Myth Monday: How the Giants’ Causeway Was Created (Irish Legend)
By Kara Newcastle
Kara’s Note: Just in case there’s any confusion, the Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced ‘Finn Mac Cool’, if you’re wondering) isn’t exactly the hero from the Irish Red Branch sagas, but a different version of him. Still it’s a great story.
Fionn mac Cumhaill was a giant of a man. No, he really was. He was BIG. Big in size, big in fame, big in attitude and, well, sometimes big in mouth. Once in a while that big mouth of his got him into trouble.
Fionn was Ireland’s greatest hero since the days of Cu Culhainn, and because of that Fionn took the job very seriously. When he wasn’t out riding with his band of warriors, the Fianna, Fionn liked to strike out on his own for a bit, checking in on things here and there, making sure everything was in order. It was one of these little jaunts that found Fionn along the coast, looking out over the Irish Sea. There, far out was the land of Scotland. And looking back at him was another giant.
Squinting through the sunlight reflecting off the waves, Fionn raised his hand in greeting. “’Morning, friend!”
The Scottish giant seemed to squint back. “Ye talkin’ to me?” he shouted.
“That I am. I’m Fionn mac Cumhaill.”
The Scottish giant jerked back, then laughed. “Ye can’t be Fionn mac Cumhaill. Ye’re jest a wee thing! Fionn mac Cumhaill is a giant!”
Shocked, Fionn spluttered for a moment—he had never been called “small” before! “Ye must be blind lad—I am Fionn mac Cumhaill, and I’m a sight bigger than ye!”
“Ye’re talkin’ mince. No way are ye bigger than me. I’m Benandonner, the biggest giant in Scotland!”
Fionn snorted. “Ye ain’t much to look at.”
Benandonner sneered and held up one hand. “I got more power in me finger than ye’ve got in yer whole scrawny body.”
“Aye? Well, I got a finger for ye.”
“Away and boil yer head!”
“Bite the back of me bollix!”
Outraged, Benandonner jabbed one of those magic fingers at Fionn. “Shut yer puss or I’ll shut it for ye!”
“I’d like to see ye try!”
Apparently, Benandonner was more than happy to take Fionn up on that, and he promptly reached down, scooped up and armload of rocks and earth, and heaved it out into the sea. Picking up another armload, Benandonner flung that out into the water, creating a path.
Realizing that the Scottish giant was building a bridge and itching for a fight, Fionn began to gather up all the rocks he could find, tossing them out into the water. Both giants worked furiously, constructing a causeway between their two lands with the aim of meeting in the middle and caving each other’s skulls in.
However, as Benandonner drew closer, Fionn was able to get a better look at him. At first, he was just a little speck out on the horizon, but as he grew closer and closer, Fionn noticed a few things …
… The first one being that Benandonner was actually a hell of a lot bigger than Fionn!
Realizing that he was badly outsized, Fionn panicked, dropped his rocks and ran for it, running so fast that one of his boots flew off and remains on the beach to this day. He pelted all the way home at the top of his speed, thanking the gods with every pounding footstep that he didn’t live far. He threw himself through the door, slamming it shut and scaring the life out of his wife Oona as she sat by the fire, baking griddle cakes, his favorite food.
Nearly leaping out of her skin, Oona spun around to face him. “Fionn, what the—?!”
“I picked a fight with a Scottish giant and he’s bigger than me and now I’m gonna diiiiie!” Fionn screamed.
Oona flinched back at Fionn’s panic; she had never seen her heroic husband act this way. “Fionn, slow down and tell me what happened?”
Gulping for breath, Fionn scrambled for the crossbeam for the door. “I saw a Scottish giant,” he wheezed as he slammed the bar down. “All I said was ‘hello,’ and next thing ye know, he’s building a bridge across the sea to fight me!”
Oona narrowed her eyes. “Sounds like there’s a piece of the story missing.”
“Doesn’t matter, he’s after me.” Frantic, Fionn spun around, looking for a place to hide. “It’s Benandonner that’s after me—”
“Benandonner? The Red Man? The Thunder of the Mountain? Ye picked a fight with him?!”
Looking at his wife in disbelief, Fionn waved his arms at the door. “Aye, and he’s on his way!”
“Leave it to ye to pick a fight with the most barbaric giant in Scotland.” Shaking her head, Oona turned, scanning their room. Her eyes fell upon the baby’s cradle. She had given birth to their son just a scant few months before, and it was obvious he had inherited his father’s legendary height …
Oona pointed at the cradle. “Get in the cradle.”
Not sure he heard correctly, Fionn stopped short. He looked at her, dumbfounded. “Whu …?”
“Get in the bloody cradle, ye daft edjit ye! Ye’ll just fit. We can make this work.”
Astonished, Fionn looked between Oona and the baby’s cradle. Just as he opened his mouth to protest, a voice from miles away roared, “I’m here, mac Cumhaill! Where’d ye run off to?”
