Giant's Causeway visitor centre opens to public
GIANT’S CAUSEWAY, Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction, was back fully functioning at lunchtime yesterday after the new £18.5 million visitor centre was opened by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.
At 1pm yesterday, 12 years after the old centre was destroyed in a fire, the new British National Trust facility on the north Antrim coast was opened to the public and the first stream of the 600,000 visitors who travel to the causeway each year began flowing through its doors.
The first paying customer was Robert McBride, a native of nearby Portrush who emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1970 to take up work as an electrician. Retired now, he came on holidays for the Irish Open at Royal Portrush golf club, taking time yesterday to revisit the causeway.
“It’s great to be back – apart from the cold and rain,” he said. “I think this building is fantastic. I love the way it fits in with the landscape,” he said.
The oldest visitor yesterday was 95-year-old John McKay from the nearby townland of Lisnagunagh who, in 1931, worked as a flagboy helping direct the trams ferrying visitors to and from Portrush, earning two old pennies an hour for a 12-hour day. He found the new centre to be “very elaborate”.
The visitor centre, which apart from three days over Christmas will be open all year, is markedly different from the old amenity as you almost have to be up to the building itself before you actually see it because the facility is so in tune with its rugged surroundings.
Competing against 250 architectural companies, the Dublin firm of Heneghan Peng won the 2005 open competition to design the centre.
Shih-Fu Peng, who founded the practice with Róisín Heneghan in New York in 1999, moving to Dublin two years later, took issue with descriptions of the centre as the “invisible building” saying it “struck a balance between visibility and invisibility”.
Whatever about the architectural niceties with its grass roof and dark basalt columns – quarried in Kilrea, Co Derry, from the same lava flows that formed the causeway – the centre, as described, “is no longer a building and landscape but a building that becomes a landscape”.
The facility incorporates an interpretative centre with explanations of how the causeway’s 40,000 basalt stones were formed, stories about the area’s rich myths, history, geology, flora and fauna, and details of the many walks tourists can take to the stones and along the clifftops.
The Giant’s Causeway remained open since the fire but now the trust and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board expect annual visitor numbers to increase beyond the current 600,000.
On hand yesterday were characters representing Fionn Mac Cumhaill, his wife Oonagh and the Scottish giant Benandonner. Legend has it that Fionn created the causeway to travel to Scotland to fight Benandonner. But he skipped back to Antrim when he saw the size of his foe. Oonagh persuaded Fionn to dress as “Fionn’s baby” and, when Benandonner figured what Fionn’s “Dad” must look like, he fled back to Scotland, ripping up the causeway behind him.
First Minister Mr Robinson, standing close to Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness reminded Fionn and Benandonner, in the spirit of the new Northern Ireland, that “ancient quarrels were being put to rest”. He said the opening was a “momentous occasion”.
Mr McGuinness said the centre was “an absolutely stunning building” that sent a “profound message” about how Northern Ireland was moving forward.