Tourist hotspots: Historic village of Blarney needs kiss of life

Amelia Marshall plays the violin at Blarney Castle. Pictures: Denis Minihane

This week we visit some iconic tourist spots to see if they live up to their reputation. Ellie O’Byrne visits Blarney

Leprechauns. Pints of Guinness. The gift of the gab. Blarney, with its 14th-century castle and ritual of kissing the Blarney Stone, is one of Ireland’s oldest and best-established tourist draws.

On a sunny day, with a cruise liner docked in Cobh, the village was thronged with busloads of cheerful visitors keen to put their time in one of Ireland’s premiere attractions to good use.

For the tourist who loves to shop, the 40,000 ft sq Blarney Woollen Mills is a paradise of top-quality Irish designer knitwear, linens, homeware, and jewellery. Manager Gillian Hayes believes the famous ‘céad míle fáilte’ is one of the keys to the Woollen Mills’ success.

“We have staff members who have worked here over 30 years, and repeat visitors come back year after year and ask for them by name,” she says.

The Woollen Mills is a big local employer, with 160 year-round staff and 40 additional positions for the busy months of June to September. The “largest Irish store in the world” is a good place for a reasonably priced lunch, served by staff so charming that the only explanation is that they’ve all, at some stage, been up to the castle to cosy up to the stone.

Speaking of the fabled stone, over at the entrance to the castle, a staff member informed visitors that there was a wait of an hour-and-a-half to kiss it. Most shrugged good-naturedly and paid the admission fee, but some disgruntled UK visitors opted to leave, balking at the €11 admission fee for seniors, charged whether you access the castle, the gardens, or both.

 St Vincent de Paul volunteer Angela Kiely and manager Rose Crean in the town’s charity shop.
St Vincent de Paul volunteer Angela Kiely and manager Rose Crean in the town’s charity shop.

Blarney Castle marketing manager Paul O’Sullivan was keen to stress that this bottleneck only happens on about 15 days a year — when a cruise ship is in Cobh.

Inside, the castle grounds are beautifully kept and an ideal spot for a leisurely stroll, dotted with diversions and scenic beauty.

The Poison Garden — the scene of a police raid in 2010, when gardaí confiscated cannabis and opium plants which formed part of the exhibit — is a definite highlight, educating on the history and medicinal uses of some of nature’s most notorious killers such as deadly nightshade and hemlock.

Attracting nearly 400,000 visitors annually, Blarney Castle is owned by Sir Charles Colthurst, inherited from his 18th-century ancestor Sir James Jefferyes, an officer in William of Orange’s army, who bought the castle and built the tree-lined village green outside its walls.

Tourists weren’t noticeably different following their liaison with the stone. Until they opened their mouths, that is. Jenny Crane from Essex spread her arms expansively to describe how she felt as she kissed the stone: “It was a spiritual experience because it has brought me closer to my ancestral homeland and it was definitely worth the wait,” she says.

“It was especially enlightening considering the fact that I don’t like heights.” There’s definitely something to the legend, then.

The constellation of Woollen Mills and Castle is a slickly delivered package for time-poor and cash-rich holiday-makers, but there’s a surprising dearth of other activities in Blarney. There’s nearby Muskerry golf course, evening trad sessions, a running trail, Blarney Pitch and Putt… and not a whole lot more.

Set peacefully overlooking the village green, the Church of the Resurrection, built in 1776, houses a collection of Harry Clarke stained glass windows, but the church door was locked.

Clogheenmilcon sanctuary, a walkway through 100 acres of wetland, is a preserve for birdlife and home to a beautiful Don Cronin sculpture.

Mark O’Raw owns Blarney Chocolate Factory, where the tantalising aroma of chocolate draws visitors in for chocolate treats and fudge made in-house. He also sells ice cream made in Cork, and buying a waffle cone and wandering out to the village green to sit in the sun makes for a pleasant break.

 Mark O’Raw, owner of the Blarney Chocolate Factory.
Mark O’Raw, owner of the Blarney Chocolate Factory.

“I think there’s a huge underutilised potential to develop other businesses and give people a reason to stay in the area. Blarney is seen as a stop-off on the road to Killarney, with no real reason to stay in the village,” says Mark.

Angela Kiely was the Blarney Stone photographer for 16 years and now volunteers in the St Vincent de Paul charity shop, where in the window, Blarney Woollen Mills children’s jumpers are a steal at just €10 each.

“The tourists don’t come into the village at all,” she says.

“Seventy-five busloads came through today, and they just go straight through from the mill to the castle.”

Twenty minutes from Cork City and within easy reach of all the activities available in Cork Harbour, though, Blarney could make a fantastic base for day trips to other attractions, and there are plenty of hotels to choose from, or the Blarney caravan and camping park for budgeters and backpackers.

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