In the Irish countryside, Blarney Castle is one of the most famous castles throughout the country, being home to the legendary Blarney Stone. So what’s so special about it? And what others stories does this castle have?
Kings of Munster
The MacCarthy family were Kings of Munster and Lords of Blarney for centuries. For many centuries, Ireland was ruled by different kings, each one holding their own region of the country. The Kingdom of Munster incorporated most of south west Ireland. In the second century, Eoghan Mor reigned, and the MacCarthys descended from him. This Kingdom lasted for a thousand years, until the High King of Ireland partitioned it in 1118. The name still lives on now though, as the Province of Munster. The MacCarthys continued to rule half of the region, now called Desmond. During this time, Blarney Castle was constructed to serve as their ancestral seat of power.
This would last until 1596, when the Kingdom of Desmond was partitioned again, into County Cork and County Kerry, after the English invasion of Ireland. The kingdom was dissolved, because England sought to strip Irish chiefs of their power, making them subject to Queen Elizabeth I instead. Gaelic Ireland was finally defeated at the Battle of Kinsale, also in County Cork, in 1601. Ireland was now part of the British Empire.
Construction of Blarney Castle
The first version of Blarney Castle is thought to date back to around 950 AD, when a simple wooden fort was erected on the site. However, no evidence of that version remains today. This was replaced around 1210 AD, with a stronger, more durable stone fortification. That version stood for over 200 years, before eventually being destroyed as well. It was then Cormac Laidir MacCarthy who had a replacement built in 1446. That stone fortress is the same one we see today! It was also during the construction of this castle, that the Blarney Stone was installed, as part of the battlements at the top of the tower. So what is the stone…?
The Blarney Stone
Legends about the origins of the Blarney Stone vary somewhat, and it’s unlikely that we will ever know the whole truth of it. Most stories say that it’s origins are sacred, connected to Biblical figures somehow. Including that it was perhaps the deathbed pillow of St Columba on Iona!
One of the most common legends says that the MacCarthy family sent troops to aid the King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. After the Scots triumphed over the English, Bruce gave the MacCarthys part of the Stone of Destiny, the Scottish coronation stone, in thanks. However, the Stone of Destiny was stolen by the English in 1296, and remained in London for the next 700 years – so Bruce couldn’t have given part of it away?
The origins of the Stone of Destiny are equally unknown! Some tales claim it was brought over from Ireland, but other locations, such as the Holy Lands, are rumoured as well. Either way, the two stones both have mystical origins of some sort!
The Blarney Stone is also known as the Stone of Eloquence, as it bestows ‘the gift of gab’ on anyone who kisses it. This means that you will be able to speak more eloquently and will never be at a loss for words. The tale originates from Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, after England had seized Ireland. She demanded the Irish chiefs bow down to her, but Cormac Teige McCarthy, Lord of Blarney, would send eloquent, flattering letters that never actually gave in to her. Frustrated, she condemned his words as being ‘blarney’, giving the word its meaning, full of empty flattery!
Changes of Ownership
After the Kingdom of Desmond was dissolved, the English attempted to seize Blarney Castle, but were unsuccessful. It was only in 1646 that the Castle was captured, during the Irish Confederate Wars (the Irish part of the Wars of Three Kingdoms, a series of civil wars throughout the UK). Lord Broghill, a general of the English Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell, succeeded in using cannons to break the tower walls. Although it turned out the occupants had already fled through underground tunnels! However, after the Restoration of King Charles II, in 1660, the castle was given back to Donagh MacCarthy, who now became the 1st Earl of Clancarty.
The family held the castle for several decades, until the 4th Earl had to forfeit it, after supporting King James II during the Williamite wars (the Catholic James was deposed, in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary, and her husband, William). The castle was then sold a number of times, before eventually ending up with Sir James St. John Jefferyes, the Governor of Cork, in 1688. His descendants later married into the Colthurst baronet family, who own the Blarney estate to this day.
Blarney House & Present Times
The Jefferyes family constructed the first Blarney House in the early 18th century, to serve as their home. It was built in the Georgian Gothic style of the time, up against the walls of the castle keep, as was the custom. At the same time, they laid out the landscape of the gardens, including the tranquil Rock Close. The house stood until 1820, when it burned down in a fire, though the remains are still visible today.
After intermarrying, the Colthurst family built the current Blarney House in 1874, further south from the castle keep. It was designed in the Scottish baronial style, and remains the family home to this day. In 1887, the Cork & Muskerry Light Railway was opened, for the primary purpose of bringing tourists from Cork to Blarney Castle, which now stands in partial ruins. The line continued to run until its closure in 1934.
