Blarney Stone Tradition in Irish History and Legend

Kissing the Blarney Stone

The Irish tradition of kissing the Blarney Stone has been around for centuries. Although there are different stories as to how the legend came about, the end result is the same—those who kiss the stone will have the gift of eloquent speech.

The stone’s history ranges from Celtic myth to factual events from the Middle Ages. It is located in Blarney Castle which is in the town of Blarney a few miles outside of Ireland’s second largest city, Cork. The castle was built in 1446 and is the third Blarney Castle on this site. The first one, built in the 10th century, was made of wood; the second one, built in 1210, was made of stone. One popular explanation for its existence in Irish history is that it was a gift from one king to another.

In 1314, the King of Munster, Cormac McCarthy, sent 4,000 troops to aid the Scottish in their fight against the English at the Battle of Bannockburn. As a gift of appreciation for the Scottish victory, the King of Scots, Robert the Bruce, gave McCarthy a part of the “Stone of Scone,” also called the “Stone of Destiny.” McCarthy brought it back to his stronghold, Blarney Castle.

When McCarthy’s descendant, Dermot McCarthy, King of Munster, built the castle that is there now, he set the Blarney Stone in a wall under the battlements high above ground. It has remained there to this day. However, none of this has anything to do with flattering speech, yet. That didn’t happen until the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Blarney Castle in Blarney, Ireland: Photo credit: Thesteve (CC by SA 4.0)

The queen had sent the Earl of Leicester to persuade Cormac MacDermot McCarthy, the Lord of Blarney, to give his land to her as a show of loyalty. McCarthy didn’t want to lose his land and set off to see the queen to save it. On his way, he ran into an old woman. She wanted to know why he looked so sad, so he told her of his situation. The woman knew the history of the castle and explained that one stone was placed where no one could reach it. But, if he was able to kiss the stone, he would have the gift of persuasive speech.

McCarthy decided it was worth a try so he went back to the castle, found the stone and kissed it. The next time the earl came calling, he was again unsuccessful in his mission to take possession of the property. This happened time and time again with McCarthy offering banquets and other things to distract the earl from the reason for his visit. The queen thought this was taking too long and wanted a full report. What she got in return was explanations and excuses phrased with a great deal of flattery. The castle remained McCarthy’s property leaving the queen irritated, exclaiming the earl’s reports were filled with “Blarney.”

Another version of the Blarney Stone legend focuses on Irish mythology. Cliodhna was the Irish Goddess of Beauty and the Fairy Queen of Munster. She had fallen in love with a mortal but was swept back to the land of the fairies by a large wave. Meanwhile, the man who built Blarney Castle was facing a lawsuit and asked Cliodhna for her help. She told him to kiss the first stone he saw in the morning as he made his way to court. He did as she instructed and won the case. Out of gratitude, he brought the stone home and placed it in a castle wall.

There are several other stories about its origin including its role in determining the destiny of Irish kings, or claiming it was brought to Ireland during the Crusades. But even with all the stories about how and why the Blarney Stone exists, one thing is constant: the physical act of reaching the stone and kissing it are definitely not easy.

Visitors climb approximately 120 steps to reach the top of Blarney Castle. After that, they are on a narrow parapet walkway. When it is their turn to kiss the stone, they lean backwards over the edge while holding on to iron bars attached to the surrounding wall. As they edge closer to the wall where the stone is, an assistant helps them with balance and support. There are crossbars below the stone so no one could fall through, but some people may still suffer from fear of heights or falling or vertigo.

At one time, the iron bar and crossbar safeguards did not exist. Prior to their installation, the only way to kiss the stone was to be lowered head first while being held by the ankles. However, nerves and fear have not stopped more than 300,000 visitors a year from receiving the “gift of gab.” According to Francis Sylvester Mahony, a 19th-century Irish poet, whoever kisses the stone “never misses to grow eloquent.”

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For more information:

Blarney Castle and Gardens