Walking among legends in Northern Ireland
A wise man once said you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story – and who should know better than those master storytellers the Irish. Cicerone’s Natalie Simpson recounts two of her favourite walks in East Ulster, the land of fantasy and myth.
You see the Isle of Man? It was created when the Irish giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill scooped up a handful of soil and threw it at a rival (the hole left behind became Lough Neagh). What about Ardee, Áth Fherdia, ‘the ford of Ferdia’? It was so named because that was where Cúchulainn fought and killed his best friend and foster brother, Ferdia, when they found themselves on opposing sides in a war between Ulster and Connacht. That loch? A well that flooded after a husband broke his promise to his otherworldly wife. Those rocks? Three brothers turned to stone by St Columba.
Ireland lays claim to a vast collection of dinnseanchas: Gaelic place-lore. To walk in Ireland is to traverse a landscape of fantasy and myth. Here are two of my favourite walks in East Ulster: they showcase the region’s beautiful scenery, fascinating history and rich geology – and are steeped in the magic of ancient Irish legend.
Walk 1: In the footsteps of giants
The Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of Ireland’s most iconic and popular attractions. It was recently voted Northern Ireland’s greatest view and the Antrim Coast regularly features in lists of the top walks, most scenic drives and best scenery in the country – indeed, the world.
Ireland’s coastline is a geologist’s paradise, with the Giant’s Causeway the jewel in the crown.
The distinctive basalt formations came about as a result of volcanic activity in the Paleocene Era: as the lava cooled, it contracted and fractured, creating hexagonal columns. Similar columns can be observed on some of the western islands of Scotland, most notably at Fingal’s Cave on Staffa.
Irish legend, however, presents an alternative explanation. In Irish Gaelic, the causeway is known as Bealach an Fhomhóraigh (or Clochán na bhFomhórach), ‘the Fomorian Way’ – the Fomhóraigh being a race of giants who lived under the sea. According to legend, the mighty Irish giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill was challenged to a fight by a Scottish giant, Benandonner. Fionn built the causeway to enable the two giants to meet. However, when he saw the size of his opponent, he got cold feet. His wife came up with a cunning ruse to trick Benandonner: when the Scottish giant came looking for him, she told Fionn to hide in their baby’s cradle. Benandonner took one look at the enormous ‘infant’ and surmised that the child’s father must be a tremendous giant indeed! He fled back to Scotland, destroying the causeway as he went to prevent Fionn from pursuing him.
The Giant’s Causeway is well worth a visit, although it is often thronging with tourists who arrive by the busload on day trips from Belfast. However, there is a lot more to the Antrim Coast than just the causeway. I enjoyed a wonderful walk a couple of years ago with a group of friends. Jennifer was working as a National Trust guide at the Causeway and proved a fount of knowledge when it came to the geology and history of the area.
Stretching 33 miles from Ballycastle to Portstewart, the Causeway Coastal Way offers an unparalleled opportunity to experience the world-renowned scenery of the North Antrim Coast. We walked an 8-mile section, from the sweeping golden sands of White Park Bay to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre near Bushmills.
Our start-point, White Park Bay, is a wonderfully picturesque beach, yet for all its beauty, it rarely gets too busy – you are more likely to encounter cows than people!
We enjoyed fantastic views to the Kintyre peninsula, just 12 miles away across the Straits of Moyle. The western end of the beach is flanked by tall white cliffs: Jennifer told us that they contain the sediment remains of jellyfish. (With her background in geography/geology, she was in her element!)
Following the shore round, we came to the attractive white-washed hamlet of Portbraddan. We paused to visit St Gobban’s Church, allegedly the smallest church in Ireland. Sadly the pretty chapel has since been demolished.
Rounding the headland – Gid Point – the path passes through a natural archway, before crossing a grassy area to come to Dunseverick Harbour. The little slipway is still used by local fishermen and the inlet is a good place to find crabs. A young boy showed us the enormous claw of a lobster his grandfather had caught nearby – proof indeed that giants once lived beneath the seas! The harbour made for a perfect spot to break for lunch and my braver friends swam in the sea: the sheltered location is safer than White Park Bay, where there are dangerous rip currents.
