One of the most unique and fascinating words in the Irish language is “blarney.” It means eloquence with a dash of charm and wisdom or the gift of gab. John O’Conner Power explains it well “[Blarney] is flattery sweetened by humor and flavored by wit. Those who mix with Irish folk have many examples of it in their everyday experience.” This may seem like an innate trait or talent that we either have or we don’t, but for the Irish, there’s one way of getting it that has attracted millions of people over the centuries—and it involves exploring a centuries-old castle and finding a legendary stone.
THE BLARNEY STONE
As the rumor goes, the Blarney Stone bestows the gift of gab on whoever kisses it. For all that it seems like the stuff of fairytales, the stone is comfortably lodged at Blarney Castle, a medieval fortress near Cork, Ireland, and it’s considered a world landmark that thousands of travelers have flocked to every year since the 1800s. The Discovery Channel even lists it as one of the things you should do before you die.
However, that doesn’t mean kissing it is an easy feat. You’d have to endure a steep climb that involves 127 steps from spiral staircases. Once you get there, a bit of flexibility is required. Visitors would lie on their back, hold on tight to an iron railing to avoid falling, and lean backwards a lot, all while handling the dizzying sight of the ground from 100 feet up. A practiced attendant will be there to guide you through the process. One century back, travelers weren’t as lucky. The old-fashioned way was to hold people’s ankles and then hang them upside-down so they could kiss the stone, but this practice came to an end when a traveler slipped free from his friend’s grasp and hurtled down to his death.
Adding to the mystique of the Blarney stone is its mysterious origins. There’s no clear historical record, but scientists can at least tell that it’s a limestone made of calcite. This kind of rock can only be found in the surrounding area, so the Blarney stone came from local Irish soil.
MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE BLARNEY STONE
Because people could only speculate about where the Blarney stone came from, numerous myths and legends have built up around it over the centuries, involving a variety of figures from Biblical prophets to goddesses and Queen Elizabeth I. The most consistent character is Cormac McCarthy, the King of Munster who did historically build Blarney Castle.
One popular story describes how Cormac McCarthy helped Scotland’s Robert the Bruce to defeat the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 2014. He sent five thousand of his men, and Robert was so grateful that he gave a piece of the Stone of Scone to McCarthy in return. This stone was part of the seating place of the first King of Scots when he was crowned in 847. Unexpectedly, the stone would have magical powers that McCarthy would only discover later on.
Another version insists that McCarthy was led to it by a goddess. While McCarthy was still taking care of the castle’s construction, he became embroiled in a lawsuit, and he was worried about losing. To receive divine aid, he prayed fervently to the goddess Cliodhna, also called the Queen of the Banshees. She appeared in his dream, telling him to kiss the first stone he finds on his way to the court. Upon doing this, he became so eloquent that he won the case, and the stone was brought back and turned into a permanent fixture in the castle.
If we had to bet on accuracy, though, the account about Queen Elizabeth I and McCarthy wins out. Queen Elizabeth I wanted McCarthy to surrender the Blarney Castle over to her as a show of loyalty, so she ordered the Earl of Leicester to seize Blarney Castle from McCarthy. Since McCarthy didn’t want to give it up, he used his wit to keep the queen and Earl distracted, coming up with excuses and holding banquets that kept delaying the negotiations. It’s debatable whether McCarthy enlisted magic on his side or not, but in the end, the castle was never taken, and the whole affair got so absurd that it became a joke at court. “Blarney” officially made its entry into the Irish language after the Queen used the word “blarney” to describe the Earl’s pointless progress reports and McCarthy’s excuses.
Since Ireland has deep Catholic roots, many of the speculations about the Blarney stone connect it to Biblical events and saints.
One legend says that the Blarney Stone is actually Jacob’s pillow. This can be traced back to Genesis, where Jacob was running from his older twin brother Essau. He ended up at an unfamiliar city, and with nowhere to sleep for the night, he resorted to using a stone as a pillow. God appeared in his dream and blessed him. The next morning, he set up the stone as the start of a pillar and consecrated it to God. Later on, it was transported by the prophet Jeremiah to Ireland, where it became the “Lia Fail” or the Stone of Destiny. This was said to be placed on the inauguration mound on the Hill of Tara, serving as an oracle for the coronation of Irish kings. In the present, there’s an ancient stone that lies in that exact area, but some say that the Blarney Stone is the original Lia Fail.
Other Biblical stories claim that it was the stone that Moses struck to get water from when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt and had to look to God for sustenance. It could also have been the Stone of Ezel that David hid behind so Saul, his enemy, wouldn’t find him, later brought to Ireland through the Crusades.
