Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2010/31 posted by hidden europe on

The Giant's Causeway is squeezed in between Gay Byrne and God. The latter are of course by far the two most important men in Ireland - at least that's the view of literary critic Terry Eagleton who is one of the more thoughtful commentators on all things Irish.

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The Giant's Causeway is squeezed in between Gay Byrne and God. The latter are of course by far the two most important men in Ireland - at least that's the view of literary critic Terry Eagleton who is one of the more thoughtful commentators on all things Irish. Eagleton's alphabetical romp through Irish icons (in his book The Truth about the Irish) includes key personalities (to wit, God and Gay Byrne) and key places such as the Giant's Causeway and Dublin 4 - though if you know Dublin at all, you'll surely appreciate that Dublin 4 is really a state of mind, so much more than merely a postcode.

Eageleton is a bit down on the Giant's Causeway, just as he's a bit down on the polenta-eating citizens of Dublin 4 who are now probably rueing the day that Ireland's economic miracle morphed into economic catastrophe. "Don't break your neck to see this mildly interesting stack of rocks," writes Eagleton of the nicely geometric geology on the coast of Antrim that has World Heritage status and pulls in the tourist crowds. Eagleton is not the first to be underwhelmed by the Giant's Causeway. The essayist Samuel Johnson, ever master of the caustic comment, sniffily dismissed the Causeway when he was asked if it warranted a journey. "Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see," was Johnson's verdict.

That's the problem with big-deal sights, the icons that pop up on travel itineraries old and new. Thomas Cook (in his 1873 guide to Switzerland) felt obliged to forewarn his readers that the Rhine Falls at Schaffhausen are no mighty Niagara. Cook judged it better to deflate expectation than disappoint the punters.

We are inclined to agree with Johnson and Eagleton on the Giant's Causeway. It is a very fine piece of geomorphology, a refreshing appeal to order amid the jumbled geology and muddled politics of Ulster, but it is not a patch on Staffa, the Hebridean island that puts on a more atmospheric show of basalt stacks. Let's face it, Mendelssohn didn't call his piece of music The Antrim Overture. No, it was The Hebrides Overture. For anyone afflicted by the Romantic spirit will see in Staffa a seductively beautiful natural wonder that knocks spots off its north Antrim counterpart.

Of course, there is a connection between the two structures. It was an Irish giant called Fingal (or Fionn mac Cumhaill) who, on being banished from his homeland, constructed the basalt causeway from Ireland across to Scotland so that he could cross the water without getting his feet wet. Giants with damp feet are giants you just don't want to know. And what we see on the north coast of Antrim and in Staffa are just remnants of Fionn's ancient walkway.

You believe that, of course. We certainly do. Just as we believe in fairies, even though Terry Eagleton advises that “it is a myth that there are fairies in Ireland.” Come, come now, Professor Eagleton. Even you mention an alleged convention of Irish fairies in 1839. As with all things Irish, fairies are a state of mind. Just like Dublin 4. And just like the Irish economy.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.