“Bollix!” Fionn squeaked. Without a second thought, the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill leaped into his baby son’s cradle, wedging his head in and tucking his tree-like legs up against his chest. Moving swiftly, Oona tucked the blankets and linens in tightly around Fionn, wrapping his head and beard in a baby’s bonnet. She had just enough time to take one step to the side when a massive fist battered their door, shaking the entire house as though it were in an earthquake.
“Open up!” Benandonner roared.
“Just a wee moment,” Oona replied, her voice mild and pleasant though her eyes shot daggers at her cowering husband. Darting over to the fireplace, Oona grabbed one of her iron skillets and dunked it in the griddle cake batter, coating it thoroughly. Tossing the skillet onto the ashes, Oona swiftly moved to their larder, finding the toughest piece of fat they had. Pulling a stout piece of redwood from the stack of kindling beside the hearth, Oona managed to grab up her hammer and tacks from the mantel as Benandonner resumed beating on the door.
“I said—” he snarled.
“And I said it’d be a wee moment!” Oona shouted back as she quickly nailed the piece of fat onto the redwood, shooting a worried look back at Fionn, whose huge, terrified eyes peeked out over his son’s blanket. “I’m putting my son into his bed!”
Flinging the hammer aside, Oona sprinted over to the door as Benandonner slammed his huge fist into it so hard the wood planks began to warp and bend over the crossbeam. Heaving the crossbeam out of its track, Oona drew in a steadying breath, waited, then whipped the door open, springing aside as Benandonner, already midway through his next punch, overshot his mark and pitched headlong into the mac Cumhaill house.
Gasping, Benandonner staggered, spinning his arms around for balance as he righted himself up. Recovering, the Scottish giant growled and whipped his head back and forth, searching for his rival. “Where’s that bastard mac Cumhaill?”
“Ye mean my husband, Fionn? Oh, he went to the north to hunt deer.” Steadying herself, Oona glided past the glowering giant. “He said something about coming back later to bust in the head of some clod from Scotland. Would that be ye?”
Insulted, Benandonner drew himself up to his full height. “Yer old man’s a bleeding idiot, missus. He looks as though he’d only come up to me gut.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Smiling, Oona pointed to an array of spears, swords, and shields Fionn had mounted on one of their walls. “That there is my husband’s weapon collection. Surely no small man could lift anything so big, aye?”
Studying the weapons on display, Benandonner narrowed his eyes. “Hrmph … I reckon not, no …”
“Fionn is no small man, I assure ye.”
Wrinkling his nose, Benandonner sneered down at Oona. “That remains to be seen, but he’s in no way stronger than me.”
Oona arched an eyebrow. “How d’ye reckon?”
“Oh, I’ll show ye.” Opening the door, Benandonner reached out and plucked a large rock out of the ground beside the path. The rock was easily the size of a yearling calf, and as Oona watched, Benandonner easily wrapped his pinky finger around it and squeezed.
With a head splitting “CRACK!”, the rock shattered, pouring down in a cascade of gravel from Benandonner’s hand.
Oona heard Fionn gulp in the cradle behind her.
Oona fought back a gasp, quickly redirecting her gaze down to the pile of dust and pebbles on the floor between her and the Scottish giant so he wouldn’t see the flash of fear crossing her face. She drew in a shaking breath, forcing herself to calm. “That is impressive.”
Benandonner smirked. “Thank ye.”
“But Fionn has broken so many boulders with his just his little toe that he grew bored with it.”
Benandonner stopped short. “Little … toe?”
Oona nodded. “Aye. He was looking for a challenge, but it was far too easy for him.”
“Bah.” Snorting, Benandonner waved her boast away. “We’ll see about that. Even without my magic finger, I would make short work of that runt.”
“Ah. In that case, why don’t ye wait here a while until Fionn comes home? I’m presently in the middle of making dinner.” Seeing the uncertainty growing in Benandonner’s expression, Oona bit back a pleased grin and gestured to the cradle where Fionn hid trembling under the blanket. “This is here is our son. He was born not quite three months ago.”
Hearing that, Benandonner stopped abruptly, his spine going visibly rigid as his eyes nearly sprang out of their sockets. Shaking his head, Benandonner looked at the quaking lump of blanket and bonnet. “Wait … that’s yer son?”
The color draining from his face, Benandonner shuffled half a step back. “B-but … if that’s yer son … how big is his father?!”
“Enormous, actually. But worry about that later. Come, have dinner with us.” It was all Oona could do to keep from laughing out loud; Benandonner’s reaction was priceless. Smothering her giggles, Oona picked up her fork and began removing the griddle cakes and the batter-covered skillet from the fireplace, watching out of the corner of her eye as Benandonner, clearly second guessing the size of his foe based on the size of his “offspring,” sat down several feet away from the cradle. Picking up the batter-covered skillet, Oona held it out to Benandonner. “As our guest, ye are welcomed to the first serving.”
“Oh. Thank ye.” Still keeping a concerned eye on the “baby,” Benandonner absently accepted the disguised skillet and lifted it up to his mouth. Without looking, he bit into the iron pan, and instantly his front two teeth shattered.
