Blarney Castle

Blarney castle with its famous Blarney stone is high on the agenda for most tourists. The thing to do is to climb to the top of the castle where you lean into the machicolation ( gap between floor opening at top of castle through which oil or projectiles could be hurled at attackers) and kiss the Blarney stone. Kissing the stone itself is supposed to bestow eloquence and persuasiveness and the very word “blarney” now means to waffle aimlessly.

The origin of this dates lies in the 16th century when queen Elizabeth the first sent the duke of Leicester to seize the the stone from the McCarthys who were the Gaelic lords in possession  of the castle at the time.  As the Gaels were firmly defeated at the time and were unable to mount a military defense the best the head of the McCarthy clan could do was stall the queens emissary with excuses and promises etc.  When the queen received the reports from the duke she dismissed the talk of the McCarthy elder as “Blarney”.

The stone itself as a dazzling array of origin stories associated with it including (brace yourself), that it was the famous lia fail stone on which Kings were crowned, that it was taken during the crusades of the middle ages, that it was a gift from Robert de Bruce as a gift to the McCarthys following his help in sending men to assist in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and another tale tells that it is made from the same material rock as that at Stonehenge. The University of Glascow put a dampener on all this “blarney” however when they analysed the rock and found it was made of local limestone in 2014. Ah well.

The grounds of the castle are beautiful and relaxing and contain many interesting plants and includes a poison garden which features mandrake, wolfsbain, ricin, opium and cannabis. The latter are of course illegal in Ireland which goes to show that there is one law for the rich.

The castle is still in private ownership and it has to be said that the castle does not appear to have been refurbished to any extent beyond the minimum required to meet  health and safety, although the gardens are immaculately maintained. On a rainy day , lines of tourists are exposed to the wind and rain as they queue to kiss the iconic stone.

There can be long queues to kiss the stone and if you want to avoid the queues my advice is to go early. This is very much part of the tourist trail and most tourists arrive after travelling from Kilarney in the morning. This means it gets busy from 11/11:30 each morning. If you can get there before then, there is a much better chance that you will not be caught up in large queues. While it can be fun, especially for teenagers, there are often queues and it does make you feel very consciously like a tourist. If there is a cruise ship in town then my advice is to stay away from the castle as the line is prohibitively long. Keep a close eye for the cruise ship schedule.

Whatever about the castle though, the gardens are gorgeous, interesting, relaxing and  well maintained.

Entry is 13/5Euro and there is ample parking just opposite in the Blarney Castle hotel and Blarney Woolen Mills car park. The Blarney Woolen Mills shop is very popular with tourists and has really excellent products for reasonably good value. It is a wonderful place to buy Irish clothes and the perfect place to pick up a quality souvenir.

So my advice, if you go, go early and take time to enjoy the grounds as well as the castle.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.

How Catholic is Ireland today ?

It certainly is a current issue at the heart of our zeitgeist at present. Switch on a radio this week or have a look at our newspapers and they are full of shrill arguments in the media about abortion rights and about church ownership of schools and hospitals.

This is because, by  a curious coincidence, in the same week that the citizens assembly recommended amending the constitution (which requires a referendum)  to allow for the parliament to legislate for abortion provision in Irish hospitals, a huge controversy has blown up regarding the baffling decision to gift a hospital to the sisters of charity because the hospital is to be built on their lands.

It seems official Ireland is still happy to keep church and state solidly intertwined. The general population has moved on however. Nothing illustrated this better then the public vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015. It wasn’t , of course, the first country to do so, but it was the first country to do so by public vote and the 76% in favour was a stunning endorsement of a liberal policy change.

None of which is necessarily bad news for Irish Catholicism. We still have the highest mass attendance in Europe with 46% attending weekly and 65% attending monthly. We still listen to the church, we just don’t always agree.

The church is also still a huge part of family and community life in Ireland. Just this week, I brought my daughter to a preparatory mass for her communion later in the month. It was a very pleasant experience and the gentleness of the service was striking. Although I don’t attend mass regularly, I was very happy for my daughter to share in the spiritual experience of prayer, community and eventually communion. In these materialistic and superficial days, I hope that it can provide  a spiritual grounding in a religious tradition. As someone, who is not a practicing Catholic but is happy to acknowledge the role of tradition and spirituality I suspect that I am pretty representative of my generation.

We are slowly but surely coming to the point where religion can have its role as a spiritual servant of the people who want it and not the master of our institutions. But we are not there yet !