Sunday, June 28, 2015

Ireland - Northern Road Trip - Giant's Causeway, Atrium Coast

After juggling the schedule of our Northern Ireland road trip twice while waiting for a clear day, we finally ran out of time.  On our last day in Northern Ireland, we were going to the Giant's Causeway, rain or shine.  Heading out first thing in the morning, we would double-back westward from our overnight stop at Ballycastle, visit the UNESCO World Heritage site, then drive eastward again, making a few more stops before returning to Ireland and towards Dublin.  Despite there still being rain in the forecast, it was merely cloudy when we got started so we were hoping the showers would hold off until after our Giant's Causeway visit.  We still had to be careful though, because the rocks would be wet and slippery from all the rainfall from the previous few days.

The Giant's Causeway is a geological phenomenon, consisting of about 40,000 interlocking 6-sided basalt columns, formed 60 million years ago as a result of intense volcanic activity and the cooling and shrinking of successive lava flows.  Nicknamed the "Honeycomb", they vary in height with the tallest being about 12 metres (39 feet), forming lava cliffs that are 28 metres (92 feet tall) at their highest peak, with stepping stones leading towards and away from the sea.


Despite the scientific explanation for this natural wonder, the legend that led to the naming of the Giant's Causeway is much more fun to consider.  At the Visitor's Centre, an excellent 2 minute animation gave the perfect introduction to this folklore.  As the story goes, an Irish giant named Fionn MacCool was in a constant shouting match with the Scottish giant Benandonner who lived across the North Channel that separated them.  Fionn accepted the challenge to fight Benandonner and built a path made of huge logs so that he could cross the body of water.  When Fionn got there, he realized that Benandonner was significantly bigger than he was, and turned around and ran back home, dropping a shoe along the way while Benandonner chased him.

Fionn's quick-thinking wife Oonagh came up with a plan and disguised Fionn as a baby.  When Benandonner arrived, Oonagh invited him in for tea but told him to be quiet, so as not to wake the baby.  When Benandonner saw the size of the "baby", he figured that the baby's father must be too big to fight.  Instead, Benandonner fled back across the channel, stomping on the logs to destroy the path as he went, and thus creating the Giant's Causeway.


From the Visitor's Centre, there were two ways to get down to the main sights of the Causeway–you could either take a shuttle bus for £1 or you could walk.  Since it was not raining yet at this point, we decided to walk so that we could leisurely admire the views and listen to the audio guide that gave us more information about the geology, history and legends of the area.


Besides the amazing honeycomb cliffs, we saw a few more features of the area that related to the legend.  First there was a grassy rock formation that was shaped like a lying-down camel.  Fionn MacCool named this camel Humphrey and rode it in order to get home quickly in time for tea.  On a stretch of stone-covered flatland by the water, we found the smooth rock shaped like a giant boot–apparently the one that Fionn MacCool lost when he ran back across the causeway.  Up in the hills was another formation that was named the "Giant's Organ" because of its shape.  And finally, we came across the massive vertical stone columns that are known as the "Giant's Gate".  It drizzled a bit during our visit, but right at the end the rain really started to come down, which signaled to us that it was time to go.  To avoid getting too wet, we hopped onto the shuttle bus that took us back to the Visitor's Centre.  Had it been a nicer day, we would have hiked up into the hills to get a better look at the Organ and another configuration called the Chimneys.  But as it was, we were able to see the highlights before the weather turned nasty.

Although only a few stones from the former gate lodge remain, Dunseverick Castle was once a royal fort dating back to the Iron Age (500BC).  On a peninsula cliff overlooking the North Channel, many important events occurred on this site.  St. Patrick visited the castle in 5A.D. and baptized a future Bishop of Ireland. In 6A.D. Fergus, King of Dalriada (western Scotland and northeast Ulster) had his coronation and ruled from here.  The various strongholds built on this site were attacked many times, by the Vikings in 870A.D. and in the 16th Century, by factions of the warring main families–the MacDonells, O'Neills, O'Cahans and MacQuillans.  Although war destroyed most of the fort, time and weather played a part as well, since the remnants of a tower fell into the sea in 1978.