Once we had eaten and swum, we carried on with the walk. Continuing along the coastal footpath, the next attraction is the dramatically situated Dunseverick Castle. Perched high on a headland, the ruined fort traces its origins back to before the time of St Patrick, who is said to have baptised a local man here. It was such a significant site that one of the five royal highways finishes here, connecting the headland with other ancient monuments at Eamhain Mhacha and Tara. It was held by Fergus Mór Mac Eirc, King of Dalriada in the late 6th century, and later by the Ó Catháin family. The castle was destroyed in 1642 by Cromwellian forces.
A few months after our walk, I saw a picture of Dunseverick in the newspaper: a local photographer had managed to capture the aurora borealis behind the castle. It was a breathtaking image.
From there, the path led on, soon passing along the cliff-tops. The scenery became more and more rugged as we began to encounter the characteristic columnar cliffs and sea-stacks. Rathlin Island came into view on the horizon. We passed the remote bay of Portmoon with its humble fishermen’s bothy, then began a gentle ascent towards the headland.
There were more fantastic vistas as we traversed Contham Head and Benbane. Coming to the highest point of the walk, Hamilton’s Seat (just over 100m above sea level), we paused once again to admire the awe-inspiring cliffs. Jennifer informed us that the Rev Dr William Hamilton was among the first to identify the Giant’s Causeway as a volcanic formation. His book, Letters Concerning the Northern Coast of Antrim, published towards the end of the 18th century, argued that ‘the Giant's Causeway is no isolated freak of nature, but part of a vast lava field which covered Antrim and extended far beyond the Scottish islands’.
‘What nonsense!’ Charlie interjected. ‘Sure, everyone knows the Causeway was built by Fionn Mac Cumhaill!’
We left Hamilton’s Seat behind, but the debate continued as we strode on past Plaiskin Head, Port na Tober and Benanouran Head. There were fascinating rock formations all around, many with evocative names such as ‘the Nurse and Child’ and ‘the Giant’s Eyeglass’. After a short time, we reached Port na Spaniagh – ‘the bay of the Spanish’.
As our intrepid guide explained, the small bay is the resting site of La Girona, a galleass of the Spanish Armada that was wrecked off Lacada Point in 1588. The vessel had been on its way to Scotland from Killybegs in County Donegal when it ran into a storm and was driven onto the rocks: of the estimated 1300 on board, all but nine perished. A significant amount of treasure was later salvaged from the wreck. I saw one of the most famous items in the Ulster Museum in Belfast: a golden salamander pendant inset with rubies.
We passed the iconic Chimney Stacks of Lacada Point and the Amphitheatre bay to make our final approach to the Giant’s Causeway. As expected, the causeway itself was very busy with tourists cautiously exploring the mosaic of hexagonal columns. Our walk complete, we stood a while watching the waves break against the stone, Jennifer reflecting on the wonders of geology and Charlie scanning the sea lest a Fomorian giant should once more rise from the deep.
Walk 2: A cursed lake
The Ring of Gullion in County Armagh lies about an hour’s drive southwest of Belfast, close to the border. Like the Giant’s Causeway, it is acclaimed for its geological significance and is also volcanic in origin. It was the first ring dyke to be mapped and is a classic example, its origins the subject of intense geological debate.
Slieve Gullion stands at the centre of the ring, and is the highest point in the county. Some translate its name as ‘the mountain of the steep slope’, but others suggest that it is named after Culann, a key figure in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. The story goes that Culann was to host the King of Ulster, Conchobhar Mac Neasa, in his home beneath Slieve Gullion. On his way to meet Culann, the king observed his own young nephew, Setanta, playing hurling and was so impressed by the youth’s skill that he invited him to the feast. However, by the time he and his retinue of Red Branch knights reached Culann’s house, Conchobhar had forgotten that he had invited Setanta. The lad arrived a little later and was confronted by Culann’s ferocious guard-dog. As the hound leapt at him, Setanta took firm hold of his camán (hurling stick) and drove his sliotar (ball) into the dog’s throat, killing it instantly. To compensate Culann for the loss of his defender, Setanta offered to take the hound’s place until a replacement could be reared. He was renamed Cúchulainn, ‘the hound of Culann’, and went on to become one of the greatest heroes in Irish mythology.
