Folklore and Quasi-Historical Facts

“…throwing open their windows for the cool breeze the storm had left as an apology.”    – Louise Penny, The Murder Stone

Sometimes the sentences I rediscover in my quote book are not particularly profound, or insightful, or perspective-changing. Sometimes they are merely sentence fragments, sometimes only a few little words. But every piece of literature in my modest collection has one thing in common – it’s all great writing.

The quote that began this post spoke to me today for a particular reason, which I’m sure will become clear by the end of my musings. But, for now, let’s pick up where we left off.

My legs still shaking from a combination of the precarious jaunt across the rope bridge and the steep walk back up to the parking lot and waiting bus, I was not in the best shape when we arrived at our next location. Had we just been following up our tightrope walking with a leisurely stroll through the forest, I might have been fine – and maybe even ready for another death-defying (or at least nausea-inducing) feat after a couple hours of rest.

Our next destination, however, was the fabled Giant’s Causeway and I was not destined to spend the rest of the afternoon on solid ground.

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Kristen all smiles, despite the drizzle and the cold

I know what you’re going to say – I could have just lain low, literally, and taken some pretty great photos from the bottom of the slope. I was not obligated to climb up the uneven spine of the causeway – oddly reminiscent of an unfinished game of Tetris in its randomized placement.

But here’s the thing, I have had a pretty severe fear of heights ever since I was a little kid. Though perhaps a little more rational than my fear of sharks, for some reason this fear was the one I always sought to conquer…perhaps the reason being that I have no desire to go head to head with a shark any time soon. But I digress. My attempts to stop the shaking of my knees and pounding of my heart every time I was more than a meter off the ground started with tobogganing, followed quickly by cliff jumping at the cottage every summer. By the time I began travelling on my own in my late teens, my self-made-challenges had graduated to the realm of climbing the highest natural or unnatural peak I could find in each location I visited.

In most places, this tended to mean climbing up to the top of a church steeple or a castle’s ramparts, or scurrying up an unsteady staircase to the peak of a long-abandoned guard tower. As previously described in an earlier post, in Edinburgh this meant climbing Arthur’s Seat. On this particular day, the desire to prove I could handle heights despite my persistent fear meant there was no way I would be content with simply taking photos of my courageous climbing sister from the ground.

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Kristen ahead of me, as per usual

Looking at the pictures today, all these years later, I can still remember how I felt as I began to pick my way cautiously up one of the many rocky hills of the causeway. As usual, Kristen had gone first, with her characteristic charge-ahead attitude. Had the choice been mine, I probably would have only climbed halfway up for the photo and called it a day – my legs were already shaky from the morning’s adventures and it would have still counted as a challenge to my height-induced anxiety. But my pride would simply not let me allow the pictures to exist as a testament to my lack of gumption, so I slowly made my way to the top.

I should mention that my speed, or lack thereof, was not only dictated by my fear, but also by the fact that – much like Arthur’s Seat – the rocks were slick with rain that day and one wrong step would have seen me tumbling awkwardly down the ragged surface, hitting more than a few stony corners on my way.

Despite the precarious journey, I clambered up as fast as my reluctant and unsteady limbs would take me. I’m not sure if you can tell by the pictures below but the grin on my face is both one of pride and also sheer panic all at once. I can still vividly hear my thoughts screaming, “take the picture already” at my sister in the knowledge that the faster she she took the photo, the faster I could return to more reliable ground. This is not to suggest, however, that Kristen either prolonged the painful moments intentionally, or that she didn’t know how to use a camera. I am sure the entire process took but a few seconds – but when you are in the throws of that level of panic, time sure does seem to crawl.

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Ain’t no way I am throwing my hands in the air…Not even in celebration

After having successfully thumbed my nose at my fear of heights once again (only upon returning to the base, of course, I’m not one to tempt fate), Kristen and I traipsed around the site for a while longer while we waited for the signal that our time was up.

