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The GIANT'S CAUSEWAY - Irelands first UNESCO World Heritage Site - is some 60 million years old and attracts in the region of ½ million visitors annually. Since 1961, when the NATIONL TRUST first came to the management of the causeway, much necessary work has been carried out to ensure the preservation of this site for future generations. Systematic regeneration and restoration projects complimented by comprehensive educational and awareness programmes have been recognised in the award of other conservation designations to the site. Beyond the entirely unofficial title as 'the Eight Wonder of the World' the Giant's Causeway is officially a NATIONAL NATURE RESERVE, an AREA of OUTSTANDING NATURAL BEAUTY, an ENVIRONMENTALLY SENSITIVE AREA and an AREA of SPECIAL SCIENTIFIC INTEREST.
The story here is of volcanic activity, giants, shipwrecks and Spanish gold, each part playing a different role in drawing tourists and admiration from around the world, each element dependent upon all others to make up the package that is - the GIANT'S CAUSEWAY experience.
The Causeway formed when vast quantities of molten rock erupted from fissures in the ground then cooled and cracked in much the same way that mud cracks on the bottom of a dried up pond or riverbed. Several lava flows occurred over millions of years, perhaps as many as 11 and their different layers are clearly visible on the cliffs. Between these violent periods in the formation of Earth, the laid down basalts, weathered by sun, rain and the tropical climate Ireland enjoyed then, produced the red layers so conspicuous now between the basalt flows. 40,000 basalt columns, mainly regular and polygonal in shape, rise vertically or at a gentle incline from the earth and are divided horizontally by 'ball and socket' joints. The majority are 6 sided, usually 45 cms in diameter and with a lateral division of the columns every 30&60 cms. Unfortunately this peculiar natural phenomenon made these great chunks of basalt particularly desirable for various forms of decorative stonework and that led to many of the 'causeway stones' being simply carried away from the site. Thankfully the practice has stopped now leaving only nature to continue the ageing process. Evolution of any landscape is ongoing and no stranger to the causeway. Not unusually large rock falls happen and particularly after periods of prolonged rain like in 1987 when many hundreds of tonnes of pillars simply fell into the sea or in 1994 when the lower path to the 'Chimneys' was closed as it was there one day and not the next.
The columnar basalts of the Giant's Causeway are by no means unique, similar examples exist around the world from Russia and France to Australia and North America and not forgetting of course, the Island of Staffa in Scotland. It was to here that the giant 'Finn McCool' is said to have built the causeway when he sought confrontation with a rival. The fight, legend tells us, never actually took place as Oonagh, Finn's wife, invited the Scottish giant Benandonner into to their home when he arrived and while there waiting for her husbands return, he saw the size of their child asleep in a cot in the corner of the parlour. Filled with fear of the man who had fathered this great child he made a hasty retreat tearing up the causeway behind him as he fled. In truth, Finn had seen the tremendous size of his opponent crossing the causeway and in fear had persuaded Oonagh to trick Benandonner into believing that the cot contained their newborn son, when in reality, it was only Finn pretending to be asleep. Truth or legend? - Who really knows, but when you see the rock formation known as the 'Giant's Boot' remember, to have had a boot of this size - Finn would have been at least 16m tall!
As you explore this area, you walk on causeway stones, see volcanic landscapes, and ponder strange formations with names like the Camels back, the Honeycomb, the Wishing Well, the Organ Pipes, and the Giant's Eye. In many places you'll discover evidence of the Kelp industry, prevalent hereabouts until the 1930's many families worked exclusively at the harvest, process and export of this seaweed. Built on the headland in 1914 to the memory of Lord MacNaughton, the Causeway school, designed by Clough William Ellis - the famous designer of much of Cushendun village, has served man and God alike as at various times it has even been used as a church. On the headland above the Causeway you see the high formation known as the Chimneys, separated from the cliffs by erosion, these columns are where the causeway ties into the fate of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Local legend has it that the Armada mistook the Chimneys for the turrets of Dunluce Castle nearby and loosed off a few volleys of cannon fire. Interesting folklore - maybe, but the fact is that the famous Spanish Galleon, GIRONA, was wrecked here in bad weather. One thousand three hundred men perished, five survived and a great treasure was thought lost forever. The area has been known as Port-na-Spaniagh ever since. True to form the sea gave up her dead and many of the sailors were buried in the grounds of Dunluce parish church. The treasure took a little longer only surfacing in 1967 courtesy of the Belgian diver Robert Stenuit and is now kept on display at the Ulster Museum having been acquired for the nation.
Spectacular cliffs at the Causeway provide excellent habitats for the rich variety of flora and fauna which make up an essential part of the scenery here. Rare and interesting plants have survived exposure to wind, salt spray and the many generations of visitor who have came to this coast. Grassland, seashore, marsh, heathland, and shrub all display characteristic ranges of fauna, from sea spleewort, red broomrape and hare's foot trefoil to sea fescue and frog orchid. The grassy cliff ledges and steep scree slopes, carpeted with a range of wild flowers, add a variety of vibrant colours to the summer scene. The areas of unimproved pasture and heathland behind the cliffs support a resident population of more than 50 species of bird, while 30 others who visit, find temporary restbite here. On any given day the visitor may see Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons and Eider Ducks easily and with a little effort Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Cormorants can be identified feeding close inshore. Other animals to look out for along the coast are the Irish hare, the fox, the badger, the rabbit and the stoat.
Working closely with local farmers the National Trust has sought to ensure that the environment here is not endangered, indeed by reducing the use of pesticides and fertilisers and by recommending carefully controlled grazing schemes the environment has been systematically and significantly improved. Additionally the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland has sought to encourage local farmers to preserve traditional gateposts, improve hedgerows and to actively encourage heather regeneration.
The visitor centre here is very well worth a visit and the National Trust operates the small refreshments centre so by taking tea or having a coffee you can, once again, help the invaluable work of the Trust at this site.