Monday 1 August 2011

28 - The giant who sucked his thumb!

The Giant's Causeway, North Antrim Coast, Co. Antrim
February 04, 2011

I told you before that I have a few Scottish ancestors?  And I've also mentioned that quite a few people in Co. Antrim and parts of Co. Down have a distinct Scots accent.  In fact, did ye know that the word Scot - from which we get Scotland, of course - comes from the Latin word, 'Scotti', which the Romans used to describe people from Ireland.  The original Scots were actually Irishmen!  

In the early 7th century there was an area of western Scotland and most of Co. Antrim, which was known as the Kingdom of Dal Riata, or Dal Riada.  People travelled back and forrard by boat between the two parts of Dal Riada, which is probably why we can hear a lot of Scots in the Co. Antrim accent.

Now if ye come to visit Co. Antrim, the place ye can't afford ta miss is a wee spot on the north coast of Antrim, near the town of Ballycastle - it's called the Giant's Causeway.  Ye've gotta climb down below the cliff and ye come to what is known as a granite pavement - tens of thousands of interlocking hexagonal granite rocks.  They start up in the cliff behind, looking like huge organ pipes - the Giant's Organ.  Further down they become a causeway that eventually disappears into the sea - reappearing on the other side at Fingal's Cave, in Scotland.  Hundreds of thousands of people come every year to visit this place - and, of course, to absorb the legends about the giant.

Well, two giants, actually!  On the Irish side we had a boy called Finn MacCool, who is supposed to have built the causeway so he could walk over to Scotland without wetting his feet!  Apparently, he fell out with the Scottish giant and dug out a big piece of sod to throw at him.  He missed, and the sod fell into the sea and became the Isle of Man, while the place he dug it out of filled up with water and became Lough Neagh - the largest lough in the British Isles.  Now, as the man said, 'If ye belieave that, ye'll belieave anythin'!'

Finn MacCool was actually the central figure of a series of legendary tales.  He may have been a very big man, but he certainly didn't create the Giant's Causeway, Lough Neagh, or the Isle of Man.  He was a great warrior and the leader of a band of warriors and heroes who defended Ireland, and the High King, against invaders, pirates and sometimes other local kings.  His warriors were known as the Fianna, and the tales about them are known as the Fenian Cycle.

The stories of Finn, which means fair, or white-haired - so he may have been either blond, or prematurely white - involve a lot of magic.  His wife had been turned into a deer and only took human form when on Finn's land.  He himself had magical knowledge through once burning his thumb on the salmon of knowledge and then sucking it.  So when he needed that special knowledge, he would suck his thumb and it would come to him.

When he got old, though, he became a bit bitther, though.  The high king had promised Finn his beautiful daughter, Gråinne, as his wife - but of course instead she fell in love with a young warrior called Diarmuid, and the two ran away together, pursued by Finn.  Eventually, Finn agrees to let them alone, but years later, when Diarmuid is injured during a boar hunt, and Finn has the power to heal him with water from his hands, he lets the water fall through his fingers.   Though his grandson changes his mind and Finn brings more water, Diarmuid is already dead!

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