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Ireland’s Blarney Stone Gets Lucky

As backpacker, that is, one who is “close to the ground” and “economical”, you have the luxury to see people and places that are not readily available on the traditional tour package. As a backpacker, you may be with a friend, or solo, and you usually run into plenty of advice about what or what not to do by any local bending your ear. A trek across Ireland, then-a land that is truly as magical and mysterious as the stories I’ve heard back in the States-is a must.

 I had a short list of goals to achieve whilst in Ireland, from something exceedingly epic like peering over the edge at the Cliffs of Moher, to something as soothing and contemplative as ordering up a pint of sea-water-brewed-Guinness in an out-of-the-way-pub while the trad played on good and mighty in the background.

Getting to kiss the Blarney stone

Another one of my goals, as most traveling Americans, is, of course, to Kiss the Blarney Stone. Now, now, hold on. Far too many tutt-tutt Blarney as being nothing more than a tourists’ trap. Even in the south, in Cork, at my hostel, I heard a gaggle of backpackers and a few of the locals saying, “Blarney?! No real backpackers go there!” Yes, well, I don’t pay much attention to people on the road.

The town of Blarney and its world famous castle happen to hold some of my fondest memories on that trek for one very simple but important reason: it was the most fun I had in Ireland….

Taking a bus out of Cork City Centre for a five pounder return is a bargain. Less than 20 minutes later you’re dropped off on a narrow street next to two tourist-friendly-restaurants. You have no more than a ¼ mile walk up the road from there.

Entrance fees for students-and teachers-with an International ID Card are always one to two pounds cheaper than regular prices. In this case, two pounds-half did the trick.

Immediately the splashing brook to the right and the sight of Blarney Castle between the scraggly screen of trees put me on a different planet. Dublin is one thing, a great town-so much to see and do-but out here, literally in the sticks, was the first time that I felt I was in Ireland. 
Follow the stream of picture happy gawkers, and there she is: Blarney Castle, in all its grey, ancient, unassuming, silent beauty.

Could be five stories up. Maybe less. Who knows? I didn’t check. Any swan dive off the top could seriously ruin a happy day though. And up top are those hearty many that make the 200-plus step ascension to the castle’s parapet, and, unto the nirvana you seek: The Blarney Stone!

One thing about Europe that always gnaws at me is the fact that the coolest places to experience requires you to have worked a three month gym membership before you get there. Stairs everywhere!

Make a note to yourself: if, at the Eiffel Tower, someone in your party says, “Hey, the elevator line is too long, let’s walk up to the second level instead. It can’t be that bad.”

It is.

It’s appropriately cold and blustery on my visit, but, just for me I’m hoping, the sun decides to pop out and it is indeed a fine Irish day. From topside you can see miles of rolling green hills. In every direction you turn a postcard awaits your gaze.

Once on top though-for better or for worse-you are quickly shuffled into line to kiss the Blarney Stone. The line is a perfect rectangle around the rim of the castle. Noticeable gaps between the walls and the path you are on allow a good, hard look of the drop below.

So, as you must wait for any good thing in life, so shall you wait here. Have patience. Enjoy the clean air. The scenery around you. Chat it up with the people in front or behind you. If you’re solo-as I was-you need somebody to take your picture as you’re planting that wet smack. The couple from New Zealand, well, at least the young lady, was more than happy to oblige me.

As you get closer, the stories you hear of having to bend over backwards while grabbing onto two metal bars embedded into the wall behind you while an old man holds you by the waist for dear life becomes increasingly clear.

For that’s the only way it can be done.

Built in the mid-14th century as a stronghold for the MacCarthy family, the castle has endured numerous additions and reconstructive work all the way up to the 17th century. It wasn’t until the 18th century that-and nobody really knows why-the myth of kissing the Blarney Stone became a reality. To kiss the stone, it is said, you will be blessed with the gift of eloquence, or the gift of gab. Either though, could be a blessing or a curse. And here you are, ready to go. 

The castle the fuss is about

You become as giddy as a school boy. It’s my turn! It’s my turn! Drop your daypack; hand over your camera, and the next thing you know you’re being pitched off the side of the platform like a sack of potatoes. The old gent clinging to your waist suddenly becomes your new best friend. Your goal is to literally give a kiss at the bottom of this retaining wall-not an easy task-while giving no thought as to how many diseases might be lurking there until much later.