“AAAARRRGHHH!!!” His massive hands flying to his mouth, Benandonner shot to his feet. Howling, he danced around in a crazed circle, bashing into walls and furniture. “My teeth! I broke my teeth!”
Oona snorted. “On a griddlecake? Dear me, yer teeth must be remarkably weak to break on something so soft.”
“Soft?! It felt like there was an iron bar in it!”
“Well, aye, I do make the cakes with iron,” Oona agreed, doing her desperate best not to burst out laughing at Benandonner’s aghast look. “That’s how my family likes them. But I do feel badly that ye hurt yer teeth. Let me find ye something else to eat.”
The Scottish giant rubbed gingerly at his mouth. “I’m not sure I want to try anything else.”
“Oh, come now. Some bacon will put ye right.” Hefting up the fat nailed to the redwood log, Oona passed it into Benandonner’s huge hand.
Benandonner’s hairy eyebrows went up. “Bacon, eh?” he said approvingly.
Without a second thought, the giant popped the fat wrapped board into his mouth and bit down.
“WHAT THE BLOODY—?!?!” Spitting the wood out, Benandonner threw himself backwards, both of his hands again clapping down on his mouth. “I just broke my back teeth!”
Triumphant, Oona shot a glance to Fionn as he peeked out of the cradle. They grinned briefly at each other before Fionn ducked back under the blanket; this was sure to make Benandonner leave now.
Clucking her tongue, Oona crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head. “Oh please. My husband Fionn eats a hundred of these a day without carrying on like yer doing now. Even our son can eat a cake, and he has no teeth at all.”
Furious, Benandonner glared at Oona through watery eyes. “Prove it then!”
“Aye, I will.” Plucking an unaltered cake from the hearth, Oona walked over to the baby’s cradle. “Here, sweetheart, have a bite.”
Inching the blanket away from his face, Fionn grinned at Oona and opened his mouth—then choked back a gag as his wife crammed the griddlecake into it. Fionn gulped it down quickly.
“Mmm! Yummy, Mama!” he squealed, then yipped as Oona, her smiling face unwavering, gave the cradle a swift, jolting kick to shut him up.
Benandonner stared. “I don’t believe it.”
Oona’s smile faltered just barely at the edges; she had hoped this would be enough to scare the giant off, but, shaken as he was, Benandonner didn’t seem ready to leave yet. Recovering herself, Oona shrugged and gestured to the false baby. “Check his mouth and see for yerself then.”
Fionn’s eyes bugged out. “What are ye doing?!” he mouthed frantically.
Setting his jaw—then wincing at the soreness where his two front teeth used to be—Benandonner stomped forward. “All right, I will,” he snarled, and thrust his hand under the blanket.
Seeing the enormous fingers sliding towards him, Fionn cowered back as far as he could in the cradle. Finding no escape, no hiding place there, he did the only thing he could, the thing Oona had prayed he would do.
Fionn opened his mouth wide and bit down on Benandonner’s fingers. Hard.
“GYYYAAAGGGGH!!!” His scream rattling the entire mac Cumhaill household, Benandonner wrenched his hand away, throwing a stream of bright red blood through the air as he flung himself back as far as he could. “Damn it! Damn it—yer brat just bit my magic finger off!”
Baring her teeth, Oona laid a protective hand over the swaddled Fionn. “Don’t ye be talking about my baby that way!”
“No … no, oh no …” Clutching his bloody, mangled hand, Benandonner stared down at the ragged stump in horror. “That’s where I kept all my strength. Without my magic finger, I’m as weak as a lamb!”
“Is that so?” Smirking, Oona nodded her head towards the door. “The ye best be off—Fionn will be home at any moment. He would have made short work of ye anyways, but if ye’re as weak as ye say …”
“I’m going!” Scrambling to his feet, Benandonner bolted for the door, throwing it open so hard and fast he nearly wrenched it off the hinges. Not daring a backwards glance, Benandonner ran down to the beach and over the land bridge he and Fionn had made earlier that day. Benandonner ran so fast that his thundering footsteps caused the bridge to crack apart and sink in the middle, leaving the piece in Ireland intact—as Fionn was a much better builder than any barbaric Scottish giant could ever be.
Seeing Benandonner flee renewed the courage in Fionn mac Cumhaill and he sprang out of the cradle, tossing aside the bonnet and blanket as he charged after the Scottish giant. Upon seeing the land bridge crumble beneath Benandonner’s heels, Fionn realized he couldn’t follow the cur—not that he really wanted to—but he couldn’t just let Benandonner leave without showing off a bit. Hunching down, Fionn scooped up a massive chunk of earth and flung it at Benandonner’s retreating back. Fionn’s shot went wide, missing the giant and landing instead in the Irish Sea, where the larger chunk became the Isle of Man and the small pebble that broke off turned into the uninhabitable islet Rockall. Even though Fionn missed by an enormous amount, the huge earthen projectile was enough to scare Benandonner deep into Fingel’s Cave on the coast of Scotland.
Pleased with his victory, Fionn mac Cumhaill dusted his hands off and turned to head home—stopping short and cowering under the withering gaze of his clever wife Oona.
And that’s how the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland was created.