Cities / Towns Visited: 74
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 12,529
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,510,363
It was to only be another one night stay, and thus we were up, packed, and back in the car before we knew it, trundling off down the road to destination number one for the day; Blarney Castle. Arriving, we were unsurprised to find that the car park was already quite full, with a combination of cars and tour buses. Buying our tickets, we were soon walking along the riverside, through and beautiful gardens, and up towards the castle sitting prominently on the hill. This intimidating fortification dates from 1446 and was built by the McCarthy’s of Muskerry, who were later titled the Earls of Clancarty, however there has been a castle of some description on the site since the 12th century, but this would have most likely have been a wooden structure, as was custom at the time. The castle was taken from the Earls when the 4th one supported King James II in his attempt to hold onto the throne despite being Catholic. The castle was bought by the Mayor of Cork and was then the property of the Jefferies. Eventually though, it fell into ruin, but has been restored enough that it is safe to enter, although the majority of the interior has crumbled and most of the upper floors have been destroyed, leaving it somewhat of an empty shell, with a few accessible spaces, rooms, and battlements, surviving around the edges. The estate is now owned by the Colhursts who gained the land by marrying the female heir of the Jefferies.
The reason there are so many tourists flooding here though, is down to a single stone, located in one of the machicolations on the upper battlements. Tourists from around the world come to hang upside-down, supported by an employee whose entire job is to hold on to people to stop them slipping, and kiss the stone. Legend has it that to do so will bestow upon the person the gift of the gab. There are many stories regarding the stone, but the most common tidbit in regards to it, is that the powers of the stone we imparted to the family by a witch whom the McCarthy’s had saved from drowning, who explained that to kiss the stone would bless them with the gift of eloquence. After that time, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Lord of Blarney, Cormac Teige McCarthy, was being instructed, like all of the other Irish chiefs at the time, to hand over the titles of his land to her. Apparently he wrote her many letters saying that he was happy to pledge his loyalty to the Queen, which satisfied here until she finally realised that he was just using his words to flatter her without actually giving her what she was asking for. Eventually it is said that she read one of the letters, and threw it down in frustration saying ‘Oh, he’s just giving me a lot more blarney’. This is, as I’m sure you will guess, where the phrase ‘ talking blarney’ comes from, and is considered to be flattery, but tinged with eloquence and wit.
We made our way up to the base of the castle, figuring we’d get visiting the stone out of the way, and joined the rather lengthy line. We had absolutely no intention of kissing said stone, mainly because it seems hugely unhygienic to kiss a stone that millions of other people’s lips have brushed, and also because it all being utter nonsense is reinforced by the fact that all of the people leaving the castle were talking just as much crap as the people heading inside it. Unfortunately there is no way to visit the castle without having to be funneled up the one narrow spiral staircase to the battlements in single file and pass the stone before you are allowed to explore the rest of the space. I kind of feel like the line would be shorter if there was a separate entrance for the non-stone kissers. There was nothing for it though, and we lined up. Filing in behind us was two older Australian ladies, who were to go on and have the most entitled and eye-roll inducing conversation that we would be forced to listen to. They were both talking about their respective grandchildren, and that’s when one of the ladies said that her grandson’s name is Alexander, but his parents call him Xander for short. This apparently is horrifying for her and she proudly started spouting about how she refuses to call him Xander because she hates it. So here is this probably sixty something year old lady cracking the shits, then being proud as punch at the fact she can’t have the decency to respect the naming choice of her own child onto theirs. I couldn’t figure out if I wanted her to gain some eloquence from the stone or be crushed by it by the time we got to the top.
Moving right along, there are a few small rooms in the corner tower you ascend, and although none of the castle is furnished, you can still make out where the old fireplaces were, and they have a few signs here and there explaining what the rooms were used for. The battlements offer a stunning view of the grounds below, which are extensive to say the least, and there are a number of boards with a few of the most popular legends about the stone, many including witches and / or fairies, to keep you occupied while you wait for tourists to be dangled over the edge to make out with limestone. Eventually we did, in fact, made it past the stone. I didn’t managed to snap a picture, but I’ll chuck in a generic one so you can see what I’m talking about. Don’t think it blends in seamlessly; even if you ignore the employees working beside it, or the safety grill installed below to prevent people falling to an untimely death, the stone is so worn and discoloured by the mix of saliva and antibacterial spray, that it a somewhat unnatural shade of silver. To be honest, the crack that runs along it almost looks like the original was lost at some point, and they were forced to replace it.
