DUBLIN (Reuters Life!) - The millions who have made the pilgrimage to Blarney Castle in southern Ireland to kiss its "stone of eloquence" have put their lips on the wrong stone, according to a new book on the medieval fortress.
The term "Blarney talk" is thought to stem from Queen Elizabeth I who lost patience with the insolent excuses of a chieftain who refused to hand the castle to English forces and said: "Blarney, Blarney, I will hear no more of this Blarney!"
Anyone can try to gain Chieftain Cormac MacDermot Mor MacCarthy's gift for persuasive speech by climbing up to the battlements of one of Ireland's top tourist attractions, bending backwards over a long drop and kissing the "Blarney Stone".
But archaeologist Mark Samuel, co-author of a new book on the castle, says the stone which attracts 400,000 visitors a year cannot be "The" Blarney stone.
"The first mention of the stone in its current position is from 1888," Samuel told Reuters, adding that earlier sources referred to it being elsewhere in the castle.
"Blarney Castle: Its History, Development and Purpose" describes possible locations for the original stone, which according to one myth was known as "Jacob's Pillow" and brought back by crusaders from the Holy Land.
Another tradition holds that it is part of the Stone of Scone on which Scottish monarchs are crowned and was a gift from the 14th century King of Scots, Robert the Bruce.
Samuel and co-author Kate Hamlyn say the original stone may have been confused with a date stone marking the building of the third castle on the site in 1446.
That stone was notoriously inaccessible, hence the idea that anyone bold enough to reach it deserved a reward.
Another 19th century commentator, however, said the then object of pilgrimages was a stone inscribed with the date 1703.
DRUIDS, WITCHES & FAIRIES
Yet the real stone may also have been a third one, which pilgrims could only reach by being lowered eight feet (2.4 meters) by rope, head downward from the top of the castle.
"It was only after 1800 that either they moved the stone or else simply declared another stone the Blarney stone," Samuel said in a telephone interview.
John Fogarty of the castle's sales and marketing department dismissed Samuel's doubts, however.
"Once upon a time, visitors had to be held by the ankles and lowered head first over the battlements," he said. "Today, we are rather more cautious of the safety of our visitors. The stone itself is still set in the wall below the battlements. So you are still kissing the same stone just from a safer side."
Samuel said the castle was "reinvented" as a tourist destination in the 1820s when the author Walter Scott visited and readers of his historical romances bought into a craze for the past and the imaginary world of druids, witches and fairies.
Samuel said he was not looking to debunk the Blarney stone's long history, only to establish which was the original.
"Blarney Castle is such an interesting place and so well worth visiting for other reasons it's a pity people just go there to kiss the stone," he added.
"It's of particular interest because it was built not by British knights or barons but by the Gaelic Irish."
But wherever the real stone may lie, kissing the 'wrong' one clearly did little harm to one visitor: former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a Nobel prize winning author famed for his oratory and quick wit, visited the stone in 1912.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)