Causeway Guides

by Mark Rodgers

I do not like the modern terms that are used to describe what I do, Tour Guide and Tourist Guide, to me they do not make much sense nor do they pay enough respect to the origins of my trade. I prefer the old world term “Guide” simply because in our history the folk that begun this tradition in Ireland did so in the mid 18th century on the Giants Causeway in County Antrim, they were known as “Guides”. It was good enough for them and it’s good enough for me!

In a bygone era local men from areas like Ballylinny, Carnkirk, The Aird, Tonduff out to the Feigh and the Mill Town walked around the Giants Causeway with visitors who had come to marvel at the 8th wonder of the world. They did so out of necessity in order to earn money, feed their families and keep a roof over their heads and because they loved the Giants Causeway.

They were best described as “salt of the earth” type characters with a roguish charm and a sharp wit. They could make you laugh or cry and most of all they could make you remember the time spent in their company.

What they lacked in scientific knowledge they made up for with their ability to improvise. No opportunity was wasted as the odd shaped stones became, camels, bonnets, mitres, dogs, ducks and teddy bears. There was music in the air with Spanish and Giant Organ pipes and of course a compulsory Irish harp. A well to drink from, cannons to defend the Causeway, a fan to keep the ladies cool and a chair for them to sit upon and make a wish.

The Causeway was home to the legendary giant Fionn MacCumhall, his wife, son and even his grandmother and they all became enshrined in the great stories that the “Guides” told to their enthralled guests.

The Giant grew in stature to reach 54 feet, his strength and knowledge were put to good use to build the Causeway to reach Scotland only to discover that his Scottish nemesis was twice as big and that longed for victory was an impossibility.

In his hour of need it was the wisdom of his wife Oonagh that saved the day and as the great story was recited each “Guide” would try their best to put on a better show than his rivals.

“Guiding” was a vocation, you could either do it or you couldn’t, fathers picked out the son who showed the most potential and the gift was passed gently from one heart to another so that no trick was lost and each generation would be better than the last.

No mother or wife wanted their men to be “Guides” because the work was so seasonal 4 or 5 months of the year would be spent “Guiding”, living like kings eating steak and drinking whiskey until the winter came. Then they would be laying shivering, freezing, eating mutton and drinking porter waiting for the season to come around.

Undeterred local men were still drawn to this unique way of life and by the time a census recorded local people and their occupations 32 men declared themselves as “Causeway Guides” (circa. 1810)

The Victorian era brought prosperity, hotels, trams and rivalry as the “Guides” battled for the rights to entertain the growing number of guests. The disputes didn’t last and the community spirit was always there.

The entrepreneurs of that time built shops and they became fortune tellers, high tea servers and ice cream sellers. They all added to the spectacle, the Giants Causeway had become a well known attraction on a global scale.

The back bone of the experience was always the “Guides” and in each generation a “Guide” would come to the fore and bring order, knowledge, wisdom and organisation to the services provided . Men like Alick McMullan, John Currie, Joe Mornin and Johnny McLernon brought a real air of respectability to their position and kept alive the stories of this iconic site.

My wife’s grandfather Alex Purdy was a “Guide”, in fact he was the very first “Guide” in the history of the Giants Causeway to ride a pony and trap to take folk to see the stones. He was a great character and his son William John Purdy loved him dearly, spending hours of his time in his father’s company, his love for the Causeway shoreline and its people grew and it never diminished.

When we (our family) decided to resurrect this old world tradition on the Giants Causeway it was that love which shone brightest when William John decided to teach me the “secrets” of this special place. I got an education that was beyond privileged.

The very people who came from the families that created all this history helped and told me the stories of their  ancestors lives and the history and heritage of this special race of folk!

They helped me blend a mix of their old world skills with modern day techniques to produce a format that honoured the past, would have an impact in the present and grow into the future. They will NEVER be forgotten here again. 

I have been a “Guide” for 7 years now and I simply LOVE  my way of life, every tour I have ever done, or I will ever do, will pay homage the men who did this before me.

I will continue the legacy of the man who took time to pass the gift gently from his heart to mine: William John Purdy.

I will always be a Causeway “Guide”.

Mark Rodgers