When Dermot MacCarthy, one of Ireland’s fiercest chieftains, built his fortress in County Cork, Ireland, almost 600 years ago, little did he know that one of the great stones near the very top of the castle would one day become one of the country’s greatest treasures and that millions – yes, millions – of people would come here to visit it.
Why do they come? To kiss the legendary Blarney Stone, reputed to give whoever kisses it the eternal gift of eloquence. Everybody from Winston Churchill to Mick Jagger has kissed the Blarney Stone so, of course, we kissed it, too.
It’s spring in Ireland when our small group of friends walks towards the castle.
The gardens are a riot of colour – yellow daffodils, drifts of crimson tulips, azaleas and rhododendrons blazing pink and scarlet, masses of bluebells and wild garlic, and swathes of blue camassia in the meadows below the castle.
Blarney Castle is a very satisfying castle in that it looks just like those fairy tale ones we all read about when we were children. Its walls are nearly five metres thick at the base and slope inwards as they go up, not only making the five-storey building very stable but also useful for fending off enemies.
If you dropped something heavy or nasty from the battlements in bygone days, it would bounce off the wall and demolish your invaders. Unwelcome guests breaching the doors could also have boiling oil poured on them from the murder hole above the entry.
As we walk towards the castle, we notice a dog kennel and sentry box guarding the entrance below the lookout tower. Once inside, as we move past the great banqueting hall, the different chambers, the kitchen, the dungeon, the chapel and the priest’s room, we’re all thinking the same thing: yes, it’s awe-inspiring but, hell, it must have been freezing in winter.
Although it’s a bright April day, we’re all wrapped up in thick jerseys, coats, beanies and gloves. Those Irish chieftains and their clans were obviously a very tough lot.
Queen Elizabeth 1 desperately wanted to lay her hands on Blarney Castle and sent the Earl of Leicester to take over Blarney Castle from the MacCarthy family. But the wily MacCarthy of the day kept fending her off with false promises and charming words.
She was so annoyed and frustrated that she reputedly grumbled that the earl’s words “were all blarney”. Hence, the meaning of the word “blarney”: beguiling but misleading talk.
But now it’s time to climb up 127 steps to the top of the tower to kiss the stone. It’s not easy. You lie on your back, lean backwards, hang onto the iron railings for support, stretch out your shoulders and neck as far as they will go and kiss the stone. A strong attendant hangs on to your legs to make sure you don’t plummet down the gap in the battlements.
Afterwards, you’ll probably have a stiff neck, shoulders and back but, hey, you’ll have the gift of the gab forever.
But it’s not just the stone that’s worth the visit. The absolutely gorgeous gardens stretch for more than 24 hectares.
We didn’t have time to follow all of the many meandering paths that wander through various gardens, arboretums and avenues, which constantly change colour throughout the seasons, so next time we’ll visit the Fern Garden, the Vietnamese Woodland, the Himalayan Valley and the Rock Close, said to be an ancient mystical druidic site.
But we loved the Poison Garden with its display of plants that could knock you right off your feet or, worse, kill you outright. (Who would have thought that rhubarb leaves are extremely poisonous?)
The Carnivorous Courtyard full of sinister-looking plants that could sting you, wrap you in their tentacles and lure you into their hungry flowers was another eye-opener.
If you have a day to spare, go on one of the lovely walks that stretch around the lake, through woodlands or over boardwalks.
The spring air is filled with bird chatter, and a red squirrel bounces up a tall tree. Stately swans glide by, a heron fishes. This truly is a magical place.
I could go on and on … but you might think it’s just blarney.