Why do more than 400,000 people a year visit Blarney Castle, in the south-west of Ireland? I’d always assumed that they all went to kiss the famous Blarney Stone, and not much more. Certainly that’s what I did, on a long ago visit to the nearby town of Cork. But I had vague memories of atmospheric grounds and I wondered, is Blarney Castle more than just a kissing stone?
Why Kiss the Blarney Stone Anyway?
My memory of kissing the Blarney Stone was that it was a precarious exercise, leaning backwards out of an upstairs window while someone held onto my feet! I had no desire to repeat the experience, but there was no shortage of people queuing up to have a go. Watching from below, it looked just hazardous as I remembered.
The stone was a gift from Robert the Bruce of Scotland in 1314. A local witch told the castle’s owner, King Cormac McCarthy, that it had magical powers. Anyone who kissed the stone would acquire the art of eloquence.
Exploring the Gardens of Blarney Castle
But, in a way, the stone is just a distraction from what the estate has to offer. You could spend a whole day exploring the 60 acres of gardens, with their natural wonders and a few legends of their own. There are areas with intriguing names like the Poison Garden, the Bog Garden or The Jungle. And there are waterfalls, woodland and riverside walks.
The gardens are full of curiosities. As you come in you pass a stream that runs over a bridge across another waterway (this is an 18th century construction). The Poison Garden (as you might expect) is full of toxic plants. And then you come to the Garden of the Seven Sisters, a sculpture park with a stone circle at its centre. The circle is in fact modern (around 2014), but it recalls an ancient story of a King of Munster with seven daughters.
Myth and Legend in the Rock Close
The Seven Sisters may be modern, but there are plenty of stones that may – or may not – be much older. These are in the Rock Close, an area created in the early 19th century around several mysterious stones and stone structures that were already in the grounds. You’ll see a Fairy Glade and the Wishing Steps. Then there is the Witch Stone: the Blarney Witch is locked up in a stone by day and only assumes her true form at night, when all the visitors have gone.
It is hard to separate myth and history here. Is the Dolmen really an ancient burial site, or just some strangely shaped rocks? And did rituals ever take place by the Druid Stones or on the Sacrificial Altar? I stopped by the Witch’s Kitchen, where the Blarney Witch lights a fire each night to warm herself when she escapes from her stone. A small sign beside it says that “historians will tell you that this was home to the very first Irish cave dwellers”. To me, this was an instance where the history might just be more interesting than the legend…