Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#travel A Whole Lot of Blarney

The sight that greets visitors as they approach the castle

Set in verdant grounds, Blarney Castle is every bit the tumbledown picture-book castle I'd imagined as a child. And I was so going to kiss the Blarney Stone - even though my husband evinced his disgust when I'd told him that was one of my goals during my visit to Ireland late last year. Hell, I needed some eloquence. In my 11 years of marriage I've yet to win an argument with the man.

As the name suggests, the castle is situated in Blarney, near Cork, and was built as a fortress about 600 years ago by Cormac Laidir McCarthy, Lord of Muscry. Apart from seeing ruined tower houses scattered throughout the Irish landscape, this was my first exploration of a castle other than the Castle of Good Hope back in Cape Town.

We approached through Blarney Castle's park-like grounds and crossed a clear stream. Here, past visitors had stood on the bridge to toss coins and, ostensibly, make wishes. This was just the start of the sense that we were on to something almost magical and out of a fairy tale. Blarney Castle itself rose from the land ahead of us, a towering edifice of grey stone that contrasted vividly with the surrounding trees' foliage. I couldn't help a small lurch of excitement as I approached the ruins. I'd always known castles were big, but, yikes, so tall? I craned my neck to stare up at the sky, and experienced a brief spot of vertigo as I saw the clouds seemingly tattered on the crenellations.

Later during my visit I'd get a chance to see the fully restored Castle Bunratty, which is similar in design to Blarney, but for now I had to use my imagination. Perhaps it was a product of having read far too many fantasy novels as a child, but a real European castle was nothing like I'd imagined it.

For one, it was actually pretty darn cramped if I had to consider how many people must have lived together. And it was difficult to visualise quite how the castle must have been hundreds of years ago because of the ruinous state.

It's easy to get a sense of vertigo looking up
I also tried to picture what the area surrounding the castle would have been like. Would I have heard the ring of steel from a blacksmith's anvil, smelt the unmistakable tang of peat smoke and seen the proud Irish, some on horseback, some on foot, coming and going on their daily errands?

But my musings on ancient times aside, of course I had to climb to the top of the actual castle. After all, I hadn't flown halfway across the globe to not complete my little adventure. But oh, going up was definitely not as easy as it sounds - and not only was this exercise vertiginous, but slightly claustrophobic as well. The stairs leading to the battlements where the Blarney Stone is situated are narrow and I'm convinced the people who built the castle were a helluva lot shorter than me. There were a few moments where I needed to duck my head, and I had to watch where I put my foot each time as I climbed the worn spiral stairs.

I had a peek into what would have been a bedroom and visualised how the rough stone walls would have been covered in tapestries and I had to wonder if these measures could take away some of the chill the stones no doubt carried during winter.

The view from the top, of course, is nothing short of amazing - green fields and trees as far as the eye can see - and even if you elect not to kiss the Blarney Stone for the gift of eloquence, it's well worth the mission just for where your gaze can roam.

According to history, the Blarney Stone is said to be half of the Stone of Scone from Scotland, upon which the Scottish kings were crowned.

It was given to Cormac McCarthy by Robert the Bruce in 1314. Later, when a certain Cormac Teige McCarthy gave Queen Elizabeth uphill, it's reported that she said that the man gave her "a whole lot of Blarney" - hence the origin of the term that's still in use.

My actual kissing of the stone was a bit of an anticlimax, but perhaps that's a good thing because before that, oh my... You have to lie down on your back, hold on to the iron railings while one of the assistants clings to your legs and... swing yourself head first under the battlements of the castle to reach the stone. And yes, you are horribly, awfully aware of that plunge on to the stony ground, many, many storeys below. People down there look teeny-tiny. Photographs are taken of you in this ungainly posture, but I opted not to pay the about R100 for my picture, content merely with the memory of the cold stone against my lips.

As for whether my wish came true, that would be telling now, wouldn't it?

Blarney Castle's verdant grounds
Unfortunately the day grew a bit cold and miserable, and our schedule was tight, so we tarried only a little in the grounds surrounding the castle.

Of particular interest to me was The Poison Garden filled with all manner of deadly plants, and a woodland walk that led to a brief investigation of nearby caves below the castle.

If we'd had more time, we would have visited the historical Blarney House itself, as well as had more time to fully explore more of the beautifully laid out gardens, the arboretum and The Rock Close. You need an entire afternoon here, definitely. When I eventually get my posterior back to Ireland, I'll pay a second visit to the castle with the stone that's been pressed to many, many lips.

This article appeared in the Sunday Independent Life supplement on July 15, 2012. All pictures by the writer. Nerine Dorman was a guest of Tourism Ireland. For further information about Blarney Castle, see www.blarneycastle.ie and for additional information about planning a visit to Ireland, see www.discoverireland.com/za

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