Here to return to
THE ISLE OF THE SHAMROCK
THE CASTLE OF ELOQUENCE
IT was the first gray of a May morning, and the coasting steamer on which I had taken passage the day before at Plymouth, in southern England, was sliding along up the quiet of the river Lee toward Cork. The air was chilly, and the night mists still lingered in the hollows of the green landscape and floated in filmy wraiths over the surface of the water. All the little steamer’s passengers were astir and were watching the scene from the upper deck. The most interested spectators among us were a score of Irish boys from her Majesty’s ship Renown, going home for a month’s leave of absence after a two years’ cruise in the West Indies. They wore loose, blue uniforms, and flat caps with their ship’s name on the bands, and they carried their belongings tied up in colored handkerchiefs or squares of calico. To them the low-lying shores between which our boat was moving were superlatively beautiful. They eagerly picked out familiar points as we passed them, and declared that altogether this was the finest sight they had seen in their lives. When we at length approached the dock, their impatience to land was such that as soon as we came within jumping distance they tossed their little bundles ashore and made flying leaps after them. The officers of the steamer declared the man-of-war lads were as bad as a menagerie of wild animals. Attempts to restrain them were wholly futile, and by the time the gang-plank was in position they had helter-skeltered off up the neighboring streets and alleys and were lost to view.
I followed more leisurely and prosaically, and, after breakfasting, looked about the town. That I was in Ireland was plain from the start, for the brogue and the peculiar piquancy of the faces were unmistakable. Then there were the women with shawls drawn over their heads, and the numerous beggars, and the barefoot newsboys selling green-tinted papers, and there was the omnipresent donkey-cart, and, scarcely less conspicuous, that other distinctively Irish vehicle, the jaunting-car, with the seats hung above the wheels.
Some of the natives were no better than walking scarecrows, so dilapidated was their attire; yet, as a whole, Cork is a city that shows evidence of a good deal of business prosperity. A rich farming region lies round about which reminds one of England. I saw something of this on a trip I made to Blarney Castle, eight miles distant, and would have seen more had I walked as I at first planned. But the day was too bright and warm for comfortable tramping, and I went instead by a convenient steam tram.
Blarney town is a small manufacturing place. The castle, however, is well outside the village, in surroundings wholly rural, and the way thither is by a footpath and across a slight wooden bridge, spanning a swift, clean little river. The old fortress stands on a low hill, whence it looks down on a broad field from amid a grove of trees. This field is used as a public pleasure-ground, and rustic seats engird the bases of its noble oaks and elms, and a number of framework swings have been erected in the opens.
The castle makes an imposing ruin, for the main structure has suffered little from the ravages of time except that the roof and the wooden floors have fallen. You can climb winding stairs and follow devious passages into vaulted chambers and chilly cells to your heart’s content. All this is very romantic; but it is worth while remembering that, in spite of its historic charm and its strong appeal to the imagination, the castle is a relic of an age of barbarism when the country was divided among many petty chiefs, each distrustful of the other, even when on terms of nominal friendship. These dwellings of the chieftains were built primarily for defence. They were dark, damp, and cold, and their thick-walled gloom must have been decidedly more prisonlike than homelike. Everything in their construction speaks of a time of universal insecurity, and the knightly chivalry attributed to the period is not nearly so characteristic as its wanton fighting, robbery, and cruelty. I could not help feeling therefore that Blarney was better as a peaceful ruin than it was in its proud completeness devoted to its original purposes.
The castle is many stories high, and in the topmost cornice is the far-famed Blarney Stone — that powerful talisman which you have only to kiss to be endowed with eloquence for life. But as the vertical measurement of the cornice is about six feet and its projection beyond the main wall fully three feet, and as the Stone is at the bottom of the cornice, the kissing is not as easily accomplished as might be. Formerly it was customary to lower the candidate for eloquence over the rampart, head foremost. A friend clung to either heel, but at such a dizzy height the proceeding smacked so seriously of danger that of late years the parapet has been guarded against further attempts of the sort by a row of great spikes.
The Stone Eloquent at one time dropped out. It was, however, promptly restored, and is now fixed in place by two heavy iron rods that clasp it to the cornice. Were it not that the Blarney Stone comes opposite one of the frequent gaps which alternate with the out-thrust of the supporting stones of the cornice, it would be practically inaccessible. As things are, the only way to bestow the mystic kiss is to get down on your knees, double up like a jack-knife, and crane your neck across the yawning vacancy. I regarded the Stone with interest and wished I was more of an acrobat, or more courageous; but I was deterred by that lofty hole, which, though not much more than a foot broad and four long, was still plenty large enough to fall through, and I decided to get along without the eloquence.
