
While she was busy with all this, she set Finn to converting their bed to look like a crib.
Just in time, they finished the preparations. Peering out the window, Oonagh saw Benandonner coming. “Quick, Finn, into the crib with you!”
Finn cast aside his boots and leaped into bed.
Benandonner appeared at the door. “God save all here!” said he; “is this where the great Finn McCool lives?”
“Indeed it is,” replied Oonagh; “God save you, sir. Will you stay for tea?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” says he, sitting down; “you’re Mrs. McCool, I suppose?”
“That I am, and proud of it,” she replied.
“Wonderful!” he said. “I’ve heard Finn is the most powerful giant in Ireland and I’d like to have a go with him. Is he at home?”
“Indeed he is not,” said Oonagh. “He’s been working these many weeks on a causeway to meet up with some bastard of a giant from Scotland who thinks too much of himself. We’ve heard this fool is coming, and Finn is off to the causeway to make mincemeat of him.”
When the enraged Benandonner heard this he said, “The fool is Finn. I am that Scot, and when I’m done with him he won’t even be the grease from a mincemeat!”. He was eager to be off at once, but Oonagh wouldn’t have it. “Stay, I pray. Although you are Finn’s enemy, you are beneath our roof and Finn would not forgive me if I did not offer the hospitality of a cup of tea and a meal.”
As we may have hinted, Benandonner was a large lad, and if there was anything he liked more than a rumble, it was to eat. He gladly accepted. Oonagh made up a side of bacon and a stack of boiled cabbage, and set them in front of the Scot, along with an unusually dense loaf of bread.
“Blood and fury!” he shouted after a bite; “how is this? Here are two of my teeth out! What kind of bread is this you gave me?”
“Why that’s Finn’s bread,” said Oonagh. “Only he can eat it, along with that child over there in the cradle. As I’ve heard you are a man of some strength, I thought you could handle it. Here’s another loaf, perhaps it is softer.”
Still ravenous, Benandonner gave it a try. “Thunder and giblets!” he roared, “take your bread or I will not have a tooth in my head; there’s another pair of them gone!”
Oonagh gave Finn a little wink, and Finn let loose with a cry that would put a regiment of bagpipes to shame.
“Gods teeth, what was that!” roared Benandonner.
“Twas merely Finn’s child,” Oonagh replied.
“Mother!” said Finn. “I’m hungry. Get me something to eat.”
Oonagh grabbed the loaf of bread without the iron pan, and Finn made short work of it.
Benandonner was dumbfounded. “Let me see that child,” he said. He was getting worried. If Finn’s child could eat bread that put Benandonner’s teeth out, what would Finn be like? Then he saw the size of the child; it shocked him.
Finn said, “Are you strong? Are you able to squeeze water out of this white stone?” Finn handed Benandonner a chunk of quartz.
Benandonner squeezed with all his might, but no water was to be seen. Finn sneered.
“Give me that,” said he, and when taking it he swapped it with a fistful of curds. Squeezing away, a shower of whey, clear as water fell.
“Begone with you then,” said Finn. “If you can’t even eat my bread or squeeze water from a rock you’re not worth my time. And if my Father catches you he’ll squash you like a bug in two minutes!”
By this time Benandonner was of much the same opinion. Begging Oonagh’s leave he ran in terror for the causeway. And as he returned to Scotland, he pulled up the stone columns that made up the causeway between the two countries, for he was afraid Finn would follow.
* * * * *
And as we looked upon the causeway and learned of the legend, we thought of the giants we saw coming in; of their immense size, their arms waving in what some would call an ominous way, and the power they only hinted at.
I don’t know if there is an official version of the Legend of Giants Causeway. This certainly isn’t it. For this story, I borrowed a bit from our tour guide, a bit from a couple websites, some details from a story called “A Legend of Knockmany” by William Carleton (1845), and invented a few details of my own. They all share the same bones. I hope you enjoyed it.