Blarney Castle and Gardens have been open to tourists year round for decades now, and the House is open during summer. It continues to be a popular castle to visit in Ireland, largely due to the legend of the Blarney Stone. However, visitors often spend longer than expected exploring the rest of the Castle, grounds, and gardens!
Blarney Castle lies in partial ruins, and is clearly visible as you enter the grounds. It’s well worth spending some time wandering around the Castle to admire it from various angles on the outside. There are ruins of other buildings nearby as well, which can frame the scene nicely as well! There are also plenty of helpful signs around, explaining what things are. Behind the Castle, you’ll also find The Stable Yard, where you can take a rest in the café there. Make sure to explore the base of the Castle too, where you can find lower chambers hidden in the rocks.
The queue for the Blarney Stone goes up a very narrow spiral stair – any claustrophobes should be aware! As you climb though, you’ll pass windows and arrow slits to see the countryside as you ascend. On top, you’ll see how the Castle is in fact a tower keep, with rooms around the four walls, and an open courtyard in the centre. You’ll then make your way around the top of the battlements, until it’s your turn to kiss the Blarney Stone. To do this, you have to lean backwards over the edge (there is a net below you, handles to grab, and a staff member holding your legs) and tip your head upside down. A little nerve-wracking, but I’m scared of heights and managed it ok!
As you make your way back down another staircase, you can stop off in more rooms along the way. Most of these are empty stone chambers, but there are more signs explaining their former functions. Look out for the ‘murder hole’ – a hole where you could drop boiling tar or stones on to your enemies!
The Castle and the Stone may be the central focus of Blarney, but make sure to explore the grounds too! Beside the Castle is the Poison Garden, with dangerous plants, including mandrake, wolfsbane, opium, and cannabis. Continue on east and you can take some long strolls, passing by the tropical looking fern garden, the colourful Belgian flowerbeds, and the Himalayan Walk. If you loop around the grounds, you’ll then also pass by the lake, and Blarney House. The House is only open in summer, but you can admire the exterior year round.
Circle back towards the Castle, then continue past it to the west side. Here, you’ll find the Seven Sisters, a set of seven standing stones, and two fallen ones. Legend says, a King of Munster lost two sons in battle, while his seven daughters lived, so he ordered the two to be pushed over, in their memory. Nearby is the Bog Garden, prettier than the name suggests, with a raised boardwalk, and two waterfalls from the rocks above.
Amongst the gardens, you’ll find one of the most mysterious part of Blarney Castle. The Rock Close was landscaped based on the existing features, creating a combination of art and nature, that harks back to ancient Gaelic times. There are signs throughout to tell you the various legends of the area. Here you’ll find the Druid’s Circle and Cave, where it’s believed that ancient Celtic druids once lived and worshipped. Nearby, there’s the Fairy Glade, a picturesque corner where the faerie folk can hide.
There’s more magic to be found too, as if you take a close look at Witch’s Stone, you can see her profile silhouetted as she stands frozen in stone by daylight. At night, she comes alive and goes to her Witch’s Kitchen, formed between the rocks and tree roots. Then, follow the Wishing Steps, down the hillside through the rocks. If you can make it up and down with your eyes closed while thinking only of your wish, the witch will be forced to grant it. This is her payment for taking firewood from the Blarney grounds! At the bottom of the steps you’ll find the Dolmen, a megalithic balancing rock structure, thought to be a portal tomb. The Rock Close is eerily mystical, where you can imagine these mysterious figures once – or maybe still – living.
Entry price: Adult €18, Seniors/students €14, Children €8, under 8s free. These prices are discounted if you book online in advance!
Opening hours: varies according to season, typically daily from 09.00am until between 17.00-19.00pm. Check website for details.
Blarney House is open from June to August, 10.00am-14.00pm Monday-Saturday
Be aware that the Castle lies in partial ruins so visitors should be careful, and those will restricted mobility will not be able to access all areas. The gardens are fully accessible though!
Blarney Castle is 8km to the northwest of Cork city. It can be reached by car, or by public bus from Cork city to Blarney village. Cork can be reached from other cities by train or bus. Many tour companies also organise coach trips to Blarney from Dublin, and some other major cities, which usually include a stop in Cork city as well. These can be single or multi day trips around the country.
Have you visited Blarney Castle before? Tell us about your experience in the comments!