Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ireland - Southern Road Trip - Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle is a tower house or fortress residence that was built in 1446 by Cormac McCarthy, Lord of Muscry and descendant of the McCarthy Mor clan who ruled in the Middle Ages.  The Castle is most well known for the Blarney Stone, a large block of limestone built into the battlements at the top of the tower.  The stone is said to have the power to bestow the gift of blarney or eloquent speech to anyone who kisses it and for over 200 years, tourists have been making the pilgrimage to complete this feat.

Obviously, the main reason for visiting Blarney Castle and Gardens is to go up the Castle tower to kiss the Blarney Stone.  But when we got there around noon and walked by the entrance to the tower, we were dismayed to find the lineup snaked down the multi-flights of stairs, out the door and along the path.  The estimated wait time was a couple of hours or more!

So we decided that we would take our time and explore the rest of the grounds first, returning to the Castle as our final stop prior to leaving.  The thought was that later on in the day, most of the tourist buses would have departed and the crowds should diminish.  The grounds were quite large and included woodlands, several gardens and various other structures, so there was lots for us to explore.

We started by taking a tour of the Blarney House, built in 1846 by George Colthurst, ancestor to Sir Charles Colhurst who still lives in the manor with his family today.  As we were guided through the house, family photos and personal belongings of the current owners could be seen in the various rooms and bedrooms–a frequent reminder that we were visiting someone's home as much as a tourist site.  Because of this, photos were not allowed in the building but we did learn some interesting facts on our tour.  I wondered what it would be like for this family to have to keep their place tidy every day and to have strangers traipse through their personal space.  No "lounge around all day in jammies" for these people.

The tour guide pointed out the hallway rug which had the same pattern as the key hole of the front door, the chandelier made of Waterford Crystal and the hallway end table which had a mirror positioned under the table instead of above it. In the 19th Century, this mirror was used by ladies with hoop skirts to confirm that their ankles were not showing (an olden day version of a wardrobe malfunction).  I was most fascinated by a round rent table with drawers on all sides, each with sloped bottoms.  This allowed renters to discretely place their money in a drawer and have it fall into a safe underneath the table.

On the way back from Blarney house, we walked through parts of the Woodland trails and spotted some gigantic trees.   We had some scenic views of the Castle from the distance and wandered inside the Lookout Tower.  The lookout tower once had three levels based on the two upper windows above the entrance, but the floors and the spiral staircase leading to the upper levels no longer exist.  You could still see the small holes in the interior walls that marked the locations of the stairway's spiral steps.  Today, although you can walk inside the tower, there is no way to ascend and you can only look up through the hole at the top.

Continuing on, we visited the Poison Garden, which was created to educate visitors on varieties of poisonous plants that could be found either in the wild or in gardens within the Blarney Castle estate.  Both the dangers as well as any potential positive uses (medicinal, culinary) of each plant is explained.  For example, wolfsbane (so named because it is the only poison that can kill a wolf), when ingested or absorbed through the skin, could cause severe gastrointestinal upset or slowing of the heart rate.  Although the juniper plant is used as an ingredient to make gin, its oils could cause miscarriage, fever, vomiting and uterine hemorrhaging.  Most shocking was the rhubarb plant, whose stalks are commonly used in making desserts but apparently its leaves are extremely toxic, leading to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures. Components of each of these plants could lead to death!  We made sure to inspect them carefully from afar, ensuring that we did not touch, smell or otherwise come in contact with them.

Next to the poison garden were the ruins of a stone rampart or defensive wall  surrounding the Castle, with a wide walkway and stone parapets from which we found great views of the grounds.

The Rock Close is an "enchanted forest" that takes advantage of natural landscape formations to form a mystical walking trail through forests with leafy canopy of ancient yew and oak trees, over rock formations, past rustic bridges spanning trickling streams and gushing waterfalls.  This area is said to be on an ancient settlement of Druidic worship in prehistoric times, with the presence of a Druid stone circle, sacrificial altar, Druid's cave and a huge Dolmen with a tilted boulder that seemed like it would come tumbling down.  We also passed the "Wishing Steps" leading up to the "Witch's Kitchen" where the resident witch is supposed grant your wish if you walk the steps backwards with your eyes closed.  When looked at from the side, a rock formation named the "Witch Stone" forms the profile the witch with her hooked nose and open mouth.  One of the legends of the Blarney Stone's origin indicates that Cormac McCarthy was told of the powers of the Blarney Stone by this witch.