I thoroughly enjoyed the walk up to the summit of Slieve Gullion – especially as we managed to beat the incoming rain and enjoyed glorious weather and views. We opted for the easy ascent from the upper carpark in Slieve Gullion Forest Park, but alternatively you might choose the longer route following the forest road from the visitors’ centre. A clear path rises fairly steeply up the initial peaty slopes, affording spectacular views to the south.
The vista is an extensive one, taking in the other hills that comprise the Ring of Gullion and the vast plain of County Louth beyond. We reckoned we could make out the Wicklow Mountains on the distant horizon.
The path swings left slightly and comes to an attractive stone shelter with a signboard. From there, the ascent steepens and the terrain becomes a little rockier. As we came to a crest, we were greeted with a fantastic view of the Mourne Mountains, and within minutes we were at the top.
The summit is crowned with a Neolithic passage grave, some 30m in diameter. This awe-inspiring monument is Ireland’s highest surviving passage tomb and the passage to the central chamber is aligned to the setting sun on the Winter Solstice. Nobody really knows why the Slieve Gullion cairn was built, but excavation uncovered three stone basins, some worked flint and human remains, leading archeologists to conclude that the monument probably served some ritual function.
However, where history offers mere theories, Irish legend supplies answers. According to myth, the cairn is home to the Cailleach Bheara, the Hag of Beare, thought to be an ancient Celtic deity linked to creation and the weather. The cailleach is associated with a number of locations in Ireland and Scotland, including Hag’s Head at the Cliffs of Moher, Slieve na Calliagh in County Meath, Ben Cruachan and Loch Awe in Argyll and Bute, Beinn na Caillich on Skye, Glen Cailleach in Perthshire and the whirlpool of Corryvreckan between Jura and Scarba.
Cailleach Bheara’s House marks the highest point on Slieve Gullion: a trig-point now stands on top of the cairn. A secondary summit lies just over half a mile to the northwest, it too topped with a cairn, this one of Bronze Age origin. On the saddle between the two summits is Cailleach Bheara’s Lough.
Like the Giant’s Causeway, the small pool is associated with the legendary hero of the Fenian Cycle, Fionn Mac Cumhaill. One day, Fionn was hunting with his warrior band, the Fianna, on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. As usual, Fionn was well ahead of the pack. Coming to the lough, he spied a beautiful young women crying at the water’s edge and, when he inquired what was the matter, she told him that her treasured ring had fallen into the water. Fionn dived into the lough to retrieve it but was instantly transformed into an old man. The beautiful girl was now an old crone: the Hag of Beare.
When the Fianna came to lough, they did not recognise Fionn, but his two faithful hounds, Bran and Sgeolán, knew their master. Witnessing how the dogs greeted him, the warriors finally realised that the old man was Fionn. They threatened the Cailleach. She eventually agreed to change Fionn back, but his hair remained permanently grey. Some versions of the story claim that she did this because she held a notion for Fionn and wanted to deter her sister, Áine, who had said that she could never love a man with grey hair.
Cailleach Bheara’s Lough retains its secrets. Even on a sunny day, its waters are dark and mysterious. It is said that anyone who swims in the lough will emerge with grey hair.
Although some may scorn the old tales, I wonder whether they would be brave enough to risk the Cailleach Bheara’s curse?
Another legend holds that a dragon inhabits the lough, and that a hidden underground passageway leads to its lair – a claim that has probably inspired many a game of ‘Pooh sticks’: it is said that if you throw a stick into Cailleach Bheara’s Lough, it will eventually emerge at Camlough Lake!
The summit is a magical place: scenic yet somehow otherworldly. We lingered a little while to admire the views, but then, seeing the droimeanna síne (banks of driving rain) advancing, we beat a hasty retreat back the way we had come. We reached the car park just as the rain arrived. Within minutes, Slieve Gullion was shrouded in its mystical cloak.
Natalie Simpson joined the Cicerone editorial team in 2016 and is delighted to have found a job that combines two of her great loves: books and the outdoors.View Articles by Natalie Simpson