It is a curious practice we have of kissing a 330 million-year-old dirty limestone. Legend has it that those who kiss the Blarney Stone are given the “gift of gab.” What is gab, anyway? And more importantly, why do we want it? Being a “talker” isn’t usually the most desirable trait — am I wrong?
Shockingly, kissing the Blarney Stone was not on my shortlist of priorities during my month-long tour of the Irish coast, inspired by Rick Steves. The city of Cork was on my shortlist, however, a gorgeous city well-worth a visit in southern Ireland, just a two-and-a-half hour train ride from Dublin. Blarney Castle, where you find the Blarney Stone, is a short trip outside of Cork.
When I arrived in Cork I didn’t have much of an itinerary planned, which is how I like to travel. My Irish-American father reminded me of the once-in-a-lifetime Ireland trip my great aunts made many decades ago, which had included a trip to kiss the Blarney Stone. So I thought, sigh, OK. Twist my arm. Why not?
I started hinting to new Irish friends that I was considering kissing the Blarney Stone, and they were mostly all disgusted with me – in the most positive of ways, of course. I have become accustomed to being balked at by locals for my tourist activities, as this kind of reaction was akin to what I experienced in Austria when I told people I went to Salzburg partly to visit The Sound of Music locations. And could I really blame the Irish for judging me for deciding to willingly risk infection from swapping spit with strangers for the chance at acquiring the gift of gab?
My Irish friends were more than a few steps ahead of me in understanding this endeavor, as I was starting to realize I had no idea what I was getting into. My first clue should have been when our tour bus driver included a disclaimer about being afraid of heights before we set off to the Blarney Castle from Cork. Strange, I thought, having imagined the stone fixed in the middle of a glorious garden with a sword sticking out of it.
I soon discovered my childhood fantasies weren’t anything close to reality. Shocker.
After entering the gorgeous-beyond-your-wildest-expectations grounds of the Blarney Castle via a Disneyland-esque entrance, it took me a while to recover from my shock at the beauty of my surroundings and make my way toward the Blarney Castle, where we were told we would find the stone.
Inside the castle itself there isn’t much to see above what you would expect from an old castle. You know, the typical dungeon down below and a dusty “kitchen” that looks more like a few piles of old rubble.
Having been built many hundreds of years before people considered the handicapped in their architecture, the claustrophobic, winding staircase that was the only way to get to the Blarney Stone – which was apparently on the roof – left much to be desired. It was not my first medieval staircase but it was definitely the most memorable.
Grateful to see the light of day again on the roof of the Blarney Castle, I took a moment to catch my breath but promptly lost it again when I had a moment to take in the view of the immense and lush grounds from above. I busied myself taking photos of the view while I worked up the nerve for what came next, which I had by this time understood that this kissing the Blarney Stone business was somehow designed more for gymnasts than your average tourist, requiring you to lay on your back and lean off the edge of the roof and kiss the stone upside down. Being there early in the day meant no line and not very ample opportunity to fester in my surprise and back out of the whole endeavor. The dramatic American women who arrived just behind me didn’t calm my apprehension with their loud proclamations of “barely” making it up the staircase, and one woman’s tearful protest and insistence on leaving.
I also considered sneaking down the exit staircase, but was heartened by the piles of anti-bacterial spray and paper towels sitting by the stone’s setup, and was spurred along by the ladies that had eventually decided to go for it.
“Your turn” the jolly Irish Blarney Castle worker yelled at me, and the photographer asked me if I wanted a photo.
I was too busy fending the two off to think much about what was going on, which was that I suddenly found myself hanging backwards, upside-down, to kiss the Blarney Stone. It was cold, and hard. And dry, thankfully. The jolly Irish gentleman helped me up, and it was all over before I knew it.
It took about three minutes to recover from the whole ordeal. At which time I don’t know that I was overwhelmed with a gift of gab so much as a feeling of relief and – ok, yes, accomplishment – for this small yet important task I had, surprisingly, completed. While the tradition wasn’t so revered by the local Irish, my experience kissing the Blarney Stone made me feel closer to my aunts that had done the same thing so many years ago, probably as a nod to the heritage that their parents brought with them when they came to the U.S.
The trip down the staircase was notably easier than going up. And I spent the remaining time we had allotted by the tour company exploring the grounds of the castle.
The size and scope of the property and the imagination and meticulousness with which it was tended made me feel like I was winding my way through a living museum of Irish history.
I could have spent days there learning from the stories that the plants and architecture were telling.
I always say my first visit to a country or city, and even an attraction, is my “throw-away” trip, where I learn what I like and don’t like, and if I want to return, what I would do to make my second visit as perfect as it could be. The Blarney Castle is absolutely a place I will return, and give myself plenty of time to get lost in the gardens. The gift of gab, though, I have plenty of. So next time around, the smooching of the Blarney Stone I’ll leave to my tourist friends.