The Story of the World’s Most Travelled Sacred Stone

st patrickPhoto: Simon Carasco

Americans travel, in their thousands, every year, to a tiny village in Ireland, just to plant their lips on a lump of sandstone perched precariously high above a sheer drop to the ground, far below. If you’d ever kissed it, then legend says that you’d be endowed with the ‘gift of the gab’, able to hold your own in any conversation. It’s a great part of Irish folklore, and tourists come from all over the world to experience it, but is the ‘Blarney Stone’ really Irish, and is it actually all in one piece?

It’s a question that has baffled some historians for decades. To them, the story begins nearly 4,000 years ago, in Israel, when the prophet Jacob used a rock as a pillow at Beth-el. He believed that God had spoken to him of this rock having magical power, and told his people of this vision.

Over the following fifteen hundred years, this rock – now known as ‘Jacob’s Pillow’ – was carried everywhere by his descendants – somehow providing water when they were in the desert, so legend has it. It was regarded as especially sacred, but around 600AD, it seemed to vanish from the Holy Land. Some think it had connection to the Ark of the Covenant.

Ark of CPhoto: moacirpdsp

Ireland is the only country in the world to lay claim to the grave of the prophet Jeremiah, an important figure in Jewish religion who, as an old man, brought an Egyptian Princess, Simon Brug (Baruch), a Scribe, and a stone wrapped in a banner into the country in 583AD, via Egypt and Spain.

Apparently, an inscription on an ancient tomb, located in Schiabhla-Cailliche, near Oldcastle, County, Meath, confirms the year of Jeremiah’s arrival in Ireland, which is the only country in the world to claim the Harp of David for its Arms.

These facts are buried in the poetry and folklore of Ireland, having happened about the same time that the destruction of Jerusalem took place. The Princess married the Zarahite King, Eochaidh II, or Heremon (horse man of all Ireland), who became the first High King of Ireland. Always used for the coronation of monarchs, Irish legend says that any false claimants would be known, because the stone would ‘roar’ only when the rightful king stood on it.

Others believe, however, that the stone arrived with Pharaoh’s daughter Scota, around 500AD, when she settled among Erse tribes in Antrim, after her marriage to Gaythelus, a Greek prince. Fergus – son of Eric, chief of the Dal Riatan tribe – had the stone handed on to him from Princess Scota.

stone of destinyPhoto: unknown

This warrior tribe had already conquered part of Argyll, in the land that would become Scotland – named after Scota – and it is said that St. Patrick himself blessed the stone, with the decree that, wherever it should reside, Eric’s line would rule. Fergus believed that, in transporting the stone to Scotland, he would be securing his tribe’s rule over it.

A very sacred object, it continued to be used, on the holy island of Iona, and at Dunstaffnage (near Oban), for coronation ceremonies, monarchs hearing their lineage proclaimed, in Gaelic, right back to the time of Noah. It was 843 AD before the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms were united, though – having been fighting for centuries – in the reign of Kevin MacAlpin.

From then on, this ‘Stone of Destiny’, as it had come to be known, was kept at the Abbey of Scone for 400 years before English king Edward I – known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – removed it by right of conquest in 1296, transferring it to Westminster Abbey in London.

Herein lies a mystery that defies logic. Legend has it that, after the battle of Bannockburn, in 1314, Robert the Bruce gave half of the original ‘Stone of Scone’ to the McCarthy clan, of Munster, for their helping his fight. If this were true, had the Scottish leader foreseen Edward’s actions, substituting the original with ordinary sandstone?

Some say that ‘Jacob’s Pillow’ was, in fact, heavily embellished with carvings, originally, and that religious zealots in Ireland had actually hidden it away – substituting it with an ordinary piece of stone anyway – long before the transfer to the Scottish shores, but we may never know.

King Edward supposedly had iron rings fitted, at each end, for ease of transport, but how can the grooves worn in the stone – located on either side, where poles used to carry it over long periods could have caused them – have come about, if this wasn’t the original?

coronationPhoto: cornell

Whether the English King took away the actual ‘Stone of Destiny’ or not is a question only those long gone could have answered truthfully. Real evidence is unlikely ever to be found. If he didn’t, then perhaps the McCarthy clan received a treasure more valuable than they could have guessed.

They returned to Ireland, later adopting An blama, the village of Blarney, as the seat of their power, and building a castle there in 1446. In the high parapet wall of the castle was embedded the gift of sandstone from Robert the Bruce, later to become known as the Blarney Stone.

It was during the time of Elizabeth I that this name took hold, supposedly because of a comment she herself had made. Dermot McCarthy, then ruler of the clan and castle, was required by the English queen to give up his fortress as a mark of his loyalty to her.

Somehow, over several years, something always managed to get in the way of his final surrender, and the court official responsible for McCarthy became a joke to the queen’s other courtiers. Once, it is said, the queen, on hearing yet another eloquent McCarthy excuse exclaimed: “Odds bodkins! More blarney talk!”

BlarneyPhoto: Brosner

That‘s how ‘blarney’ came to mean ‘the ability to influence and coax with fair words and soft speech without giving offense.’ One local poet wrote: “There is a stone there, that whoever kisses – Oh, he never misses to grow eloquent ‘Tis he may clamber to a lady’s chamber – or become a member of parliament.”

Tens of thousands of people, from all over the world, have undertaken the dangerous task of planting their lips upon this stone, and one pilgrim fell to his death while trying to do so. One has to lean backwards, into an abyss, while someone holds your legs, if you too want to do this, so it’s quite a hard physical feat.

Many would have it that this tangible piece of history is as Irish as the Shamrock, and none could blame them for wanting to believe this, but history seems to relate a different story, albeit one that differs in its origins, dependant on who is telling it.

Maybe, just maybe, there is only one half of the ‘Stone of Scone’ on show in Edinburgh castle, in Scotland now, and perhaps, when it was still joined to its Irish half, that entire, magical stone was once touched by Jesus Christ himself.

Whatever you choose to believe, it does seem that the Blarney Stone, long thought by the proud inhabitants of the Emerald Isle to be an integral part of their heritage, might in truth be anything but Irish. It seems that we shall never really know.