This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any discrepancies or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Our landscape was sculpted by giants. According to folklore and myth, their immense size and shape have left lasting marks on the land around us. In anger they dig great clumps of earth to throw, making hills and valleys. In fear they toss rocks behind them which become islands. And a surprising number of lakes and rivers, so the stories go, have their origins in certain giant-sized bodily functions as well. Wherever you see a strange shaped rock, or a deep dark valley that you think couldn’t have got there naturally, you can be sure that Giants had a hand in its creation. Giants are strong, and fierce, and they can be terrifying if you aren’t prepared. But, so the stories go, even the smallest person can defeat the strongest giant, if you are only clever enough to trick them. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is unreal.
The Giant’s Causeway in Antrim is an area of 40,000 basalt columns left from an ancient volcanic eruption. It has, as the name would suggest, long been associated with giants. It’s Irish name is Clochan na bhFomóraigh, or The Rocks of the Fomorians. The Fomorians were a legendary race of monstrous warriors, sometimes translated as “The Undersea Giants.” It was believed that they would attack from the sea and plunder coastal settlements. The Fomorians were popular in Scottish legends as well, and in fact the Scottish Gaelic word for Giant is fuamhaire, recalling the Fomorians to this day. Certain Christian manuscripts gave the Fomorians a biblical origin – they were said to be descended from Noah’s son Ham, and were some of the first people to ever invade Ireland.
The early Irish were no strangers to attacks from the sea. From 800 until 1169, Irish settlements and monasteries went through countless attacks from Viking raiders, who came over sea from Scandanavia hoping to take land and treasure for themselves. So it’s not surprising that this would seep into their legends of brave warriors and fearsome opponents. I think it’s likely that these Viking raiders would have seemed giant-like in their attacks at times, because of the size and strength of their forces. One of the Viking leaders Turgesius, was recorded as having a fleet of 120 ships, and he dominated Dublin, Clonmacnoise and other parts of Ireland for over 20 years.
There’s an interesting legend about how Turgesius eventually met his demise. Maoilseachlainn, an Irish chieftain under Turgesius’s rule, offered the Viking leader his daughter’s hand in marriage. He sent his daughter with 12 maidens attending her, to Turgesius’s room. After eyeing each of the women up, none pleased Turgesius except for the daughter, and he laid his hand on her to bring her to his bed. But as he did so, the 12 maidens threw off their disguises and revealed themselves to be not women but young beardless warriors, with weapons concealed under their skirts. Instantly they seized Turgesius and slaughtered his men, then brought him, captive, to Maoilseachlainn’s stronghold. Talk about a red wedding!
This theme of male heroes disguising themselves in a feminine or child-like manner to outsmart their fearsome opponent has continued in legends to this day, and the story certainly has parallels with the most famous tale of how the Giant’s Causeway came to exist.
The tale of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Giant’s Causeway is quite a recent addition to our folklore, at least in the form we know it today. But its elements are more timeless, stretching back through the centuries. Fionn Mac Cumhaill of course, is one of Ireland’s most beloved ancient heroes, and he controlled a band of warriors called the Fianna, leading them into escapades that are still recorded in myth, legend and manuscript today. While in most legends Fionn and his people are men, of normal size though incredible strength, the stories and folklore told outside of what is known as the Fianaiocht can vary wildly from this.
A scottish poem from the 16th century described a descendant of Fionn Mac Cumhaill as having a mouth eleven miles wide:
His teeth were ten miles square
He would upon his harness stand
And pluck the stars down with his hand
And set them in a gold garland
Above his wife’s hair
Fionn himself is described as being so large and mighty that he could change the weather in a fit of temper:
The skies rained when he would yowl
He troubled all the air
It’s a funny and ultimately very rude poem – there’s a link to the full text and my translation on unrealpodcast.com, but be warned it’s not for the faint of heart! More importantly, though, the poem demonstrates that from a pretty early stage storytellers described Fionn and his kinsmen not merely as men, or even as mighty warriors, but as giants. And where you have a good giant as your hero, a bad giant is never far from the horizon.
Fee Fi Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an English man!
Be he alive or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!
