The Rebel County: Cork and Blarney Castle
In a fabled region of the southwest, I began a short tour of the Irish Republic
AFTER touring Great Britain, I flew from London to Cork, the capital of a part of Ireland known as the Rebel County.
The nickname partly descends from the Irish War of Independence, 1919–1922, during which Cork was devastated by the British.
But the nickname dates back a lot further than that, all the way to the Viking era when the locals successfully resisted the Norse invaders. And, after that, to a time when Cork city was the capital of an independent local state, the Kingdom of Desmond, ruled by the McCarthy clan of nearby Blarney Castle.
I’ll be talking about Blarney Castle a bit later in this post. It’s the castle, not far from Cork city, where you kiss the famous Blarney Stone. Also known as the Stone of Eloquence, since that is the gift you supposedly receive from kissing it, the Blarney Stone is located over a vertiginous drop. Kissing it required a fair amount of courage in the days before safety guardrails were installed. Actually, it still does.
I suppose they used to pour boiling oil through this slot onto non-Desmonds, to begin with.
(Either that or emptying chamber pots into the moat.)
One day, a witch told the king that an inconveniently-located stone halfway out into space above the slot would confer eloquence to whoever kissed it. What a load of Blarney, one is tempted to say. But I kissed it all the same.
My editor says his parents declined to kiss it in the old days, as it was covered in then-fashionable lipstick. These days, it gets regularly wiped with sanitiser. I wouldn’t have kissed it myself, otherwise.
However, the first half of this post will be about the city of Cork, the capital of a region that would, from the Viking era and the days of Desmond, go on to rebel several more times against distant rulers and invaders.
The most central part of the city is on an island in the river Lee.
Here are some Cork street scenes. Like many European cities, the downtown area is now pretty much pedestrianised.
You can go for local walks, and there was a poetry festival while I was there, too.
But I also caught a hop-on, hop-off bus. That was a great way to see the city.
There was a poetry festival just before I arrived.
And, of course, plenty of picturesque Irish pubs.
Though Cork might be the most rebellious city in Ireland, there are many traces of Ireland’s long history of being ruled by the English, whose language is still more commonly used than the Irish language.
First of all, on the downtown island in the river Lee, you find the English Market.
And just to its northeast on the other side of the river, the city’s Victorian Quarter, as it is called, which looks as though it belongs in Manchester.
Many grand historic buildings were erected during the nineteenth century, when the whole of Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, though they generally look older. Here’s the quadrangle of University College Cork, founded in 1845.
The Trinity Presbyterian Church, in the next photo, was built in the 1860s. The outbuilding in front now includes a café.
The Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church, built in the same era, is dedicated to a temperance reformer named Father Theobald Mathew.
Another grand Victorian cathedral is St Finn Barr’s, of the Church of Ireland, the local branch of the Anglican or Episcopalian faith.
In the same style, we find the National Monument, erected in Cork’s Grand Parade by an organisation called the Cork Young Ireland Society.
The name of the Cork Young Ireland Society harked back to the Young Ireland movement of the mid-nineteenth century, which had flown the Irish tricolour for the first time in an 1848 rebellion fuelled by anger over the then-recent potato famine.
Unveiled on St Patrick’s Day 1906, the National Monument looks forward to a future time when Ireland might be, in the words of a song first composed in 1844, “a nation once again.”
Here’s a stirring rending of A Nation Once Again by a group called the Dubliners:
The first nation that the song refers to is the Ireland that was unified by its mediaeval High Kings. Before that time, Ireland had been a patchwork of little states and feuding clans. The High Kings got that title because the local rulers continued to be known as kings and queens in their own bailiwicks.
The last High King of Ireland was Edward the Bruce, the younger brother of Scotland’s Robert the Bruce of Braveheart fame. Edward was killed in a battle against the armies of the English king, Edward II, in 1318.
After 1318, the kings and queens of England ruled over all of Ireland as well, and there were no more High Kings. All the same, Ireland retained a fluctuating degree of self-government, which eventually included its own parliament in Dublin.
The powers of the Dublin parliament were increased by the Constitution of 1782, by which Great Britain gave up the right to make laws for Ireland.
The Ireland of the late 1700s thus came to enjoy a foretaste of the Dominion status that would later be accorded to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
But then, in a stunning reversal, Ireland was absorbed into the United Kingdom by the 1800 Acts of Union passed by the British parliament and, as a last act, by its own.
