Why Do the Irish Talk Blarney?

How an eloquent Irishman and an impatient queen coined a phrase

Good Queen Bess - suffering no fools or Blarney

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 why the Irish (and several other nations) seem to make a relatively unexciting castle tucked away in County Cork the subject of their conversation or a point of criticism? Or why on earth they’d want to travel there want, just to kiss a stone? Well, originally the saying was not about talking Blarney, but about Blarney talking (too much, and much too evasive).

Which sent Good Queen Bess (that’ll be Elizabeth I) right up the walls. But it did give us a very short and descriptive addition to the English language. So how do you define "Blarney", what does "Blarney" mean?

The Meaning of Blarney

If we are stating that something is "a lot of Blarney", we are not referring to an actual locality in Ireland. Instead we are (dis-)qualifying the message as being untrue. Or maybe containing a morsel of truth somewhere. But the story having been blown out of all proportions, taken from its context, added to and embroided upon, told in a very partisan way, changed beyond recognition, embellished to suit the speaker’s needs, or simply twisted to evoke our sympathy. Or all of this.

Blarney, you should know, is not a simple, blatant lie,  being economical with the truth, 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 of massive distraction. Wielded in the hands of a professional, it can achieve anything by giving away nothing. The message loses its importance, the gut reaction of empathy is the new desired outcome. Emotion superseding information.

Yet "talking Blarney" is not necessarily a bad thing, as the attribute is not always meant in a negative way.

It is the "No way!" of 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 bastard!" 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 the Irish. While not adverse to fire and sword if necessary, Elizabeth also employed diplomacy, and frequently met her Irish subjects face to face. Obviously less of the revolting peasants, and more of the rebelling lords -- one must maintain standards, after all.

Even she, however, might have had second thoughts about the wisdom of doing so … when 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. At the same time he tried to avoid giving away too much of anything to the crown. His motto was not "Scratch my back and I'll scratch your's!" It was more like "Just leave me alone, will you?"

Thus Queen Elizabeth's demands were regularly met not by deeds, or even commitments. 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 Blarney Stone waits, one of Ireland's genuine tourist traps. For ages - in 1825 Father Prout already waxed lyrical about the stone and its supposed "gift of the gab".

Is it worth it? Well, if visiting "The World's Top Unhygienic Tourist Attractions" is on your bucket list (which better be short, because of hygiene matters), you should definitely go. 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.

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