Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Excursion Five: The Giant’s Causeway Revisited

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

I was recently asked why, having lived so long in England, I still write so much about Ireland. It’s a question I’ve been thinking over for a while, and one I might turn on its head slightly – why do I find that when writing ‘about’ Ireland, by which I mean the north Antrim coast, do poems come together much more easily and satisfactorily? There’s probably a psychologist who will tell me there’s an obvious scientific answer, bound up in childhood and memory. Something to do with word association, perhaps, in the way that when I think ‘coast’ I think of the black basalt rocks and the waves at Runkerry, less than a mile from where I grew up. When I think words like farm and field, cow and sheep – no matter where I am – these words bring to mind this place, Carnkirk, where I am writing today. The word lane conjures a particular image, of a lane which runs straight towards the cliff at the end of our road, with a dark green mohican down its centre. In an undergraduate essay on Seamus Heaney I likened it to a centrifugal force, in that no matter how far Heaney travelled in life and in verse, all his poems were spun from and constantly pulled by the force of his childhood farm in Co. Derry, the heart of his ‘word hoard’.

On Saturday, an unseasonably mild day, with the rain holding off but the world a numb grey bleed of ocean and sky, we came at the Causeway from the west round Runkerry Point. This is true basalt country, rocks tumbling black and slick towards the sea as if just forged. Bulbous in places, jagged in others, they sit on the beach like the Grand Causeway’s truant cousins, un-uniformed, laid back, really more fun. They are to me more believable as lava. I always loved the way the heat ran through them on a summer’s day and you could believe they might just pop like bubbled tarmac. We walked around the blustery headland, where I noticed what I never had before: large erratics on the edge of the cliff or in the fields, where sheep spread themselves out in the fields, their rumps inked red. The headlands lay before us, four or five, each reaching further out in the still water: Portnaboe, the humped Stookans, the Grand Causeway low in the water, then the Organ, and finally the Chimney Tops. It’s well worth it, if you visit the Causeway, to take these coastal paths and get a proper look at the place.

Looking west from Runkerry Point

Looking west from Runkerry Point

I officially started this project – to write new poems addressing the geology of climate change – in June, but really my thinking around it dates back over a year, to a talk given by Dr Bryan Lovell of Cambridge University, then President of the Geological Society. Bryan has been my advisor and supporter throughout the project, and if it was not for his enthusiasm and belief I doubt I would ever have got started. He spoke that day about an event which happened 55 million years ago, when over a billion tonnes of carbon was dumped into the atmosphere. The temperature of water at the bottom of the ocean increased rapidly from 11 to 15 degrees centigrade, oceans became more acidic, with less oxygen, and the extinction of life that followed in the oceans and on land marked the beginning of a new geological epoch (the Eocene). The message is a simple one: we humans are now repeating that carbon dump, but on a larger scale. For all the climate change deniers, here is evidence in the geological record about the effects of carbon on the atmosphere and the planet. What’s happening now has happened before, but this time we’re responsible.

This is the piece of scientific fact – the real geology of climate change – that I’ve been worrying away at for most of this year. This is what, when I set out on this project, I really wanted to recast in poetic form, to try and get this message across in a new way. But it’s been nothing but stops-and-barely-starts, failed sonnets, some terrible haiku. I’ve tried to make it work, but it won’t. The problem was how to write a poem (another question might be why write such a poem, for which I’d begin by referring you to this post) that worked all of this science and scientific omen into it while retaining the subtlety and condensed-ness of the poetry I like to read and write. Maybe the science of it was just too big for poetry. Maybe there’s no way to do away with the scientific words without losing the science.  I just couldn’t find a way in.

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

But then a few weeks ago I was looking in the new issue of Earth Science Ireland and came across an article on climate change by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, in which they refer to the event 55 million years ago.  They mention, however, something I had not been aware of before: that the influx of carbon “may have been triggered by massive volcanism associated with the opening of the North Atlantic (and so, locally, the Giant’s Causeway).” I wouldn’t say this was a eureka moment, but it was certainly one of those exciting ones that I think most writers of poetry must feel: a way into a poem that comes from an area you know and know well.  I’ll just have to see what happens.


