Monday, 12 November 2012

THE ANTIQUARIAN: The Blarney Stone & Castle

An iconic symbol of Ireland, Blarney Castle has become the most famous of the many strongholds of the MacCarthy family.  In his record of the MacCarthys, Daniel MacCarthy Glas said of this illustrious family: “Their history commences with the first page of authentic Irish records and is as well attested as the history of any royal house in Christendom.”  The Annals of the Four Masters records that ““thirty of the Kings of Ireland and sixty-one of her Saints descended from the MacCarthys, and to them belongs the matchless glory of producing the first Christian King in Ireland…”

There is a tradition that prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion Dermot MacCarthy Mor, King of Desmond, had a timber hunting lodge built on the present site of Blarney Castle; in the twelfth century, this was followed by the building of a stone structure.  However, the first identifiable archeological evidence places the site’s current structure with the powerful cadet branch of the senior MacCarthy Mor line known as the Lords of Muskerry.  Construction of the castle is dated to the mid fifteenth century, with its builder most widely believed to be Cormac ‘Laidir’ mac Taidgh, the MacCarthy lord of Muskerry. 

North side of Blarney Castle with projecting oriel window from the Earl's Chamber (Photo by Mike Schenk)

The legend of the Blarney Stone is intimately linked to both the castle and the family that possessed it.  The actual stone “is a block of limestone a metre long, mounted high up on the wall of the keep, just below the battlements on the south side” (Castleden, 102).  Various legends have been attached to the origins of the stone. Believed by many to be one half of the Stone of Scone, one legend reports that King Robert the Bruce of Scotland gifted Cormac Mor MacCarthy, Prince of Desmond, the stone in recognition of his having sent 5000 infantry to aid the Scottish king at the Battle of Bannockburn.  Another idea is that since the Stone of Scone originated in Ireland, the Blarney Stone may simply be that part of the stone that never left and so acted as a crowning stone for the E√≥ghanacht Irish kings. 

Harkening back to Celtic Ireland’s ancient past, more magical myths of the Blarney Stone exist.  One explanatory myth takes place in the eighth century and involves a powerful druid who has two daughters, Cleena and Aoival (Samuel et al, 71).  As the story goes, Cleena is “exceptionally eloquent and beautiful and is the ‘Queen of the Fairies in South Munster’”(Sameul et al, 71).  She falls in love with one of the MacCarthy chieftains who does not return her love.  After he is killed in battle, “she finds he has fallen on a stone on the side of the Lee, into which his blood has soaked [and] because she spends many hours there weeping and kissing the stone” her magic gifts are “transferred to it “(Samuel et al, 71).  A continuation of this particular myth involves the builder of Blarney Castle, Cormac ‘Laidir’ mac Taidgh, who is worried about a litigation he is involved in.  Cliodhna, Queen of the Fairies, visits the worried Lord in the night and instructs him to “kiss the stone he will see facing him when he first wakes up and goes out (Samuel et al, 71).  Unbeknownst to him, the stone is the same one that his ancestor had died upon and so it had been brought up from the banks of the Lee.  Cormac ‘Laidir’ does as Cliodhna instructs and wins the court case.  “He then carries the stone to the top of the castle and hides it so that no one else will be able to match him in eloquence” (Samuel et al, 71). 

This connection between the stone and eloquence is enhanced by a historical episode that occurred in the 16th century.  Wanting all the chiefs of Ireland to occupy their lands under title from her, Elizabeth I became exasperated by the cunning way in which Cormac Teige MacCarthy, the then lord Muskerry, continued to tactfully agree to do so whilst cleverly avoiding any actual legal concession.  After yet another round of negotiation and more brilliant political maneuvering by Lord Muskerry, it is reported that in a frustrated rage the Queen stormed from the room and shouted, “Blarney!  What he says he never means.  It’s the usual Blarney!”(Castleden, 103).


"You want me to do what to the stone?!"

Castleden, Rodney.  Castles of Britian & Ireland. London: Quercus, 2012.

MacCarthy Glas, Daniel.  Historical Pedigree of the Sliochd Feidlimidh, The MacCarthys Of Gleanmacroim. England: Exeter, 1849.

Samuel, Mark and Kate Hamlyn.  Blarney Castle: Its History, Development and Purpose. Cork: Cork University Press, 2007.

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