For first-time visitors to Ireland, the ritual of kissing the Blarney Stone is as essential as downing that first pint of ‘real’ Guinness. For some however, despite standing in the queue, climbing the circular stone steps that get ever steeper, narrower and more worn as you near the top and enjoying the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, the actual act of kissing the stone proves to be daunting. The ancient floors of the existing castle which was built in 1446 are gone and from the narrow walkway around the top, visitors wending their way to the famed stone have plenty of time to reflect on its 90’height. Attaining eloquence is not for the faint of heart. The kissing part requires the kisser to lie on his back, scoot out over the edge of a precipice and hang virtually upside down in order to reach the Stone of Scone – which was the original name of the stone. There is man there to assist, of course and a photographer to record the event. And there is truly no danger of falling…
After you’ve turned yourself upside down – literally- to complete the ritual, don’t be too quick to leave the castle grounds. The allure of the shops at Blarney Woolen Mills might be strong, but walking through the grounds and gardens of Blarney Castle is a treat that should not be missed. Just outside the castle keep, the stable yard contains a colourful array of carriages and caravans, picnic areas and a small café. On the day we were recently there, there was a fox hound puppy show as well, presented by the Blarney Hunt Club. The puppies were temporarily corralled inside in large box stalls and were happy to bark and howl a greeting to anyone who stopped by to snap a photo.
One should allow at least half a day to explore the more than 60 acres of the Castle gardens. There are numerous paths and avenues linking a variety of gardens and waterways. From the Stables, we wandered down to the mystical Rock Close which is on the site of an ancient druid settlement. From the tranquil waterfalls to the magic witch’s stone, to the wishing steps you definitely feel presence of …something.
Tucked behind the battlements of the castle is one of the few Poison Gardens in the world. Some of the plants here, like poison ivy, will be familiar to many people. Others have names like Mandrake and Wolfsbane – recognizable if you have read the Harry Potter series. Each plant has an explanation of its characteristics, toxicity and uses. It is an educational and truly fascinating garden.
We continued down the shaded paths until we came upon the Blarney Manor House. Built in 1874 in the Scottish Baronial style, today it is still the home of Sir Charles St John Colthurst, a member of the original family whose coat of arms bears the “colt” of the family name. The house is open to the public for tours during the summer when Sir Charles takes up residence in a summer house nearby. The tour lasts approximately half an hour and is definitely worth seeing. It is a lovely home, splendidly decorated and elegantly maintained. The views from the magnificent floor to ceiling windows in the drawing room are simply stunning.
On beyond the Manor House the wildflower lined lanes continue past the Limekiln and the walled kitchen garden to the Fern Garden. If there were ever a place to find fairies in Ireland, this was surely it. Under the shady canopy of ancient trees, the limestone cliff overlooks a tranquil pool and more than 80 varieties of ferns. There is no doubt in my mind that in this sheltered site, amid the ferns growing at the base of the ancient trees, is the perfect site for fairies to thrive. You need to keep your eyes open because I’m sure that if you look carefully, you’ll catch a glimpse of the little people peeking out from underneath the shadowy leaves.
From this point you can take the shorter route back to the Castle or continue on the longer walk out towards the 21 acre lake. For bird watchers or those who enjoy seeing wildlife in their natural habitat, this is a wonderful walk: jays call to one another and squirrels scamper about the trees; on the lake, otters frolic along the banks while stately resident swans glide gracefully on the water. The path is quiet and peaceful and every season offers a completely different landscape.
While the Stone may be the most famous item within the demesne walls, it is certainly not the only thing to capture the imagination. Plan to spend an entire day here – you will be rewarded at every turn. Blarney Castle and Grounds is open year round and a visit is included in both the Emerald Essence 2104 tour and the Irish Garden Tour 2014. For more information: www.blarneycastle.ie