Giants, Potatoes, and Troubles

Northern Ireland is a land of myths and legends.

One such legend involved an Irish giant named Finn McCool who got into a shouting match across the Irish Sea with a Scottish giant named Fingal. In his rage, Finn tore up a clump of dirt and hurled it at Fingal. It landed in the sea, creating the Isle of Mann and Northern Ireland’s Lough Neagh in the empty hole. As the giants fought, they began to build pathways across the sea to face each other. One giant outsmarted the other (which one it was depends on who you talk to). In the end, what was left is an area consisting of more than 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, today known as the Giant’s Causeway.

I had a chance to visit the Giant’s Causeway, which is now one of Northern Ireland’s main tourist destinations. The drive up the north coast was one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen: the Irish sea on one side, with rolling green hills and pastures and magnificent rainbows on the other. In a typical Irish paradox, we drove through both sunrays and thunderclouds at the same time. Legend has it that there are more shades of green in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, and along the north coast, this is certainly true.

Giants Causeway

Giants Causeway

A brand-new visitors center has just opened at the Giant’s Causeway, which explains both the scientific history and the myth behind the site. Like many things in Northern Ireland, there is both an official version and a more colorful one that has been passed down through generations.

Take, for example, the potato. I have eaten more potatoes here than I ever thought possible. Fried (aka, “chips”), chips (aka “crisps”), baked, mashed, boiled, even souffléd potatoes with apples baked inside. Potatoes are a staple food for the Irish. However, in the 18th century, potatoes were seen as low-class food, whereas bread was reserved for the upper crust (pun intended) who could afford it. Legend has it that potatoes made you lazy, and thus the phrase “couch potato” was born.

Another good example of the nexus between story and history in Northern Ireland is the conflict known as the Troubles). Officially, the conflict ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, setting Northern Ireland is on its way to reconstruction. Indeed, it has been touted across the world as the example of conflict resolution.

It seems that almost every day, through my work and research, I meet someone who has been affected by the Troubles. Or I meet young people who are distanced from the violence, yet bear generational scars from living in a location with such a colorful and complex history.

As we drove into the sky-on-fire sunset down the north coast back to Belfast, I marveled at how a place so beautiful (dare I say, one of the most beautiful places on earth?) could have such a harsh history. Healing is a long process, and Northern Ireland is just beginning to rewrite its own story. With time and with the work of dedicated peacemakers, it will certainly be the stuff of legend someday.

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