Friday, October 26, 2012

Blarney and Witches and Poison... Oh My!

~ Jessica S. Herwick

After a full year of planning and researching, my very lucky immediate family of six journeyed across Ireland in 8 days.  Happily crammed into a minivan, we travelled to new cities and towns each day, touched some tourist sites, and ventured out into countless lesser-known areas.  It was a charmed trip.  Every day in Ireland was full of wildlife and countryside, folklore and tradition.  Faeries, legends and spirits are all woven into the fabric of the country, so it was not surprising when we encountered a witch, locked forever in a stone, who grants wishes and a real-life poison garden… what a perfect Halloween story!

In County Cork, you can find Blarney Castle, popular tourist site, and the home of the world famous Blarney Stone. We arrived expecting a castle… just a castle… where we would park the minivan, climb the spiraling stone staircase to the top of the tower, and kiss the Blarney Stone according to tradition.  Now, that sounds simple enough, but the spiral staircase is ancient, and reaches directly up in the air - 90 feet into the air.  The traditional manner of kissing the stone isn’t simple either.  You have to lay on your back over the open air and the 90 foot drop (gulp) that lies between the castle edge and the stone.  Did I mention you have to do this all bent over backwards?  Practically upside down.  Nope, not for me. I am terrified of heights.  I prefer both feet on the ground, like most gardeners. I worried the whole drive there about how and if I would be able to face my fears once we arrived. 

When we came upon the castle grounds, I was delighted to find so much more than just a castle.  There in front of us stood over one thousand acres of green space overflowing with well-tended theme gardens, miles of grassy fields striped with thin streams, horse stables, caves open to the public, and old tunnels, all surrounding the castle ruins, each with their own legend to boot!  All of these features became the perfect excuse for me to avoid the 90-foot drop of the Blarney Stone.  While my family braved the staircase, kissed the stone and received their gift of gab, I stayed on the ground.  I poked around the green fields and garden walls.  It was here that I found the witch and her Poison Garden. Muah ha ha!

The Poison Garden

This garden was one of the most curious and intriguing gardens I have ever walked through.  I spent a whole hour reading the very informative display markers and observing the variety of plants that were used centuries ago to poison the body and trick the mind.  The garden was small, but historically accurate, well tended, and absolutely fascinating.  It has been active since the 18th century.  That is a whole lot of gardening!  I found some plants there I had never seen before, but had read about, or heard about. There they were, in front of me, growing.  As a history buff and a horticulturalist, this was a unique and unforgettable experience.  It was absolutely fascinating to observe some of the plants up close and thriving in a garden space.  

The poison garden displayed such deadly toxins as: American Mandrake, Birthwort, Black Cohosh, Camellia sinensis Tea, Castor Oil, Cherry Laurel, Columbine, Common Box, Deadly Nightshade, Delphinium, European Mandrake, Foxglove, Henbane, Love Lies Bleeding, Oleander, Opium Poppy, Poison Hemlock, Poison Ivy, Rhubarb, Ruta Graveolens (we know this as Rue), Scutellaria luterifolia, Veratrum album (White Hellebore), Vincetoxicum Officinalis ,Vitus agnus (Chaste Tree), Wolfsbane, Wormwood and Yew Tree.  The Blarney Castle website has a fabulous online tour of this garden, and can provide you with all the folklore related to the plants that reside inside it's walls.

For More Information:
Blarney Castle Website – This page contains information about all of the gardens surrounding Blarney Castle and a Video Tour of the Poison Garden:

The Witch Stone

Near the lower end of the castle is a small kitchen with a set of stairs that lead out into the garden area.  It is said that the kitchen was used by the witch of Blarney Castle, when royalty still employed witches, and she would walk those stairs to and from the her kitchen, gathering ingredients from the garden to put into her potions and brews.  A few feet from the bottom of the kitchen stairs, there is a large stone that is said to be the witch’s prison.  If you look closely, you can see the profile of a witch.  According to legend, the witch of Blarney Castle is cursed to live in this stone forever, trapped and frozen during the day and bound to serve forever at night - by granting wishes of those who know how to use her kitchen stairs to properly make their wish.  The current staff and guardians of the castle respectfully place firewood out for the witch every evening which she uses at night, when she is magically released from the stone until sunrise.  It is said that you can see the embers fading out as the sun rises, returning the witch to her stone prison.

For More Information:
See this Blarney Castle Website Page for more info on many attractions at Blarney:

Furthermore… Ireland’s Direct Connection to Halloween

Did you know that Halloween comes from an ancient Druid Holiday called Sah-Win (in Gaelic pronounced Sow-en), and it is directly related to the garden!?  At sundown on October 31, Sah-Win would mark the closing of the Harvest Season and usher in the winter.  Celtics and Druids (Celtic Wisemen) believed that on this night, the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead were dissolved temporarily, and so many dressed in ways that would scare the demons and spirits until the barrier returned.  This holiday was later replaced with All Hallows Eve when the church became a powerful force in many lands, and has since evolved over the centuries into what we know today as Halloween.

Have a Safe and Happy Halloween!

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