So I’m sick in a Belfast youth hostel in late November, 1989. I hear that the hostel nearest the Giant’s Causeway will be closing in two days for the Christmas
season. I’m looking at a wall size photograph of these bizarre, many-sided columns, ranging from inches to feet high, climbing out of a grey-skied sea like the
remnants of the bridge the battling giants were mythologized to have made between Ireland and Scotland aeons ago. I can see and hear the Belgian I
met in Dublin, his shining face as he described walking through this marvellous bizarrity, how I would enjoy it much more if I were to hike along the top of the
cliffs looking over the North Sea, and then descend the stairway a dozen stories to the beach and walk back along to see the causeway in its rocky, ocean-pounded
It’s already nearing noon; I’m only a hundred or two hundred kilometres from my goal. I might be able to get to the northern coast before nightfall, if the
lifts go well. I catch a bus heading north, and ask the best place to go hitchhiking. The driver knows his stuff, the Irish
don’tmind giving lifts. Before night I’ve had four or five lifts. These have carried me to the area of the hostel nearly as fast as if I had just
jumped into a car and driven there meself. That evening, as the hostel manager points out that the place will be closed starting tomorrow at noon, I realize
I have to see the causeway first thing in the morning, hitch back down to Belfast (or somewhere) in the afternoon.
The next morning, rested, breakfasted, packed and carrying my life on my back, I walk the couple of kilometres to the Giant’s Causeway site. I read the closed
information booth’s bulletin boards, setting my huge pack down and wondering if I really want to carry Friedrich the Canadian Army Surplus whale-pack on a three-hour hike. I haven’t seen a person yet, I’m on the northern coast of Ireland outside a closed tourist information booth, in the middle of the
rural countryside. I grab my little pack out of the middle of the big one, push Friedrich behind the information building and head out.
My Belgian informant had said it would be at least a two and a half hour walk, no question. Instead of following the little gravel path which goes
down to the viewing areas, I’m leaving it to walk out across rolling green fields on a track that has me going towards and away from the cliff overlooking the
sea, which is vertiginously far below. Gulls screech and wheel, the wind calms, blows, howls pushes and pulls and then calms down
to allow a reprieve. The warmth of the sun makes a difference.
I practice my sheep-talking apprenticeship on the occasional woolly wanderer. As usual I am childishly proud when they baaaaah baaaack at me. Up grassy hills and down, teetering next to the hitchcockian cliff-face, and away into
the sheepy field. Over an hour of this windy battle, checking my watch to see if I may have walked too far, but finally, YES! Look! There’s the stairway down!
It’s closed for repairs! NO! The sign says the equivalent of "we’re fixing these stairs because they just didn’t seem right, don’t go down,
you could fall and die". I ignore the sign, otherwise I would have to walk back across those exhausting, windy, rolling fields, not have enough time to
see the causeway! I proceed down, manage to not fall through some fiendishly concealed broken steps. Holy cow, it’s a fur piece down to the
little path along the seashore! No wonder I was getting great muscle tension every time the path crept along the edge of the windy cliff.
The Red Pathway on the North Sea
The path to the Giant’s Causeway wanders along the North Sea-side cliffs. And now the magic begins: cliffs looming overhead, birds circling, delighted with my successful descent, the wind buffeting the rock above and
not little ole’ me.
This insignificant red rock path turns in and out, winding around the irregular coastline. As I walk back I see some of the rock shapes that were visible
occasionally from above: columns standing out from the edge, five or six sided, some forty or fifty feet up at their top, and only three feet across, obviously
related to the causeway itself.
Then when I turn a corner, there’s the moonscape, or marscape, or whatever planet it’s supposed to really be on, doesn’t seem natural here.
No wonder early Eireans told of Finn McCool building this bridge across the sea to Scotland and their remains lie here; piles of table-flat
rocks in octagonal and pentagonal shapes, stepping up to about ten or fifteen feet high in the middle trailing down into the sea from the cliff-face behind. The family that shows up at the same time as I wanders from the sea up these stepping stones and down in the same state of wonderment as I. I’m appreciative of my Belgian’s advice. To have just walked down from above would have isolated this from the countryside around it, reducing its power, significance, impact and air of weird timeless surreality.
A little under four hours after starting, I have climbed back up to the information office, picked up Friederich, and thumbed back down towards the rest of Eire,
Finn McCool resonant within the air I breathe.