And so, for the next 122 years, Ireland became an integral part of a country known, at that time, as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s galvanised the case for re-separation, with Young Ireland arguing that while potato crops had failed all over Europe, only in Ireland had there been mass starvation as a result. And that that was because England’s rulers were not of the same “blood and race” as the majority of the Irish population and had, therefore, been happy to let the latter starve.
The resulting bitterness fuelled a certain amount of terrorism over the following decades.
Still, that Ireland would one day gain a peaceful and constitutional independence — a goal referred to, at the time, as Home Rule — seems to have been what the majority of British and Irish people came to expect toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth.
If so, they would have been surprised to find out how rough things were about to get.
As I mentioned, Cork was devastated by the War of Irish Independence. After the British pulled out of the southern part of Ireland — retaining control of six counties in the northern, Ulster region of the island by way of a local parliament with limited powers— things were made even worse by a civil war that broke out between local factions in the south, of which the most notorious was the Irish Republican Army, the IRA.
The IRA soon became inactive in the south. But for nearly thirty years between 1969 and 1998, the IRA would have a go at ejecting the British from Northern Ireland, the infamous Ulster Troubles of the time.
The independent part of Ireland was neutral in World War II, which did at least prevent the devastation of the War of Independence and the Civil War from happening again.
Today’s Republic of Ireland has a population of just over 5 million, about the same as New Zealand. And with the great majority living in cities rather than out on farms as in the past, and with less emigration as well.
As such, it is a much more modern sort of a country than it used to be. It has a fairly youthful urban population and lots of protests.
The Republic of Ireland was even the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, something that would have been pretty much unimaginable in the Ireland of the 1950s.
After the city of Cork, I headed out to Blarney Castle.
There are many oval plaques that describe aspects of the history of the castle and its grounds, which are large and full of gardens.
As I mentioned, the Blarney Stone was identified by a witch: or so the story goes, at any rate.
Here’s a picture of myself outside the walls of the castle.
The reason I figured that the slot below the Blarney Stone might have been for pouring boiling oil, was because raining down death from above was a common method of fighting in the Middle Ages.
The next photo shows something called a “murder hole,” a hole in the floor of an upper story of the castle through which arrows could be fired down into the level below. Nasty!
Here are the stocks in which the less serious sorts of offenders would have been placed by the rulers of the castle, back in the day.
The garden-like grounds have many walks that you can do.
Blarney Castle is on the site of some ancient standing stones, and this might also account for the many curious legends that attend the site, such as the Blarney Witch, the one who supposedly pointed out the Blarney Stone.
The castle has some lovely gardens that include many species both native and exotic. I took a photo of a tree fern, which is not native to Ireland and would have been imported from New Zealand or some other region where similar species grow, such as the Australian state of Tasmania.
Such rainforest species grow quite well in Ireland, as the winters are mild and the climate is damp.
In fact, most parts of the British Isles were once covered in an ancient indigenous rainforest known as the Celtic Rainforest.
It goes without saying that the Celtic Rainforest has long since fled before the advance of civilisation, as they say, and now exists only in a few pockets.
The grounds of Blarney Castle have many spots that attest to various myths, legends, and family legends, such as the Druid’s Cave.
There is an Irish Garden with remnant species from the Celtic Rainforest, mostly these days quite endangered, and a Poison Garden, from which the king possibly plucked herbs to include in the menu for enemies invited to tea (but I speculate!)
There is a lake, from where the witch who told of the Blarney Stone was supposed to have been saved.
The spot known as the Witch’s Kitchen certainly looked witchey! Incidentally, you can see how incredibly similar the remnants of the Celtic Rainforest look to some spot along a New Zealand tramping track.
The Wishing Steps are some precarious crumbling steps close to the lake that supposedly grant a wish if you go down and back up with your eyes closed, thinking of your desire. After planting the idea in people’s minds, the castle disclaims responsibility for what might happen if you slip.
I’ve made a video of my visit:
Lastly, there is a peephole drilled in a rock through which you can take a photo of the Blarney Castle framed by rock.
I thought this was the actual Blarney Stone, at first: here’s an out-take from the video from when I was under that impression!
I was also misled about the benefits at first, as the fabled stone of Blarney Castle is, indeed, more properly known as the Stone of Eloquence.