If by now you trust my accounts enough to take a recommendation, I highly suggest a visit to Giant’s Causeway if you get the chance. And even if you don’t trust me enough yet to follow my advice – go anyway.

I’m well aware that geologists have all kinds of explanations for the fantastical rock formations that grace this beach in Northern Ireland but, as I am not a writer gifted in a high-level of scientific knowledge or terminology, I won’t attempt to recount their explanations.

Instead, as is my custom, I will speak to the magic of the place that I felt while walking among and around those curious pillars of rock. They truly do appear to be otherworldly, as if the only possible reason for their existence must lie in the realm of the unexplained and inexplicable dismissed by so many out of hand.

The folklore about the causeway tells the tale of the giant Finn MacCool and his love for the giantess Una. Legend has it that MacCool built the causeway between the coast of Ireland and Staffa Island off Scotland (where the same rock formations can be found) to bring his lovely Una home to live with him.

When the jealous Benandonner (also, of course, a giant and, unfortunately for MacCool, a much larger one) came charging over the causeway to bring Una back, MacCool and his lover made the quick decision to disguise him as a rather large baby. Upon seeing how enormous what he assumed to be an Irish infant was, Benandonner turned tail and ran back over the causeway, destroying it in his haste to escape.

In my humble option, no explanation involving volcanic rock or glaciers can ever top this version of the story (though perhaps the scientific explanation is actually the much more thrilling one for those in the know). For myself, gazing around at the oddly constructed towers of stone, the whole place seemed to emanate an eerie sensation that what we deem to be reality is separated from what some call fantasy by a thin, shimmering veil. And on the other side of that veil, I’d be willing to bet, there be giants. Craning your neck back to look at the sheer majesty of the site, the tale of MacCool’s exploits does not seem so far-fetched after all.

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I mean, look at this place. It’s Giant-sized!

Taking one last look back at the breathtaking view, we jumped onto the bus to head home to Belfast. And here, finally, is where the opening sentence of this post comes in.

Having made good time due to a group of tourists that was surprisingly respectful of the itinerary, our guide was able to stop on the way back to show us what was probably the most striking ruin of our entire trip.

Perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff sits Dunluce Castle, dating from the 13th century. Quite the crumbling ruin, it is still accessible to visitors and yet appears forlorn and untended to since its abandonment in 1690 after the Battle of the Boyne. Though not an historical fact, per say, the story our guide told us about this once great residence is fascinating and chilling enough to deserve to be mentioned here. Let’s call it a “quasi-historical fact”, shall we?

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The Castle in the Mists

Quasi-Historical Fact the First

A local legend about Dunluce castle tells the tale of one particularly stormy evening in 1639 when the 2nd Earl of Antrim and his wife were sitting down for their dinner only to be served a rude shock instead. As they awaited their food, the storm growled particularly loudly and, before anyone had time to react, the entire kitchen wing of the castle, along with all the kitchen staff, was swept out to sea. One version of this story suggests that the only survivor of the staff was a kitchen boy who just happened to be seated in the only corner of the kitchen not violently removed. The lady of the house, apparently, promptly put her foot down (lightly, I imagine) and the family moved themselves to the considerably more stable Glenarm Castle soon after.

Though, as I mentioned, I have been unable to ascertain the reliability of this story, it does make for an interesting read. Looking over at the misty ruins, one does wonder if such a catastrophic storm may have left a cool breeze in its wake, perhaps as an apology to the young boy left with the memory of countless relationships severed by a freak accident.

I can’t tell you much about the rest of that day, as we were exhausted by the time we returned. But I can tell you that this exhaustion was the result of two adventurous spirits satiated, for the moment.

Curling up that night in our overcrowded room, I comforted both myself and Kristen with a luxuriously pleasant thought: the next night we would be sleeping by ourselves in a stationary rail car, with nary a neighbour in sight.

So, remember, the next time an awful storm hits and leaves you breathless with fear; much as there is a calm before, there will be a calm after. Unless you live perched on a cliff, in which case, move! 

Oh, and also, life is beautiful

xo Erin

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