With the stone passed we finally had a chance to explore the remainder of the castle, and given the fact that most people seem like they couldn’t care less about anything but the stone, we were free to move around and take our time, while everyone else scurried off, most likely to hop back on their tour bus. By the time we made it back outside, the line to enter was about four times longer than it had been, and we were immensely thankful that we had been smart enough to tick it off first. Breathing a sigh of relief that we were no longer stuck in the personal space of the plethora of other visitors, we bought a quick soft serve before continuing.
The next hour or so was spent wandering the gardens and grounds, which, to be honest, were much more interesting and enjoyable than the castle itself. There is a poison garden just next to the castle with all sorts of poisonous and addictive plants, from mandrake and wolfsbane, to opium and cannabis. Some of them are caged off and set back out of arms reach to prevent idiots from tempting fate, with fascinating signs explaining what the plants are, which bits are poisonous, and a few interesting historical facts about their uses; like some being used to induce a miscarriage back before surgical abortion was an option. There is also some stunningly manicured areas, and a rock garden which including some whimsically named natural formations like ‘the druids circle’, ‘the witch’s cave’ and ‘the wishing steps’.
There is a stunning walk that takes about forty minutes and leads you out to a lake, with paddocks on the other side, where cows and horses graze peacefully, away from the crowds who dare not bother to venture this far. The path back leads you past the picture perfect private baronial manor of Blarney House. With it’s lake views and boundless greenscape surrounds, its the kind of home dreams are made of. The time had come, however, to scurry off; we had more things to do and see in Cork, and thus, with that, we made our way back to the car and headed towards the historic old city, and our next stop; Cork City Gaol.
An easy drive, and we were soon parking out the front and hooking in with one of their guided tours. This former prison was opened in 1824 and ran for 99 years, at first holding men, women, and children alike; it later ran as just a women’s prison; then once more for both genders during the civil war. It was originally a massive complex, including the main prison building, but it once also included a debtors prison, a medieval creation in full swing in the 19th century in which debtors could be held until their debts were paid. The ridiculous part of this idea was that rich people could put a proxy in their place (say a servant or a gullible friend) while they left to sort out their affairs; the obvious problem of course being that they simply never came back to take their place, and left them imprisoned.
The gaol is now set out well as a museum, with a large collection of life size wax figures modelled on actual former prisoners and staff, based on written information on their appearances. There are plenty of interesting tales about them, from the figure of one of the former head wardens; who is noteworthy as being Catholic, in a time when Catholics were being persecuted and often couldn’t hold positions of power; to the figure of a mother breastfeeding her newborn child, and whom we were told was imprisoned just a few days before giving birth because she stole a hat in front of several witnesses. Our guide explained that this happened many times, and the offender often begged to be sent to jail, as often it was safer to give birth in prison as the lower classes were able to have access to physicians, which they normally couldn’t; a sad reality if ever I’ve heard one.
If that was sad, it was even more depressing to learn about the dire circumstances of the years of the Great Famine. For those of you who are unaware, between 1845 and 1849 Ireland was plagued by a blight on its potato crops, which wiped out much of their major food source and export. As farmers were still required to fill their quotas to the crown before being able to take a share of food for themselves, many ended up dying of starvation or disease; and those who could afford to, immigrated overseas. By the end of the famine, more than a million people had died, and another million or so had fled the country, resulting in a population drop of almost a quarter. In fact, today’s population is still less than before the famine; a truly unique position for a first world country in this day and age. So what does that have to do with the prison? Well, during those hard years many were forced to commit petty theft just to eat, resulting in a huge influx of prisoners across the country, and causing cells, especially in Cork City Goal, to be extremely overcrowded and disease to run rife. Some even committed crimes expressly for the purpose of imprisonment, as it ensured them a hot meal, and a roof over their heads.
