Why Do They Kiss the Blarney Stone?
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN IRELAND
THE legend runs thus: A man stood trembling before Queen Elizabeth I of England. He had just delivered bad news from an Irish chieftain and was anticipating her wrath. Unexpectedly, the queen burst out laughing and exclaimed: “This is all Blarney. What he says he never means!” All at once, the tension lifted.
The queen, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, would likely not have expected such remarks to contribute to a unique tradition in Ireland—kissing what is called the Blarney Stone. Every year, thousands of people come to the small town of Blarney, situated a few miles north of the city of Cork, to carry out this odd ritual. They kiss the stone because doing so is supposed to bring them a gift—the gift of eloquent speech.
What is the background of the legend? And how did the practice of kissing this stone begin? To find the answers, we need to look back almost ten centuries.
A Castle With a Long History
Blarney Castle started out in the tenth century C.E. as only a small wooden fortification. In time, it was replaced by a more substantial stone building. By the middle of the 15th century, the MacCarthy family had developed the castle into a small fortified town. At the time, it was the strongest castle in that part of Ireland. Many of the stone walls were 18 feet [5.5 m] thick.
The chieftain of the family, Cormac MacCarthy, who lived from 1411 to 1494, wanted to leave a permanent memorial of himself. So he selected a large block of limestone and had an inscription in Latin engraved on it, which is translated: “Cormac MacCarthy the Strong caused me to be built in the year of our Lord 1446.” Masons set this stone high up in the large tower of Blarney Castle. To begin with, it served only as a simple memorial plaque. Its association with smooth, eloquent speech did not begin until over a century later.
Blarney and Smooth-Talking
While the legend mentioned at the outset may be more blarney than history, it does fit within the context of the times. Queen Elizabeth wanted the Irish chieftains to give their allegiance to the English crown. The MacCarthy family had organized a thousand soldiers to fight at least one battle in her behalf. So the queen was confident that the reigning chieftain of the MacCarthy family, Cormac McDermod MacCarthy, could easily be persuaded to give her his absolute loyalty.
Since Queen Elizabeth could not conduct negotiations herself, she would naturally have appointed a deputy to speak on her behalf. When the deputy sent officers to try to convince MacCarthy to swear allegiance to the queen, they were greeted, according to the story as related in the book The Blarney Stone, with “long, eloquent, cajoling speeches, promising much but delivering little.”
Eventually, the story goes, Queen Elizabeth’s deputy himself went to talk with MacCarthy. Afterward, he traveled to England to report personally to the queen. He knew that she would not want to hear his news—that MacCarthy had once again “begged more time” to allow him to seek further counsel from advisers.
After the queen’s initial reaction, described at the beginning of this article, she made a proposal regarding the novel expression she had used. “We should give that word [blarney] to Master Shakespeare! It is truly made for him,” she said.* If the legend is true, Queen Elizabeth thereby initiated the use of the word “blarney” for “smoothly flattering or cajoling talk.” One reference says that “blarney” refers to “telling lies with unblushing effrontery.”
At any rate, by 1789, kissing the Blarney Stone had already become an established practice for those who dared to do it. The position of the stone on the castle wall made it dangerous for any visitor to attempt to kiss it. So when the castle was renovated, the stone was relocated to its present, more accessible position. In time, owners of the castle replaced MacCarthy’s stone with one bearing their own inscription.
Visiting the Castle
Recently we visited the castle. The large tower containing the now-popular Blarney Stone dominates the view. We entered the tower and climbed the well-worn stone steps of the spiral stairway, eventually emerging through a small, narrow doorway. The Blarney Stone is located on a far wall.
We moved closer to watch a woman kiss the stone. She had to lie on her back with her head and shoulders over an opening that is about ten feet long [3 m] and two feet wide [1 m]. “You’re quite safe,” said the attendant. “You cannot fall through the gap because there are safety bars securely fitted across these openings. Anyway, I have a good hold on you!”
The woman reached out over her head and grasped two iron bars that had been fixed on the wall above the stone. Then, her head seemed to disappear as she leaned back still farther and lowered herself, headfirst, into the gap. She inched herself closer in order to kiss the stone. As we watched, we could see past her shoulders to the ground almost 90 feet [25 m] below!
She kissed the stone as quickly as possible and then began to pull herself up using the iron bars. With some assistance from the attendant, she managed to haul herself back into a sitting position and was then able to stand up. It was time for the next adventurer to perform the same contortions!
We looked down at the stone and noticed how discolored it was. “The stone looks like that,” explained the attendant, “because of all the people who have kissed it over the years. But don’t worry about that,” he added, “we keep it clean by washing the stone four or five times every day!”
Already there were others lining up to take their turn. We had no intention of trying it ourselves—the tradition seemed too steeped in superstition, lying and, perhaps, even spiritism. Interestingly, another legend has it that the whole tradition began when an old woman cast a spell of eloquence on a king who saved her from drowning. So instead of participating, we turned to the visitor who had just kissed the stone and asked if she really believed that she had now acquired the gift of smoothly flattering or eloquent speech.
“Not at all!” she said. She had only done it for fun, evidently with little thought to the meaning of the act. Like so many visitors to this historic site, she simply wanted to be able to tell her friends that she had kissed the Blarney Stone!
She was referring to her famous contemporary the English playwright William Shakespeare.
[Picture on page 18]
The tower of Blarney Castle