CORK, IRELAND — Along with leprechauns and shamrocks, the Blarney Stone is one of the most famous symbols of Ireland. Unlike the first two, however, few people can accurately describe the Blarney Stone if asked to do so.
I always pictured it as a gently rounded boulder, roughly the same size and shape as a Volkswagen Bug, nestled in a green field with grass and heather tickling its sides. I assumed that visitors could simply walk up to it, lean down, and plant a peck on its stony cheek, therefore supposedly gaining the legendary "gift of gab."
Wrong. Very wrong, in fact. Not even a shillelagh's distance from the truth.
The Blarney Stone resides, appropriately enough, in the walls of Blarney Castle, which is located just five miles from the bustling city of Cork on the southern coast of Ireland. The castle was originally built as a wooden hunting lodge in the 10th century, a role that it served for nearly 300 years.
Later owners decided to transform the lodge into a stronger fortification, and in 1210 the wooden structure was replaced by one made of stone. The castle was enlarged significantly in 1446 under the ownership of Dermot McCarthy, King of Munster and Lord of Blarney, a name derived from the Gaelic term anblarna, meaning "the plain."
The McCarthy family lost control of the land in 1690 when King William III of England invaded Ireland, and the castle fell into steady disrepair over the ensuing years.
Today the castle and its grounds are owned and operated by the Trustees of the Blarney Castle Estate.
The 85-foot keep (watchtower) is the only portion of the stronghold still standing, a crumbling sentinel with limestone walls 18 feet thick. About a dozen rooms occupy the keep's four stories, including the chapel, the kitchen, and the banquet hall.
From the top, visitors can enjoy an unobstructed view of the beautiful castle grounds, which contain forests, a stream, and an unusual garden called the Rock Close. This collection of ancient trees and rock formations was supposedly used by pre-Christian druids as a center of worship.
The names of the garden's landmarks are evocative, such as the Fairy Glen, the Wishing Steps, and the Witch's Kitchen, a fireplace built beneath the roots of an enormous tree.
Another formation is called the Druidic Circle, a ring of mossy boulders where ancient sacrifices were reportedly carried out.
These sites are fun to wander through, but don't pucker up for any of these ordinary rocks - the real Blarney Stone isn't even in the vicinity.
To reach Blarney's claim to fame, climb the 127 steps to the top of the castle and stroll to the far side of the battlements.
It's quite likely you won't have to search hard to find the Blarney Stone; simply line up behind the hordes of other tourists eager for a smooch.
As you wait in line, you can thank Queen Elizabeth I for coining the phrase that started the whole rock-kissing craze.
When dealing with Cormac McCarthy, the Lord of Blarney in the late 1500s, she became so frustrated by his smooth double talk that she began to label any such verbal gymnastics as "a load of Blarney."
Centuries later it became a popular myth that whoever kissed the famous stone from Lord Blarney's castle would gain his power of eloquent speech.
The stone itself is nothing like the cute, happy, rounded boulder that I had imagined. It's actually shaped more like a brick, roughly 4 feet by 1 foot, which is built into the battlements surrounding the top of the high tower.
The stone is so average-looking, frankly, that it would blend right in with the rest of the wall if not for its unnatural smoothness.
While its mythical powers are known far and wide, the origin of the stone itself is as foggy as an Irish bog at sunrise.
One popular tale is that the stone is actually half of Scotland's legendary Stone of Scone, which is displayed inside Edinburgh Castle.
In this version of the story, Robert the Bruce supposedly gave half of the stone to the Lord of Blarney as a reward for his assistance at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
The Stone of Scone, in turn, is reputedly the biblical icon known as Jacob's Pillow, described in the book of Genesis. God visits Jacob in a dream, and upon awakening, Jacob anoints his stone pillow with oil and declares it to be a pillar of God' s house.
Another version of the Blarney Stone's origin claims that a magic rock had been built into the castle walls in 1446. It had gone unnoticed for years until one of the Lords of Blarney saved a witch from drowning in a nearby river.
To repay him for saving her life, the witch revealed the location of the magic stone and described its ability to grant the power of persuasive speech after a simple kiss.
Since both versions of the Blarney Stone legend originated at about the same time in the 19th century, the Irish seem to accept both equally and tourists are free to choose their favorite.
Whatever the stone's real history may be, visitors from all over the world still line up to test its powers.
The kissing itself requires a little bit of acrobatics, though, as guests are required to lie on their backs and lean their heads partially over the edge of the castle before delivering an upside-down peck to the well-worn section of the wall.
The whole process is completely safe, since a kind gentleman is stationed nearby with a pad for your back and a pair of strong hands to clamp onto your shoulders as you lean backward.
A friendly woman with a camera also stands on a stepladder above the contorting visitors, ready to record the event for all posterity - for a wee price, of course.
Once the feat is accomplished, many visitors head straight to Blarney Castle's gift shop for bumper stickers, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets to advertise their accomplishment to friends and neighbors.
After all, this is one time when you'll definitely want to kiss and tell.