As you are led around the Victorian style, double sided, three storey cell block, there is room after room open for viewing, each with a figure or two, and the story of how these misguided souls ended up in this horrible place. That being said, at the time of its construction this gaol was one of the most modern and comfortable in the British isles. From a young child being whipped for discipline, to a man on his knees praying for forgiveness at the feet of a priest, it was poignant to be reminded that although convicted criminals, they are still human; even more so because many of the offences of times past are no longer gaolable, like offensive language or drunkenness.
There is a small museum area at the end which presents some of the statistics on the prison throughout the years, from the number of the prisoners, to how many were re-offenders, and the jobs they were forced to do as punishment. From breaking rock into rubble for roads, to picking apart old ropes, it was a lot more strenuous than the cruisy lives we allow our prisoners these days. There was also an exhibit on the women who helped in the fight for independence and were held here as political prisoners as a result; mainly for harmless offences like making speeches which went against the current government.
With the prison thoroughly scoured, and much learned, we drove into Cork and quickly made a stop at the Old English Market. This communal hub of butchers, bakers, and greengrocers has been serving the community here for 230 years, and it was with great joy that we fetched ourselves the ingredients for a hearty steak dinner from within its walls. Plus, considering we had forgone lunch we also stopped for a quick gourmet hotdog from one of the vendors, who even chucked in an extra sausage each as he was packing down for the day.
With food acquired we headed to our accommodation. Our delectable dinner was cooking away as we whiled away a good hour or so chatting happily with our friendly Airbnb hosts. By the time we tumbled in to bed we were thoroughly exhausted. As I reflected on our day, my mind paused back within the walls of the historic prison. It was heartbreaking to learn about the famine, but it was truly soul-crushing to know that countless men, women, and children were placed in such a desperate position, and with so little aid, that committing petty crimes to survive was their only option. The fact that a country ruled by one of history’s greatest empires, the British, were left starving just to fill their quotas to the crown; and as a result good, honest, hard-working people were forced by necessity to go against their nature or risk losing their lives, or the lives of those they loved.
Inside those cold, dark gaol walls offered more comfort and nourishment than their free lives; which is saying a lot considering the conditions within the prison. As I pondered further though, it made me even sadder to think of today’s penitentiary situation. I’m not saying that jail is a cushy and fun experience, but the comforts we offer criminals today are bordering on comical. I’m not saying a first time minor offender who was jailed for possession of a meagre amount of personal use illicit drugs should be whipped and starved; but repeat offenders, and those who have committed heinous crimes like rape and murder, should not be given creature comforts that many outside its walls cannot afford. They gave up their right to be comfortable when they violated other people’s right to feel safe. They do not deserve cable television, or internet access, or the chance to receive a tertiary education whilst serving time. I am all for rehabilitation, and I do believe we must treat people like they are human, to make them understand what being human is, but if they are to be a burden on the taxpayer, then they should repay that debt through hard work; they should be forced to give back to the community that they endangered.
When you create an environment inside a prison which is far and away above the standard that we provide for so many good, honest, and just people, there is something wrong in the world. When we offer more education opportunities to lawbreakers, than to lower class kids, it’s time to question how effectively our dollars as taxpayers are being spent. When we as a society spend more money on giving creature comforts to criminals than food and shelter to the homeless and poor, we are creating a world that encourages crime. We find ourselves right back in the court rooms of famine stricken Ireland where innocent people are forced to do wrong and begging to be found guilty just to ensure they know where their next meal is coming from. The justice system is built on the idea that the punishment should fit the crime, and yet those who seem to be suffering most have, more often than not, simply found themselves down and out, often through little fault of their own. We think only of criminal justice, but what about social justice? We make criminals out of desperate people everyday that we offer more respect and assistance to the people behind bars, than the people on the streets. but perhaps if we helped them before they lose their faith in humanity, perhaps we could prevent the cycle of crime from ever beginning in the first place. Ponder this next time you avert your eyes as you walk past those who have no place to call home, and no promise of a next meal or a second chance.