So sings the giant of the Jack stories. Jack the Giant-killer had become a common feature of Cornish and English folklore at around the time that the tale of Fionn and the Giant first started to be heard. Unlike Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Jack is not a noble fearless warrior. Rather, he is a lazy, careless young man, who often gets himself into trouble by, say, selling the family’s only cow for a sack of beans. But because Jack is clever, and good at playing tricks on people, he soon finds he has quite the talent for outsmarting and killing Giants. In the stories of Jack, our so called “hero” makes trips to Giant countries, where he hides in their houses, steals their possessions and eventually kills them through his trickery. The giants are rarely the ones who make the first attack, but they are seen as inherently evil in the stories, because they are uncivilised and savage. This is quite a contrast with Irish tales, where the giants come from oversea to attack, and the heroes are the ones defending their own homes. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, I think! You can read more about Colonialism in the Jack stories in The Annotated Classic Fairy tales by Maria Tatar.
There are some Irish versions of Jack however. In an Irish story from the 1830s, a man called Stingy Jack is visited by the devil, and through clever trickery, he persuades the devil not to take his soul to hell. As he is also too sinful to be permitted through heaven’s gates, Jack’s soul is condemned to float about the earth, and it finds its way into carved turnips on All Hallow’s Eve – the first Jack O Lanterns, which later became more popular in pumpkin form when the tale made its way to America.
The tale of Fionn, the Scottish giant, and the Giant’s Causeway has its origins in two separate stories, both of which seem came about at a time when people were hungry for more stories about Jack-like figures, and giants. The tales both appeared in print the mid-19th century, although they had likely been making the rounds in oral tradition for some time before that.
A short tale appeared in the Dublin Penny Journal in 1832, describing how Fionn Mac Cumhaill built a land bridge from Antrim to Scotland, and challenged the Scottish Giant Bennandonner to come over and fight him. The Scottish giant fought and lost, and following this made Ireland his new home, marrying an Irish girl and pledging obedience to Cormac who was King at the time. This story doesn’t explain how the causeway came to be destroyed, however, and it’s missing what has become the most famous part of the story – how, through the cleverness and quick-thinking of his wife, Fionn managed to frighten away the giant without having to fight at all.
In 1841 a man called William Carleton published a short story based on folklore he had heard around Knockmany in County Tyrone. Almost 50 years later, W B Yeats took the liberty of including this story in his collection: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. It’s probably this collection which has given the tale its current level of fame. While Carleton’s version of the story gives Fionn’s wife a name, Oonagh, and probably has the most complete account of the ways Oonagh outsmarted the enemy giant – it has a very different account of who that enemy was. For in Carleton’s version, Fionn does not fight a Scottish giant – he fights another fearsome warrior of Irish mythology – Cuchulainn.
Now, those of you wincing at the inaccuracy of Fionn fighting Cuchulainn, I’m right there with you. The two warriors are from completely different cycles of Irish mythology, and would never have met, nor do they meet in any other legend. It’s sort of mystifying that Yeats decided to include it in his collection without any explanation. But I guess it’s not hard to understand why people wanted a story of Ireland’s two greatest heroes facing off – we can perhaps think of it as the Batman Vs Superman of its day.
The story, as it’s told today, is a combination of both tales. It begins like this.
Ireland’s hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill, heard that a Scottish giant was making a claim on Ireland. Fionn was angry, and he built a causeway connecting Ireland and Scotland, and travelled over to challenge the Scottish giant to a fight. When he arrived in Scotland, however, he saw how big and strong the scottish giant was and beat a hasty retreat. But the Scottish Giant followed Fionn Mac Cumhaill back over the causeway. Soon, Fionn Mac Cumhaill got to hear that the Scottish giant was looking for him, and he confessed to his wife Oonagh how scared he was.
Do not fear, said Oonagh. Depend on me, and I’ll figure out a way to help you.
Fionn agreed. First, Oonagh took nine woollen threads of different colours from her basket, which she always when faced with an important task. She then platted them into three plats with three colours in each, putting one on her right arm, one round her heart, and the third round her right ankle, for then she knew that nothing she planned would fail. Then, she set to work.
