What is the Blarney Stone, where did it come from and why do people kiss it?

If you head to Blarney Castle and kiss a certain stone, it’s said you will be granted the gift of the gab, a silver-tongued eloquence beyond measure. But where did this legend (and the legendary stone) come from – and is the prize worth the mortal peril? Jonny Wilkes investigates…

Kissing the Blarney Stone: a women hangs over the precipice with the aid of a friend as she attempts the feat at Blarney Castle in 1935

People from all over the world have made their way to a medieval castle in County Cork, in southern Ireland, climbed the tower and puckered up in order to give a particular stone on the southern wall a kiss. For set into the battlements of Blarney Castle is the famed Blarney Stone. Kiss it, so the legend goes, and you’ll be granted the gift of eloquence.

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There is one major problem with this beloved ritual: the stone is set low on a battlement wall that protrudes from the roof of the castle, with a hole in between. This means that the only way to reach it with the lips is to hang upside down through the gap, while gripping two iron railings, and trying not think too hard about the 27-metre drop.

Of course, there are plenty of measures in place now to ensure that smooching the stone will not end up being the kiss of death, but health and safety have not always been a top priority. There was a time when the kisser would be held by the ankles and dangled over the hedge with nothing keeping them safe other than the strength of the person holding them.

Still, millions of people have deemed the kiss worth the risk to life and limb, if only for the adrenaline-raising adventure and not the legendary prize. There are a host of theories to explain the origins of the Blarney Stone, spanning the world and the spiritual realm. One legend even purports that a witch saved from drowning revealed its power to the MacCarthy clan.

Kissing the Blarney Stone

Another common tale is that one Cormac MacCarthy became embroiled in a lawsuit and called upon the goddess Clíodhna for help. Her response was that he should kiss the first stone he found as he walked to the court, which he duly did and went on to win by making an eloquent argument that came to him suddenly. MacCarthy had the stone set into the parapet of the castle, although why he had it placed in such a perilous position is known to him alone.

There are those who claim the Blarney Stone is not Irish at all, but from Scotland. They argue it may originally have been part of the Stone of Scone, used for centuries in the coronation ceremonies of Scottish monarchs, or was presented to (a different) Cormac MacCarthy as a thank you for supporting Robert the Bruce with 5,000 men to fight the English at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Among the other theories are that the stone was brought back from the Holy Land during the crusades; that it was the very stone used by the biblical figure Jacob as a pillow in the Book of Genesis; or that it was the stone used as the deathbed headrest of St Columba on the island of Iona. Or that it may have been hewn from Stonehenge.

A discovery in 2014, however, put all of these possibilities to bed. Geologists from Glasgow University studied a slither of the Blarney Stone and came to the conclusion that it was a type of limestone unique to southern Ireland. Rather than an ancient ritual too, kissing the stone may go back only to the 18th century.

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This content was commissioned for BBC History Revealed and first published by HistoryExtra in 2021