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Before going to Ireland, I could’ve told you that the Blarney Stone is a huge tourist attraction, but I had no idea why, except for the photos I’d seen of all the tourists contorting themselves to lean back and kiss what looked like a stone wall. After visiting Ireland, I’m still a little confused about the legend of Blarney Stone, mostly because there seem to be a bunch of different versions and no agreement about its true lore or true power. Which I guess makes it that much of a tourist favorite? (Here’s the official explanation on the website, if you care to investigate further.)
Now, kissing the Blarney Stone was not necessarily my idea of the perfect excursion in the Irish countryside. This was for a few reasons, none of which is contrarian. I have no problem visiting a country’s biggest or most popular sites. I don’t travel only in search of the obscure or the unique. However, in this specific case, the hoards of tourists meant more than just an escalation in my annoyance level. In this case, it meant an escalation in germs.
(Note: Some have argued that kissing the Blarney Stone is no worse than the time I licked the wall of Wieliczka Salt Mine in Krakow, Poland. (‘Some’ being my mom – Hi mom!) While that is a story for another time, the tour of the salt mine covers almost 2 miles, which means that there is far more surface area for gauche tourists like myself to spread our germs. The Blarney Stone is nowhere near that big, so, with science and geometry on my side, I claim the moral high ground.)
Besides possibly contracting the bacteria of thousands of tourists, I also wasn’t clear on the set-up at the site itself. Had I known that it is an entire complex with gardens, trails, buildings, and a climb to the top of Blarney Castle to then kiss the aforementioned stone, I would’ve been less skeptical. With those as a pleasant surprise and addition to our time at Blarney, we decided to make the stone our first stop and then explore with whatever time we had left – as we still had an almost two hour drive to Kilkenny.
The fact that it only took about thirty minutes to get to the stone while waiting in the line that slowly climbs the one hundred plus steps to the top was sheer dumb luck. They have signs posted along the route that the line takes, so you should be able to make an educated decision about the wait time. Based on the markers, we guessed it would probably take about forty-five minutes and were obviously pleasantly surprised. We arrived around 10 am on a Thursday in March, which may be a normally slower season or it just may have been that Thursday.
Be warned that there are points where the stairwell gets narrow and you have to wait standing on small steps. We didn’t have any issues, but it is worth considering your own preferences and comfort level. (Note: we have no pictures of the narrow staircase because I was too afraid of dropping my camera.) Blarney Castle was built in the 1400s, so it is cold, stone, and not accessible. Also, the top of the castle is, obviously, very high up and kissing the stone involves holding two metal bars, lying on your back, and letting a staff member hold your feet.
In an attempt to be detailed and honest, I might be making this all sound more intimidating than it actually is. I had maybe one truly heart racing second right before I leaned back, and had a terrifying thought of the possibility of slipping. However, between the bars, the rubber mat under you back, and the staff member, you’re totally fine. The ascend to the top was certainly constricted at times, but the line moves fairly slowly, so take your time, don’t look down, and you should be fine.
By now (if you’re still reading) you’re probably wondering if I actually kissed the stone, due to my insistence about germs earlier. Even before we got there, I had decided that my lips would touch nothing, instead I would let my nose brush the wall and hope that no one noticed or commented. (Seriously, the staff members up there are far more interested in getting people through than what you are or aren’t doing.) So while my nose bears the germs of Ireland’s tourists, thankfully my lips do not. You can’t tell the difference in a photo, which they do let you take with phones and cameras. However, they have the best spot scoped out with their own camera (think the types of photos you get after riding a rollercoaster). I will admit that we bought our photos because we didn’t travel all the way to Ireland to visit one of its most famous sites, and then have lackluster photographic evidence. (You can also get a digital copy for two Euros extra.)
While the Blarney Stone is obviously the main attraction, there are plenty of other things to see within the castle complex – which seems to help justify their entry price of almost twenty euros. (But the parking was surprisingly cheap – it only cost us two Euros.) Depending on when you visit, the Blarney House may be closed. Unfortunately, we were there off season and were only able to see the 19th Century mansion from the outside. The gardens and trails appear to be open all year and are definitely worth a look. The Poison Garden was a fun walk to read the placards and see some of the stars of fantasy and sci-fi works in real life. (If you’re a Harry Potter fan, make sure to go on a scavenger hunt for some familiar names!)
My favorite area was unequivocally the Rock Close, which leads down to the Bog Garden. Described as an enchanted area, there is something slightly more convincing about fairies, witches’ lore, and wishing steps when you are standing in the shadow of a stone castle. Even if you aren’t interested in believing, the gardens are beautiful, peaceful, and a relaxing respite from the tourist deluge just down the gravel path.
All in all, Blarney Castle is probably a stop that shouldn’t be left off of your Ireland itinerary, even if you share my initial skepticism. Whether or not you want to kiss the stone (or pretend to kiss it) is your business, but there is certainly plenty to see and admire that has nothing to do with ingesting the germs of others.