The story of the Stone dates back to the middle of the fifteenth century, when Cormac MacCarthy the Strong, a descendant of the ancient kings of Munster, and builder of the fortress, chanced one day to save an old woman from drowning. In her gratitude the old woman offered Cormac a golden tongue which should have the power to influence men and women, friends and foes, as he willed. She told him to mount the keep and kiss a certain stone in the wall five feet below the gallery running around the top. He followed her directions, and obtained all the fluent persuasiveness she had promised. The tale of this new accomplishment of Cormac’s and its miraculous origin spread, and the Blarney Stone has been drawing pilgrims to itself ever since.
It is said that all the innumerable MacCarthys who swarm in the barony are more or less descended from Cormac the Strong, and that even the meanest day laborer of the name considers himself the rightful owner of the domain of Blarney. They have never become reconciled to the fact that it was confiscated by the government, though two centuries have passed since the authorities took it in charge and conveyed it by sale to other hands. Tradition declares that the treasures of the MacCarthy family are sunk under the waters of the Lake of Blarney, which sleeps in a hollow a quarter of a mile from the castle. The secret hiding-place is supposed to be known to only three MacCarthys in each generation, and the treasures will be recovered the day that one of the family enters into possession of the ancestral estate.
While I was on the highest walls of the castle a party of small girls came clambering up from below. They were laden with baskets and bundles, and were evidently on a picnic. I had first noticed them on the green before the castle, where my attention was attracted to the group by a sharp explosion from one of their baskets. There was instant consternation, the basket was hastily opened, and a bottle of lemonade was revealed fizzing itself to waste. To stop the foaming overflow of the precious fluid they drank it, and thus to some degree restored their equanimity.
When the party had finished the ascent of the winding, irregular flights of stone stairs to the top of the great castle walls, they at once approached me and asked where the Blarney Stone was. I pointed it out, and, one by one, they crept up and hung on to the parapet while they took a scared, distant look, appalled by the Stone’s uncanny position, so far above the earth and separated from them by that abysmal gap.
“Mother of God, and is that it!” exclaimed the oldest girl; and then the smallest of the squad, a child of four in a white sunbonnet, began to cry.
This overtaxed the emotions of the others, and threw them into a panic, and off they went with ejaculations and chatter enough for a hundred. But when they reached the stairway they paused and looked down into the vacancy where the roof and wooden floors had fallen and long ago mouldered away and entirely disappeared. Awed by the vast emptiness of the space before them, one of the girls turned to me with the inquiry, “And where is the castle, sir?”
“It is right here,” I responded.
“Sure, then,” said she, quickly, “this is no castle, sir — this is just a hole with some walls around it.”
Soon after this ingenuous company of picnickers had gone, I descended also, and overtook them in a path under the castle walls. They had been brought to a stop by another mishap to their provisions. A basket cover had come off, and the bread and butter and cakes had gone flying all over the premises. Every soul took part in an excited scramble to the rescue, and I arrived just as the last of the food was being gathered up and crammed back into the basket. There were no lamentations. Apparently it never occurred to them that any harm had been done.
They had seen all they wished to of the castle, though they declared they liked it very well except for “thim horrid stairs,” and the Blarney Stone, which they “didn’t think nothing at all of.” Now they were betaking themselves to the green, where they piled into the swings, and all talked together all the time.
I sat down near by, and was treated like an old acquaintance. Where was I from? they asked. “America? Lord save us!” ejaculated the oldest of the party, “and do you know Katie Donovan, sir? She is me cousin, and she is in America, sir.”
They were much disappointed that I did not know Katie Donovan. At their request I pushed them in the swings for a few minutes. They were very appreciative. “It is fine — it is exquishite, sir!” they said.
So grateful were they that they let loose one of their bottles of lemonade into a glass for me, and they brought me a plum cake and a knife to cut it, and requested me to take as much as I liked. They also brought me some sweet biscuits and candies. In their generosity they would even take the candies out of their mouths and offer them to me. Finally they gave me an orange. I was afraid they were robbing themselves, and tried to refuse, but they insisted with the affirmation that they had more than they could eat, and if I didn’t take it, they would have to throw it away, so they would!
Mamie, the youngest, could dance, they said. “Her sister sings the tune, and she dances — indeed she do!”
Then Mamie was wheedled and her sister sang the tune, and the tot shuffled her feet and bobbed up and down. What a happy-go-lucky lot they were, and they were to stay all day and not return to Cork until seven in the evening!
When I bade the little Corkers good-by they wanted to know was I going to America now?
“No,” I replied, “I shall go to Killarney first.”
“And who is that, sir?” asked one of the smaller girls. “I don’t know him, sir!”
I parted from them with real regret. What lively tongues, what quick imaginations, what racy wildness! They had no need to kiss the Blarney Stone.