There’s a lot I love about this story’s beginning – Fionn realising that he wasn’t as invincible as he had believed himself, and then showing that vulnerability to his wife, who soothes him and more importantly thinks of a way to get him out of his predicament. It’s unsurprising that Fionn’s wife is the brains of this story, for tales of women defeating giants through cleverness were also widespread in folklore.
In the Scottish tale Maoil a Chliobain, a young girl called Maoil a Chliobain is kicked out of her home, along with her two older sisters. The three were told to go and seek their fortune. When night falls, the three girls found a house and ask to take shelter, but when inside they soon realised that the house belonged to a fearsome giant. The giant also had three daughters, and before he put them all to bed he tied chains of gold around his own daughters necks, and chains of straw around Maoil a Chliobain and her sisters. Later in the night, the giant told his servant that he his thirsty. “Kill one of the strange girls, and bring me her blood,” he said. “How will I tell them apart from your daughters,” the servant asked, and the giant explained about the chains of gold and straw. But Maoil a Chliobain was still awake, and as soon as she heard this, she rushed to switch around the chains. The servant came, and fooled by the swap he killed one of the daughters of the giant, and took the blood to him. When the giant asked for more the servant killed the next, and when the Giant asked for more again, and he killed the last daughter of the giant. Meanwhile Maoil a Chliobain woke her sisters and they fled from the house, though not before stealing the golden cloth they had slept under. When he discovered what had happened, the furious giant chased them until he reached
s a river that he could not cross:
You are over there, Maol a Chliobain.”he called.
“I am, though it is hard for thee.”
“Thou killedst my three bald brown daughters.”
“I killed them, though it is hard for thee.”
“And when wilt thou come again?”
“I will come when my business brings me.” Maoil a Chliobain said.
In the tale, Maoil a Chliobain returns multiple times to steal further treasures from the giant, until finally the giant called out to her across the river “If you were over here in my place, and I was over across the river in yours, how would you follow me?”
“I would drink the river dry,” said Maoil a Chliobain, and the giant crouched down and began to drink up the river. He drank and drank until at last he burst. So it just goes to show that even the youngest, smallest little girl can overcome the fiercest giant, if they are clever enough to outsmart them.
With similar quick thinking to Maoil a Chliobain, Fionn’s wife Oonagh set to work on her plan to trick the Scottish giant. She took out her bread dough, and borrowed some iron pans frm her neighbours. She kneaded the iron pans into the middle of the bread, and she then she made some more cakes of bread without anything inside. She took some milk curds (which is the solid part of milk when it curdles) and she shaped them into a little ball and gave it to Fionn. Then, with the giant almost across the valley on his way to them, Oonagh made up a cradle in the corner of the room, and told Fionn to get into it, with baby clothes covering him up.
“Lie there, and say nothing,” said Oonagh.
Disguising something by dressing it as a baby and putting it in a cradle is a common trope in folklore – usually it’s a stolen sheep that gets disguised. And there are many stories around the world of how ordinary people fooled giants into thinking that something much bigger and scarier was on its way. Sometimes a person would tell the giant that the thunder outside was the rattling of their brother’s wagon, or that the large millstones in their yard were actually pearls from their mother’s necklace. Sometimes, they would build an enormous pair of shoes and leave them outside the house, so that the giant would think someone enormous lived nearby and avoid it.
At last the giant came. “I’m looking for Fionn Mac Cumhaill,” he said.
“Well you’ll have to wait a while longer,” Oonagh said, “It’s only me and my baby here. My husband is out seeking a Scottish giant to fight him.
“I am that giant”, the scottish giant said, and at that Oonagh threw back her head and laughed.
“You are?” she said. “Tell me, have you ever seen my husband Fionn? I thought not. If you take my advice you poor creature, you’ll pray night and day never to see him. But you’re safe for the time being, as I said it’s only myeself and the poor sick baby in the house, for Fionn left in an awful hurry.”
The giant spotted the baby in the cradle and gave a start. He had never seen a child so big. If Fionn’s youngest baby is that size he said to himself what on earth is the size of Fionn himself?
“Sit down sit down” said Oonagh, betraying nothing in her eyes. “I’m sure you must be starving, a poor scrawny thing like you. Here’s some bread I’ve baked fresh today.” And she went and took out the bread cakes which had the iron pans in them, and passed a few over to the giant.