The gray wall instantly blurs your vision and all those tiny pops and snaps of sun flares you see as you shut your eyes tight become grey too. And, comically, on the way down, your lips are puckering up like it was your first date all over again. 

MY GOD DON’T DROP ME! DON’T DROP ME! That’s the only thing that ran through my mind. I’M FALLING! I’M FALLING! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MAN, DON’T YOU BLOODY DROP ME!

Next thing you know you’re being pulled to your feet, people are laughing, applauding; it’s all quite benign.

But kissing the Blarney Stone, I discovered, isn’t the thing to do there. While some dash off, you must spend time exploring the castle and grounds.

I love castles, fell in love with them back in Scotland. So I soon found myself giggling as I trampled through Blarney’s secret rooms, passage ways, an immense dining hall, a deep, dark, ominous dungeon-that was pleasingly frightening, a claustrophobic’s nightmare-and inhaled that musty mist of time, ancient time.

Once the castle is finished you have the grounds. I didn’t think the statistic of Ireland having over fifty shades of green was remotely true, but soon that fact is verified by taking an hour’s scamper through some of the ground’s lush landscapes with wild bushes, colorful flowers, flowing brooks, and gnarled, fairy-tale-like trees that must date back as far as the castle itself.

I lost myself on purpose, occasionally bumping into a retired couple I met on the bus over, but for the most part had the woods to myself. I forgot time and place. No worries. No hustle and bustle. The sun had crawled behind far away rain clouds. A stinging breeze filtered through the forest. A timeless setting. It could’ve been four hundred years in the past for all I knew.

I had wished all my childhood friends were back again; we could’ve had a grand game of hide and seek here. Or telling ghost stories, or just letting the leaves slap against your face as you run head-on with total abandon.

You can peer into the eerie “Witch’s Cave”.
You can make a wish walking backwards down the “Wishing Hole” staircase. Now, that was interesting.

Or, make a go at any of the trails on hand. Skipping stones across a silent pond? That’s there. Traipsing through a muddy bog? There too. Either path you take leads to a number of natural discoveries. Even a field of grazing sheep in the distance can be spotted.

I didn’t want to leave, but, as always, my hunger got the better of me. On the way back to town you can’t possibly miss the trail leading directly to the equally famous Blarney Woolen Mills.

Again, take your time. It is a where house brimming with enough wool to knit a sweater. For that’s precisely what you’ll get there. “Traditional Irish Clothing” at 50%-75% off prices from the rest of the country make this place the haven for bargain hunters, as evidenced by the armfuls of bags carted out like prized game on safari. Along with sweaters there are tons of shirts, coats, hats, and football kits. My baby nephew back home made out good with a football jersey for a measly four pounds. 

But the afternoon begins to fade. There’s a 7:30pm bus back to Cork. You have an hour to kill. No problem. You’d be starving by that time, so, amble over to the Blarney Castle Restaurant. It’s warm and quiet and, come to think of it, that’s all you really need; for their pub food really does do the trick. Most importantly though, on this Good Friday, it appears that this establishment is the only place in Ireland to be serving alcohol. On that virtue alone, I must give it the highest marks.

Time to go. I’m all set, but I have this little ritual of mine: I like to send a postcard to my mother from every city or town I visit on my travels right before I leave the place. Her wall has almost two dozen. I have no time to look for a post office at the moment because I’m afraid of missing my ride. It’s a simple card, with the standard picture of Blarney Castle on the front. Behind me is a bank, closed. All the shops on this tiny street are closed. Darkness is fast approaching.

I toss the postcard through the bank’s mail slot, hoping that they’ll have pity on this poor traveler, do me a favor, and post it for me. I want to see how courteous people can be. I know back home that postcard would be promptly tossed out with the rest of the trash, but, to my refreshing surprise, my mother receives it almost two weeks later. Unscathed. Ready to adorn her wall, right next to the others from Ireland I had sent: Dublin, Cork, Doolin, and Galway.

Plan at least four hours at the castle, grounds, and shops. Relax. Breathe in. Breathe out. Far too many people are on their mobiles making arrangements for the next day’s car hire. Remember: it’s said there are two ways to keep time: the regular way, and The Irish Way. Take advantage of that as much as you can. Ireland is not an amusement park. It’s a people, it’s a land, it’s a way of life.

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