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The Geological Heritage of the Irish

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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According to a popular myth, long time ago lived a giant named Finn McCool on the shores of the county of Antrim in Ireland. On the opposite shores lived the Scottish giant Benandonner. One day Benandonner challenged McCool to a battle. McCool started to build a bridge, made of large columns of black rocks, to cross over the Irish Sea. Soon the bridge was completed and seeing his furious opponent approaching, Benandonner became afraid of the battle. So he asked advice to his wife. The wife responded “go hide in your bed and let me do the talking!”
As McCool entered the castle, he asked astonished “who is this giant man snoring so loud in this bed?” The wife responded “Oh, it’s only our youngest, but my husband will be back soon. “
If this was the child, how big would be the father?! McCool started to run back to Ireland, destroying the bridge of columns behind him – so that’s why we today see ending the giant’s causeway in the middle of the sea.

As charming this account is, it is probably not a true myth but a story told for the first tourists visiting the site, as there is no mention of it in historic documents or collections of Irish folklore. Today the legendary formation of the “Giant’s Causeway” is understood much better. When the Antrim basalt started to cool down the crystallizing rock contracted in volume, forming joints resembling a hexagonal pattern on the surface of the former lava flow.

The first mention of the “Giant’s causeway” was published in an anonymous travel account in 1693. Travelling around the rural Irish landscape was an arduous task at the time and scholars intrigued by the first descriptions of this strange site preferred to send artists there, instructed to produce a realistic representation of the scenery. Apparently the first results were very deluding, as the scholar Reverend William Hamilton remarks in 1786:

Neither the talents nor the fidelity of the artist seem to have been at all suited to the purpose of the philosophical landscape . . . . In this true prospect, the painter has very much indulged his own imagination…[]

Fig.1. The first published image of the Giant’s Causeway by local artist Christopher Cole Foley was used to illustrate an account by Samuel Foley, Bishop of Down and Connor, in 1694. However both the drawing and the engraving from it were considered inadequate depictions of this peculiar Irish landscape (image in public domain).

The Dublin Society decided to offer an award for the most realistic and scientific accurate illustration of the Giant’s Causeway. In 1740 the prize was won by Dublin artist Susanna Drury, who spent three months along the Irish coast to study the landscape and produce two paintings (a view from the east and a view from the west) of the Giant’s Causeway. These paintings were used as reference for various later engravings and illustrations and significantly increased the interest of the people in this geologic formation, today one of the most popular landscape in Northern Ireland and designated as World Heritage site by the UNESCO in 1986.

Fig.2. An engraving of 1768 based on the original painting by Susanna Drury “East Prospect of the Giant’s Causeway” (image in public domain).

Bibliography:

DOUGHTY, P. (2008): How things began: the origins of geological conservation. From: BUREK, C. V. & PROSSER, C. D. (eds) The History of Geoconservation. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 300:7-16

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 12:44 pm 03/18/2012

    According to ancient astronaut theorists, the aerial perspective of the Giant’s Causeway shown in Fig. 1 could only be obtained from alien spacecraft in 1694. Much like the Nazca lines, this proves the existence of ancient extraterrestrial visitors from another planet… They probably had something to do with Leprechauns, too!

    Perhaps Irish mythology had nothing on modern mythology.

    Link to this

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