BLARNEY, Ireland — For decades, busloads of curiosity-seekers have made the six-mile pilgrimage from Cork City to Blarney Castle only to kiss the famous Blarney Stone.
But today there's a new attraction in Blarney. Visitors can take a guided tour through Blarney Castle House, the Scottish baronial-style mansion that has been the family home of the castle's owners for more than a century.
These days people still leave Blarney Castle after touring only the austere ruins of the castle, not realizing that they have bypassed an architectural gem hidden from view 200 yards south.
It's easy to miss Blarney Castle House because the iron gate leading into the grounds is kept closed and locked.
Special Ticket Needed
It swings open briefly every hour from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. during summer to admit visitors who have bought a tour ticket at the castle's main souvenir stand nearby.
It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland stepping through her looking glass as visitors slip through the gateway and start down a path that winds through an immense, tree-dotted lawn back to the house.
Left behind are the hordes of clamoring tourists willing to risk dislocating their vertebrae in bending over backward to press their lips to the stone that supposedly bestows the gift of eloquence.
From a distance the 114-year-old gray stone mansion, recently restored, presents a fairy-tale appearance, embellished with graceful corner turrets and bartizans with conical roofs. It looks more like a real castle than Blarney Castle.
The first Blarney Castle House was built by one of the castle's early owners, Sir James St. John Jefferyes, governor of Cork, during the reign of Queen Anne at the beginning of the 18th Century.
It originally stood against the main castle, as was the custom in those days. But in 1829 a fire destroyed Blarney Castle House, leaving only a pile of rubble.
In 1846 the Jefferyeses intermarried with the Colthurst family and Louisa Jane Jefferyes, who married Sir George Conway Colthurst, decided to build a new house overlooking Blarney Lake as part of her dowry.
Completed in 1847, the home was occupied by descendants of the family for more than 100 years. It was vacated in 1978.
Blarney Castle House received a new lease on life two years ago when Sir Richard Colthurst, the ninth baronet of Blarney, and Lady Colthurst decided to refurbish it with period furniture and use it again as a family residence.
To help pay the upkeep and taxes, they agreed to open some of the rooms to the public and permit daily tours.
Visitors who ascend the stone steps, brought from Scotland, and pass through the handsome wooden doors into the main hall will find themselves surrounded by paintings, tapestries and other family-owned art treasures. A pineapple motif was used by the Colthursts to convey a welcome to guests.
During the last century the family collected many unusual clocks that are displayed in the downstairs living room, dining room, library, drawing room and ladies' boudoir. A collection of decorated snuff boxes sits inside a glass case in the drawing room.
Many of the furnishings in the house are originals. An Irish oak rent table, for example, was used by the Colthursts while they were farm landlords. The circular table has eight drawers, one for each farmer's account, and a safe for storing cash in the base.
A partners' desk, with identical sets of drawers on opposite sides, was designed so that two persons could work at it simultaneously.
Portraits of the Colthurst family and the family crest that combines a black horse and a red hand line the wall of the mahogany staircase leading to the bedrooms.
Only three of the bedrooms are open for viewing; the rest are occupied by the family.
After the one-hour tour of Blarney Castle House, visitors are welcome to wander through the gardens overlooking Blarney Lake before returning to the castle grounds.
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Blarney Castle House is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, through Sept. 30. From October to May, hours are noon to 5 p.m. Admission is about $3 U.S.