Continuing to drive back east along the Causeway Cliff Road, we encountered the viewpoint at White Park Bay, overlooking the bay, a 3-mile beach and the little fishing hamlet of Portbradden.  The cliffs on either side of the beach are composed of a limestone chalk and contain fossils of marine life from the Mesozoic period.  Flint from an old Neolithic axe factory, once located on the nearby Rathlin Island, can occasionally be found along the coastline.  Sheep, horses and cattle graze on the hillside and on the beach along the bay.  We did not see any animals on the beach, but there are photos on the Internet of a man casually walking by a large cow on the beach while swimmers emerge from the water.  This would have been an interesting sight but it was probably too early in the season for this.

Passing through the village of Ballintoy (where we visited the harbour with the Game of Thrones filming location the day before), we stopped quickly in front of the Sheep Island View Hostel, since I was curious about the large bright pink tractor sitting in front.  It turned out to be a tribute to Irishman Harry Ferguson, who invented the tractor with a 3-point linkage that works on a hydraulic system at the back, enabling the driver to raise and lower instruments like a plough, thus revolutionizing farming.  The Ferguson system is still used on small farms around the world today.  Harry built and flew his own aircraft in 1909 and developed the first four-wheel drive Formula One race car amongst other inventions.  Harry's tractors were grey, so painting this one pink must have just been an attention-grabbing strategy, which obviously worked since it caught my attention and allowed me to learn about this fascinating man.

Found on the Larrybane Headland, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge links the mainland to the tiny island called Carrickarede (Irish for "rock of the casting"), spanning a chasm that is 20 metres (66 feet) in length and 30 metres (98 feet) above the water.  Comprised of hardened lava, Carrickarede Island is the volcanic neck of an old volcano with sea caves located at its base.  Salmon fishermen had been building bridges to this island for over 350 years.  In 1970, there was a rickety bridge made of wooden slats with major gaps in between and only one handrail.  In 2008, the current bridge made of wire rope and Douglas fir planks was constructed at a cost of £16,000, making it safe for tourists to cross over for a fee.  The island can also be accessed by boat.  From Carrickarede Island, you can enjoy a coastal walk, spot flora, fauna and wildlife, and on a clear day, you can see Rathlin Island and even Scotland off in the horizon.  Since Rich and I are not fond of unenclosed heights, we settled for watching the people cross the bridge from our safe distance on the mainland.  Another Game of Thrones filming location, Larrybane was picked to represent "The Stormlands", which was Renly Baratheon's camp in Season 2.  This is where Catelyn Stark agrees to a treaty with Renley on behalf of her son Robb Stark. 


I would have liked to have visited another Game of Thrones filming location, known as The Dark Hedges.  This is a beautiful avenue of beech trees near Ballymoney, planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century as an elegant pathway leading to their Georgian mansion Gracehill House.  This was used to represent the "King's Road" which Ayra Stark took to escape King's Landing.  Unfortunately it would have taken us too far off the coastal path and we weren't quite sure how to find it, so we didn't go.  But photos that we found online show how beautiful it would have been.   We missed another Game of Thrones filming site in Cushendun, which we did pass through but did not know to look for the caves just outside of the village.  So we didn't get to see where Melisandre gives birth to the shadow baby after being brought ashore by Davos Seaworthy.  Instead, we settled for taking photos of the scenic Cushendun coast, which was lined with pretty houses.

We had been lucky since leaving the Giant's Causeway in that the rain had mostly subsided.  That luck ran out when we approached the village of Waterfoot in County Moyle, when the skies darkened and then it started to pour.  We felt sorry for the poor cyclist in front of us, who was caught in the rain.  We had planned to stop and walk around Waterfoot, but the inclement weather nixed that plan.  Instead, we continued driving out of Northern Ireland  passing right through Belfast long the way.  So I can say that I did see some of Belfast, at least from the highway.  Once we were back in Ireland, we headed
towards our final overnight stay of this Northern Ireland road trip, the tiny village of Donore in County Meath. This would be put us strategically close to Newgrange, where we planned to visit first thing in the morning before heading back to our home swap base in Dublin.

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