Hungrily, the giant bit straight into one, and he immediately let out a roar of pain. “Blood and fury!” he shouted. “Here are two of my teeth out! What kind of bread is this you gave me?”
“Why only the bread my husband and son eat,” Oonagh said in a surprised tone. “I do make it a little hard as the baby is teething, the poor sick little thing.”
And she went over and handed Fionn a cake of bread that had no iron in it, and Fionn very quickly gobbled the whole thing up.
The giant was thunderstruck. I’ll have no chance with a man as strong as Fionn Mac Cumhaill he said to himself, when even his little sick son eats bread so hard it would knock my teeth out.
Now Fionn sat up in his cradle, and spoke to the giant himself.
“Call yourself strong?” he asked, and the giant marvelled at such a booming voice coming from a baby. “Can you squeeze water out of that white stone there?”
The Scottish giant took up the stone, and he squeezed and squeezed but no water came out.
“Ah, you’re a poor creature!” said Fionn. “You a giant! Give me the stone here.” And Fionn took the stone, but he secretly swapped it with the ball of milk curds, and so as he squeezed it, the whey liquid quickly came pouring out.
Seeing this strength in a child, the giant’s knees knocked together with terror at the thought of Fionn returning.
“Actually” he said, “I don’t think I can stay to wait for Fionn… things to do you know.”
He quickly bid Oonagh farewell, and ran from the house as fast as he could back to Scotland. When he was halfway across the sea, the scottish giant suddenly became afraid that Fionn would follow him, and he ripped up the stones from the road Fionn had built connecting Ireland and Scotland. He threw them back behind him, leaving a pile on Antrim’s shore which is now known as The Giant’s Causeway.
There are quite a few variations to this tale, and it wasn’t until very recent times that the Giant’s Causeway became an established part of the story. In the many different versions, the escapade between Fionn and the Giant have led to the creation of many different hills and lakes and islands in Ireland and further afield, including Shantamon mountain, Cuttragh lake, Lough Neagh and The Isle of Man. In a version of the story originating from the Isle of Man, Fionn goes to live on the island and incurs the wrath of the Buggane, a giant, ogre like creature from Manx folklore, and while Mrs Mac Cumhaill’s trick works in the short term, the Buggane does eventually come out victorious, so Fionn has to run back to Ireland, and the Buggane, throws a tooth after him which becomes known as Chickens Rock. In William Carleton’s version, where Fionn is fighting Cuchulainn, Cuchulainn puts his hand into Fionn’s mouth to feel what kind of teeth could be strong enough to chomp through bread so hard, and Fionn bites down and rips the giant’s finger off. As all of the giant’s strength was located in that finger, he is now helpless, and Fionn actually kills him.
There are so many variations to the tale of the Giant’s Causeway, that it makes it a really difficult story to track back to its beginnings. However, all of these differences and inconsistencies suggest that it is a living folktale, still being told organically, and still permeating our memory in ever-changing forms. It’s so exciting to see that Irish folk tales still being built upon and retold today – suggesting the tradition will remain alive and well for generations to come. Perhaps you’ve heard one told in your area? I’d love to hear it, so do get in touch!
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal, and thank you so much to the people who said such nice things about the first episode, on The Children of Lir – it was lovely to hear you enjoyed it. If you haven’t heard that episode yet, you can find it on Unrealpodcast.com, or wherever you get your podcasts – I believe I should even be on Spotify now.
If you are enjoying the show and would like to show your support, it would be great if you could leave a rating or review on apple podcasts or your podcatcher of choice, and make sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode. You can also get in touch with me on the website, Unrealpodcast.com, or on twitter @UnrealPod, and let me know if you have any questions, comments or suggestions for future episodes. I would love to hear from you.
Unreal is written and created by me, Ruth Atkins, and you can find episode scripts and links to further reading on Unrealpodcast.com. Music in this episode is by Slainte from the freemusicarchive.org. The theme song is “The Butterfly” and the song you are listening to now is “The Lark in the Morning and The Atholl Highlanders”
I’ll be back in two weeks time, with another piece of Irish history. Until then, Go neiri an bother leat.