High atop the Blarney Castle is one of Ireland’s most famous tourist attractions: The Blarney Stone. It’s easy to see, both from the battlements and from the ground. What’s not so easy is kissing it, yet even Winston Churchill bent over backwards to gain the gift of gab.
And bending over backwards is exactly what you need to do to kiss the Stone, ninety feet up, at the edge of a parapet.
For two-hundred years young and old alike have been climbing Blarney Castle to gain eloquence. Anyone who has kissed the Blarney Stone, myself included, will agree it is well worth the climb and yoga needed to actually get at the Stone. Of this there is no doubt.
What’s in doubt is the origins of the stone, and where anyone ever got the idea that kissing a rock could grant magical oration powers.
The earliest use of the word blarney as a non-proper noun is attributed to Queen Elizabeth I. “Blarney, Blarney, I will hear no more of this Blarney!” She was, of course, referring to Cormac Teige McCarthy, the Lord of Blarney. Queen Bess, at the time Queen of all Ireland as well as Britain, had asked for an oath of loyalty. Cormac bestowed the Queen with praise and flattery, but came short of taking the oath. This story accounts for the origin of the word meaning, but there are many that tells where the MacCarthys first obtained the gift of not quite saying the truth.
Back in 1446 Cormac Laidir MacCarthy was rebuilding the castle, and there is one legend that the blessings of Blarney all started with him. Heading out to a legal proceeding, MacCarthy prayed to the Celtic goddess Clíodhna. Depending on which myths you read Clíodhna is either a goddess of love and beauty or queen of the banshees. Either way, she told him to kiss the first stone he saw as he was walking to the court. MacCarthy spoke so well, and was so convincing in his arguments, eloquently pleading his case, that he won. On his way back to the castle he found the stone again and had it built into the parapet.
As “Laidir” means “strong”, and the Blarney Stone looks somewhat heavy, MacCarthy probably did carry it from where ever he found it to be built into the heights of his castle. According to some what Clíodhna really said was “Kiss the one stone in your castle that your workers thought no man could ever again touch.” What’s somewhat doubtful about this story is that he was also a great proponent of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in which case a Celtic goddess might not have wanted to help him out. Some stories have MacCarthy meeting a mystic, and some say that Cormac Laider was the one that so annoyed Elizabeth I, but she ruled in the time of Cormac Teige.
Trouble is, every other generation of MacCarthys named their sons Cormac. There was yet another Cormac MacCarthy back in 1314 who sent help to Robert the Bruce in Scotland, and one legend says that in return the Scots gave him a portion of the Stone of Scone, used in Scottish Coronations, a rock of myth and legends in itself. Other tales claim it is from the Irish Stone of Destiny, another magical stone, but with the power to bestow the kingship of the region and not some silly gift of gab.
The Blarney Stone could be part of a traveling altar used by Saint Columba, which would again mean Scotish origins. Some legends say it dates back to the old testament, brought back to Ireland by returning Crusaders, claiming it is the stone that Moses struck his staff against, in order that water may appear in the desert. Or it could be “Jacob’s Pillow”, brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah, and used as an oracle by generations of Irish kings.
In all of these stories of famous rocks, the Blarney Stone is not THE stone, just part of it. It is therefore fitting that a college in the US claims that it has a piece of the Blarney Stone. No, not Notre Dame. Texas Tech. University officials claim it’s been there since 1939.
What’s really important is that the 300,000 visitors that kiss the Stone every year don’t care where it came from. To them it’s a chance to connect directly to a piece of Irish history. And just maybe they’ll leave this tourist attraction with more than a trinket, but something more – the Gift of Blarney.
For more Irish history, read What Color Does a Leprechaun Wear?