A more Irish-oriented tale points to St. Columba instead, a highly influential saint who propagated Christianity throughout the area that would become Scotland. The Blarney Stone could have been his deathbed pillow on the Island of Iona, where he put up a monastery. When he died, the stone was transferred to Mainland Scotland. As with the story of Jacob, it was made part of the throne for English royalty and turned into the Stone of Destiny.
Regardless of which is true, it’s a testament to how beloved the Blarney Stone is in Irish culture that so many different legends have been passed on about it from generation to generation. Even though we don’t add to these anymore in the 21st century, the magic of it lives on in the long lines of pilgrims waiting to kiss the stone.
BLARNEY CASTLE, HOME OF THE BLARNEY STONE
The Blarney Stone is so famous that it’s often the main reason why tourists head to Blarney Castle, but they get a pleasant surprise when they notice the beauty of the castle itself and its grounds. Built in the 14th century and located near the River Martin, the Blarney Castle is the most visited castle in Ireland, with an estate spanning 1,500 acres.
Although most of the interiors are in ruins, tourists can still climb the walls and parapets, which have stayed sturdy throughout the years. Because much of the castle has been untouched by builders, a sense of mystery and timelessness remains. A “murder room” lies above the main entrance. Blood wasn’t spilled here—instead, the room has a square hole through which guards threw rocks and weapons that would hit unwitting intruders. Other amenities that were added for the convenience of visitors are court exhibition rooms and a café and souvenir shop.
If the castle is a mesmerizing relic of the past, the grounds have a similar ancient and idyllic feel, bringing to mind faeries and long-ago kingdoms. Visitors can walk through themed gardens and follow walking trails along the River Martin, which serenely reflects the view of the castle. Out of all the themed gardens, the Poison Garden is the most sought after. It contains poisonous plants gathered from all over the world such as wolfbane, nightshade, and even cannabis. On the other hand, go deep into the woods and you’ll encounter the Fern Garden, a tropical jungle lookalike. The estate is especially vivid and visually stunning in spring and autumn, when flowers and trees burst into color.
All in all, the landscape is extremely varied, with a cave dwelling, a serene lake, and many interesting rock formations. Ancient rocks and trees decorate the Rock Close, making it a comfortable sanctuary for worship. The Sisters is another site imbued with sacredness, featuring a prehistoric circle that has seven upright stones and two fallen ones. One explanation for this is about a king of Munster who had seven daughters and two sons. He went into battle with a clan chief, and although he came out as the victor, his two sons died. While he was grieving, he noticed the prehistoric circle and had two of the stones knocked down to pay tribute to his sons.
The Blarney Castle has a long history and is the third version to be built on the site. The first one was put up as a wooden structure in the 10th century. This was fortified with stone during 1210, only to be demolished and then rebuilt by Cormac McCarthy in 1446. The construction lasted for several years, resulting in a larger castle that housed the Blarney stone--the Blarney Castle that we know today.
Because the castle was an asset as a stronghold and enjoyed a good lookout position at the edge of a cliff, the McCarthy clan constantly fought with other clans who wanted the castle for themselves. Even Queen Elizabeth demanded that the McCarthy clan give it up, as mentioned in one Blarney stone’s origin story, but they refused. During the Confederate War of 1641-1652, the castle ended up in the possession of Oliver Cromwell, who aggressively attacked it with gunfire and raided it when everybody except for two servants had escaped. There were rumors about a treasure inside the castle, but it was never found and was reputed to have been snuck out by the McCarthy clan.
When Cromwell died, ending a severe period where most of the population was massacred, the McCarthy clan took the castle back in 1661. It was placed under different owners over the next two centuries. The Hollow Sword Blade Company of London bought it, after which it ended up with Sir Richard Payne, the Lord Chief of Justice, and then Sir James Jefferyes, governor of Cork City. Finally, Sir James’ descendants married into the Colhurst family, who still own the castle until today.
A IRELAND BUCKET LIST ESSENTIAL
The Blarney Stone is an amazing Irish artifact. Not only is it historically significant and located in a well-preserved 14th century castle, it also carries with it legends and stories told over many Irish generations, and it’s a tribute to “blarney,” a delightful word that reveals the good humor and gift for conversation that the Irish themselves are well-known for. Visiting it is quite a thrilling experience. In turn, the Blarney Castle and its grounds have much to offer, turning back time and soothing travelers with their quaint, idyllic charm. Upon kissing the Blarney Stone, it’s not too unexpected to get the gift of gab, where you won’t be able to stop talking about the beauty of the Blarney Castle and of Ireland as a whole.