Excursion 1: The Giant’s Causeway

I have trouble with the Giant’s Causeway, aesthetically. Too famous perhaps. Not enough room for manoeuvre and nuance. Its myth already written. When dwelt on, its geology is rather unromantic, a tourism coup. As if 60 million years ago the earth somehow knew humans would arrive with a lust for the picturesque, the basalt columns less wonder than comedy. Growing up here, my family tended to avoid it, venturing down to the Grand Causeway only when we had visitors. We preferred the nearby beach at Runkerry, where the basalts are gnarled and unruly, or the cliff top walk further round. Lately though, somewhat a visitor myself, I always like to fit in a trip.

Today, soaked June, visibility nil, we walked with the other rain-coated pilgrims down under the relative shelter of the cliff. Martins spun and spiralled, a peregrine or kestrel – hard to tell through steamed-up glasses – rested on a twenty metre high ledge. And that’s the untold thrill of the Causeway: the cliff that towers above. On the ascent are the seeping red rocks of the Port Na Spaniagh laterite, then, at Windy Gap, oily bulbous boulders, tar-black. These, my guidebook told me, are basalt rocks that have been rotted by physical and chemical weathering: ‘onion weathering’ because of their concentric layering like the inside of an onion. Passing them, we turned the corner and could see right across the curving bay to the Chimney Stacks, the teeth of the Organ, and the red shock of the interbasaltic laterite that cuts through like a layer of jam, separating the Lower Basalts from the Causeway basalts above.

Tourists huddled in groups on the Grand Causeway, jumped from column to puddled column. They’ve been doing it since the sixteen hundreds. No one was able to tell them then what to us seems quite simple: intense volcanic activity caused molten lava to intrude through chalk beds and form a massive lava plateau, the lava cooled rapidly, contraction occurred, the rocks fractured in a similar way to drying mud, leaving the mostly hexagonal basalt columns.

Engraving (1743) of Susanna Drury’s watercolour ‘A view of the Giant’s Causway: East Prospect’ (1739)

As we climbed the Shepherd’s Steps we heard the familiar flint-grate sound of stonechats before we saw fledglings, little balls of fluff, taking tentative hops over the damp branches. Looking down from the top of the cliff, the Causeway stretching out into the sea, Scotland appeared as a murky smudge on the horizon: somewhere over there are the corresponding basalt columns at Fingal’s Cave, part of the same ancient lava flow, on the Isle of Staffa. According to legend, this is the end of the causeway built by Finn McCool in order to fight Benandonner.

To the west, the hills of Donegal appeared, and the reptilian Skerries, a slither of intrusive igneous, sitting about a mile out in the water.  There’s a scuttled U-Boat in the depths nearby. We followed the paths back inland towards the new car park and the main road. The visitor centre, smooth black basalts and grass roof, is due to open in a month’s time.

I suppose if there’s poetry to be written it’ll have to do more than describe the place, do more than transcribe geology or translate myth. As is so often the case, Seamus Heaney does just that, in a poem from ‘Squarings’, one of the sequences in Seeing Things (Faber, 1991). With intermittent phone signal we found the poem online and read it in the shelter of the hill-top pub. Outside the weather descended, and the fields, the beach, the cliffs and tourist train were shrouded in heavy ropes of horizontal rain.


‘XXXIX’ from ‘Squarings’ by Seamus Heaney:


When you sat, far-eyed and cold, in the basalt throne

Of “the wishing chair” at Giant’s Causeway,

The small of your back made very solid sense.


Like a papoose at sap-time strapped to a maple tree,

You gathered force out of the world-tree’s hardness.

If you stretched your hand forth, things might turn to stone.


But you were only goose-fleshed skin and bone,

The rocks and wonder of the world were only

Lava crystallized, salts of the earth


The wishing chair gave a savour to, its kelp

And ozone freshening your outlook

Beyond the range you thought you’d settled for.




Tagged , , , , ,