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Blarney Castle is probably the best known touristic sight in Ireland. It is the object of almost every American tourist to Ireland to kiss the Blarney stone and thereby receive the 'gift of the gab.' In addition, the Blarney Woollen Mills, established in 1824, is perhaps the holiest site in all Ireland. They have everything a tourist to Ireland could possibly want to buy, plus a self-service restaurant, loos, a pub and.a fine commission for you and the driver. Make sure you leave enough time here or your group will turn on you in hatred and scorn.
Blarney is about 10 or 15 minutes outside of Cork. It is a charming little village of about 2,000 people. It still preserves its expansive village square. On arrival, park in the huge parking area in front of the Woollen Mills. Whether you go shopping first or kissing first is up to you. From the parking it's a 5 minute walk to the castle ticket office. You count the group through and continue walking alongside the little stream through the idyllic castle grounds. The ruined keep castle rears up at you impressively.
This is the third castle on the site. It was built in 1446 by the local lord Cormac MacCarthy. The tower is 83 ft high. Inside there are several floors, though it is hard to make out what would have gone on where. Underneath the castle are the dungeons. The story behind the kissing of the stone is lost in the mists of promotional tourist literature but there is at least an origin for the phrase 'a load of old Blarney.' Queen Elizabeth I in the C16 sent one of her subjects, the Earl of Leicester, to take the castle from the chief of the MacCarthy clan. The earl failed in his mission but every day he sent back progress reports to the Queen. In the end she despaired of his ever doing anything and dismissed his reports as endless nonsense, eloquent but without substance: "Blarney, Blarney, what he says he does not mean. It is the usual Blarney."
There is a series of steps up to the ground level of the keep whereupon you embark on the fairly tough journey to the top. In theory there is one staircase up and another to come down. Both staircases are narrow with some uncertain steps. Tell the group to be careful. At the top you queue until it is your turn to lie down and kiss the stone. There is a man there to help you and stop you falling. Watch out for your coins. They are liable to fall out of your pockets on to rich and unsuspecting passers-by below. The view from the top is splendid on to the surrounding plain (an Biarna means 'the plain' in Gaelic). You can see nearby Blarney Castle House, built in the 1870s, where the Colthurst family, who own the whole Blarney estate, live.
Soon after leaving Blarney join the R618 towards Coachford and Macroom. This takes you along the valley of the beautiful river Lee which you follow for about 10 miles. It wanders in and out of view. There are some particularly lovely stretches when you are driving above this supremely peaceful river, looking down on its grassy banks reflecting in the water.
Macroom at the junction of the rivers Lee and Sullane. This is an attractive market town with a big annual agricultural show in summer. It is on the edge of the West Cork Gaeltacht. On the left of the main street is the huge fortified gateway of Macroom Castle. This was granted in 1645 by Cromwell to Admiral William Penn, the father of the William Penn of Pennsylvania. The gatehouse is all that survives of the castle. It was badly damaged was in the Irish Civil War in the 1920s. Here you join the N22 all the way to Killarney.
Ballyvourney is also a Gaeltacht town. About here the landscape changes from the gentle lushness of the Lee valley to a tougher, wilder shade. The low but dramatic Derrynasaggart Mountains start to appear around you. After about 5 miles you can see on the left the impressive ruins of the C15 Carrigaphouca Castle. (The word means 'Rock of the Pouca' and gets its name from the evil spirit that is said to haunt this place.) You are now in Co. Kerry or the 'Kingdom of Kerry,' so-called in romantic affectation. Sooner or later you will begin to see the outline of MacGillycuddy's Reeks and the Killarney National Park ahead.
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