Why Do the Irish Talk Blarney?

How an eloquent Irishman and an impatient queen coined a phrase

Blarney Castle home of the Blarney Stone

Blarney, it’s all Blarney. Or, as many an Irishman and other English speakers might say: "He's talking a load of Blarney!" But have you ever wondered where this saying comes from - and why exactly it is called Blarney?

Essentially, when the Irish (and several other nations) talk about Blarney, they are referring to a myth which started at a castle tucked away in County Cork. And to really talk Blarney, you need to go all the way there just to kiss a stone

However, as famous as the phrase is now, originally the saying was not about talking Blarney, but about Blarney talking - which meant speaking too much in a very evasive way. This kind of behavior drove good old Queen Elizabeth I absolutely crazy. The Queen may not have been a fan, but Blarney did give us a very short and descriptive addition to the English language. So how do you define "Blarney", and what does "Blarney" mean now?

The Meaning of Blarney

If we are stating that something is "a lot of Blarney", we probably are not referring to an actual place in Ireland. Instead, saying that something is Blarney is the same as stating you believe that the message is untrue. Or maybe that it contains a morsel of truth somewhere, but calling it Blarney means that the story has been blown out of all proportions, taken from its context, added to and embroidered upon, told in a very biased way, changed beyond recognition, embellished to suit the speaker’s needs, or simply twisted to evoke our sympathy. In the most Blarney situation of them all, every one of these exaggerations might be present. 

Blarney, you should know, is not a simple, blatant lie or "fake news." Blarney is the full frontal assault on your emotions, intended to bypass your capacity for rational thought. Blarney is the ultimate weapon for charming and convincing you of something that might not be true. Wielded in the hands of a Blarney professional, it can achieve anything by giving away nothing. The message loses its importance, the gut reaction of empathy is the new desired outcome. 

Yet "talking Blarney" is not necessarily a bad thing, and these exaggerations are not meant in a mean or tricky way. "That's a load of Blarney" is like saying "No way!" for some older generations, with an Irish twist. If it is stated that someone is talking Blarney, or that a story is a load of Blarney, nobody has been hurt (yet). It is softer than "lying cheater!" and more like "I think you might be pulling my leg a bit here," thus making it all a bit understandable, even forgivable.

The Origin of Blarney

The use of the word "Blarney" in this context has a royal pedigree and its ultimate roots in Blarney, County Cork. During the Reformation, Queen Elizabeth I was trying to come to grips with her Irish subjects. While not averse to wielding her full royal and military power when needed, Elizabeth also employed diplomacy, and frequently met her Irish subjects face to face. Well, at least she met with the Irish Lords - she was still not a woman to associate with peasants, after all.

Even she, however, might have had second thoughts about the wisdom of doing so after she met Cormac MacCarthy, and with him her match in the art of non-committal diplomacy. As the current lord of Blarney Castle, Cormac tried everything legal (or at least not strictly illegal) to keep his independence and not submit to the British throne. At the same time, he tried to avoid giving away too much of anything to the crown. His goal was to be left alone to lord over his small corner of Ireland.

Thus Queen Elizabeth's demands to the lord of Blarney were regularly ignored and almost never acted upon. Instead, the Irish lord offered by extensive elaborations on why something could not be done or may be done in an unspecified future, at least not immediately, and generally not without some modification (which would always be to his advantage). In short, Cormac tried to talk and bluff his way out of it, hoping that Elizabeth would simply forget. He was the original Irish chancer.

But forget the Virgin Queen did not. And Cormac became a right pain in the royal posterior. So much so that one day Elizabeth cracked and screamed, "This is all Blarney, what he says he never means." And with this, the most powerful woman on Earth had given birth to a new phrase in the English language.

The Blarney Stone

Whosoever wishes to be as eloquent as the best of the best might want to make his or her way to Blarney Castle. There the famous Blarney Stone waits, though some say that it is one of Ireland's genuine tourist traps. It has been known for ages to give the "gift of the gab," and even Father Prout was waxing lyrical about the stone in 1825.

Is it worth it? If you are in need of better skills in influencing people and winning friends, you might be better off with a self-help book. Because, after all, talking Blarney all the time will more than likely annoy people. Long-term at least. However, this thanks to the folklore that now surrounds it, Blarney Castle is one of the most visited sites in all of Ireland and kissing the stone can definitely be a part of your Emerald Isle bucket list! 

Was this page helpful?