After wandering around for several hours, we decided we needed a rest and refreshment, as well as wanting to kill a bit more time before braving the lineups at the Castle again.  The snack bar and dining area was located in the old Stable Yard, where several antique wagons were stored.  There were tables outside in the open air, but we wanted the unique experience of sitting in the indoor booths, which were actually converted horse stalls.

It was fun sitting in one of these stalls, which had posts decorated with carvings of horse heads, and a metal grill in the back with openings presumably to hold food and water for the horse.  A quick snack of a sausage roll, ham and cheese danish and lemonade gave us enough sustenance to continue exploring the Castle and grounds.

A framed newspaper article told the fascinating history of William Horace de Vere Cole, dubbed the "Great Hoaxer", and explained his connection to Blarney Castle.  Born to wealthy parents, Cole was a neighbour and close friend of the Colhurst family and claimed to have kissed the Blarney Stone at an early age.  If the myth about the stone's powers are true, then maybe this allowed Cole to talk his way out of trouble for all of his pranks.  Even as a child, he was full of mischief, wrecking havoc on governesses and playmates.  This penchant for practical jokes culminated in his most well-known deception, now known as the Dreadnought Hoax.  Along with five friends including the writer Virginia Woolf and her brother Adrian, Cole and his group disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian Royal Family and secured an official visit on the battleship HMS Dreadnought.  The crew of the Dreadnought bowed and catered to the group who spoke in a gibberish language that was a mix of Latin and Greek.  After safely escaping from the ship, Cole later revealed the hoax by sending a photo of the "princes" to the Daily Mirror newspaper.

Looping back toward the Castle, we stopped by the old Dungeon and Badger's Cave.  The dungeon formed part of the outer defences of the castle and contained a well, providing water supply during times of siege. Badger's Cave contained several tunnels (possibly leading to Cork and Kerry) which were used by the main garrison to flee when the castle was attacked by Oliver Cromwell's troops.

Finally the time had come for us to ascend the Castle tower in order to kiss the Blarney Stone.  It was 4pm at this point and the line up had subsided significantly.  We were able to walk into the tower and walk part way up first flight of stairs before meeting the end of the line.  If we had the patience to wait yet another half hour, we could probably have walked right up to the stone, but after hours of wandering around, we were ready to go home after this last activity. The initial stairs were obviously modern additions with straight, even steps and a handrail.  But as we got it bit farther up, we soon encountered the typical dimly lit spiral stairways of the Medieval tower castles, with narrow, uneven steps curving upwards in a clockwise fashion so that the person ascending was crammed against the inner wall.  This was all intentionally designed as defense mechanisms to hinder attackers from ascending quickly.  The unfortunate side effect is that it now created a more treacherous ascent for the poor tourists trying to reach the Blarney Stone.  At some points, we were so tightly packed into these stairwells that my face was close to brushing the butt of the person in front of me.

As we continued to climb, we passed by the many rooms in the Castle including the kitchen, family room, grand hall and Earl's bedroom.  Along the way, we had some nice views of the grounds and surrounding buildings through the many window openings.

We had previously passed by the Castle Tower when we first arrived and looked up to watch the people in the act of kissing the Blarney Stone.  While there was a sizable space between the ground and the stone, wrought-iron guardrails have been placed to span the gap and vertical crossbars were added for further support to ease the path to the stone.  It was hard to imagine how it was prior to the addition of these security measures.  Anyone attempting to kiss the Blarney Stone would be dangled precariously by their feet over that big hole, with the possibility of slipping and falling to the ground 90 feet below.  Coming out of the stairwell, the lineup snaked around the battlements before reaching the stone.

Although the lineup was long, once it was finally your turn, the actual process of kissing the stone was so quick that it felt like we were being moved through on a conveyor belt.  The attendant asks you to sit on the ground with your legs extended straight out, and then supports your back as you lean back and grasp the two vertical bars.  Then you are told to tilt your head backwards through the gap and kiss the stone that is now directly above you.  I was still in mid pucker and my lips had barely brushed the stone before I was being dragged up and pushed away to make room for the next person.  I'm not sure that I feel any more loquacious, eloquent or persuasive after the experience, but it was fun going through the motions.

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