By Fred Glueckstein
“Mr. Churchill is a dangerous public man, according to all the traditions, for the learned lexicographers state that he who kisses the Blarney Stone is endowed with the power ‘to blarney,’ and ‘to blarney,’ they say, is to humbug with wheedling talk so as to gain a desired end….”
—Washington Post, 28 July 1912
On a visit to Blarney Castle near Cork, Ireland, my wife and I were surprised to see a humorous cartoon plaque depicting Churchill and comic actor Oliver Hardy. It shows them squeezed together on the steps of the castle tower, ascending to reach the legendary Blarney Stone. It reads in part:
“You will learn more of the story of the stone as you pass the Castle Chamber. Take care as you mount the winding stairs and, if you think the way is narrow, consider the two who went before you….Eloquence is not just a gift for the sylph-like.”1
The plaque raised questions: When and why was Churchill there? Who was with him? It would be nice to know he was one of the many statesmen, literary giants, actors and pilgrims who “kissed the Blarney Stone”—an act which, legend says, provides the Irish gift of blarney, known more broadly as the “gift of gab.”
Back home I reviewed Churchill’s books and those of his biographers Martin Gilbert, Roy Jenkins, and William Manchester, finding no references to Blarney Castle. The Churchill Centre and Churchill Archives Centre found no evidence, although Finest Hour provided two related stories (see sidebars). I turned to British, Empire and American newspapers, and was delighted to find Churchill’s visit reported in July 1912. This story is based on the reports of those newspapers.
On 24 October 1911, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith announced Churchill’s appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty, civilian head of the Royal Navy. “For the next two and a half years Churchill made naval preparation his task,” wrote Martin Gilbert, “visiting naval stations and dockyards, seeking to master the intricacies of naval gunnery and tactics, scrutinising the development of German naval construction, and working to improve naval morale.”2
One of the First Lord’s inspection visits was to Ireland, then still part of the United Kingdom despite a strong drive for Home Rule. (Advocates for Home Rule, including Churchill, never of course contemplated Britain giving up her Irish naval bases.)
On Tuesday, 2 July 1912, accompanied by other members of the Board of Admiralty, Churchill arrived in Queenstown, a seaport about 15 miles (25km) from the City of Cork. First called “Cobh” (“the Cove of Cork”), it was renamed “Queenstown” in 1850 to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria, and reverted to Cobh in 1920.3 Located on the south side of Great Island, this was the last landfall for British westbound steamers. Ten weeks earlier, the ill-fated RMS Titanic had called at Queenstown before heading into the Atlantic for her fatal meeting with the iceberg.
Of special interest to the First Lord was the long-established naval base on the small island of Haulbowline, across the strait from Queenstown. First fortified in 1602 for its strategic and deepwater location, Haulbowline had been an army base before being handed over to the navy, which established a large arsenal; a naval dockyard was added during the Napoleonic Wars.4
It was Churchill’s first visit to the base and to the leading figures of Cork, including representatives of the Harbour Board, the Chambers of Commerce, and trade and labor organizations. According to The Times, Churchill said “he was glad to see for himself that the fine harbour was so strongly fortified and with a dock-yard in many ways admirably equipped for the purposes for which it was conceived,” and assured officials that the navy had no plans to downgrade Haulbowline. “On the contrary, the fact that [the Admiralty] had been led and forced, owing to developments elsewhere, to concentrate so large a proportion of the British Fleet around our own islands, made it necessary that they should utilize to the full the berthing accommodation and docking and repairing facilities which existed at home.”5
Churchill said Admiralty experts saw “considerable possibilities of the harbour at Queenstown being made available for the reception of a certain number of vessels of the Third Fleet. They would not expect him to go into details for all these matters had to be most carefully studied. Whatever decisions were taken must be decisions for which there was sound financial argument and for which there were good military reasons….”6
At the end of his tour, his hosts invited Churchill to visit Blarney Castle, about six miles from Cork, and “kiss the Blarney Stone”—assuring himself, according to legend, of verbal eloquence and skill at flattery. If the historian in Churchill was interested in the Stone’s origins, they may have told him of the Goddess Cliodhna: When Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, builder of Blarney Castle, was involved in a lawsuit, he appealed to Cliodhna, who told him to kiss the first stone he found in the morning on his way to court. MacCarthy did so, pleaded his case with great eloquence, and won handily. He incorporated the rock into the parapet of the castle, where it became known as the Blarney Stone.7
Churchill drove by car to Blarney Castle accompanied by Lord Mayor of Cork James Simcox, Civil Lord of the Admiralty Sir Francis Hopwood, and Cork Harbour Commission Chairman Sir James Long.8 There they ascended the 100-foot-high tower, climbing the 125 challenging steps. The Blarney Stone is embedded in the outside wall, the top of it just a few feet below the summit of the structure.
When Churchill was there, kissing the stone involved more risk than today: it was necessary for a person to lean backwards over the parapet, held by the ankles, and lowered until one’s face reached “kissing level,” whence one planted the requisite smack on its blue surface.
“Mr. Churchill entered into the spirit of the visit,” reported The Times….“removing his hat, he got upon the parapet and, in a perpendicular position, with Sir James Long holding his legs, planted his lips on the Stone.”9 Amid the cheers of onlookers, his private secretary Eddie Marsh followed suit.10
Churchill and his party returned to Cork, where he displayed his gift of blarney, saying that a strong navy was necessary to withstand foreign dangers.11
Among the newspapers reporting his trip was a London reporter for the Washington Post. Invoking legend, the writer quipped that after kissing the rock, Churchill “was metamorphosed as truly as Faust into a new being. Henceforth Mr. Churchill is a dangerous public man, according to all the traditions, for the learned lexicographers state that he who kisses the Blarney Stone is endowed with the power ‘to blarney,’ and ‘to blarney,’ they say, is to humbug with wheedling talk so as to gain a desired end…”12
The trip is a mere footnote in Churchill’s life, but the story of the Blarney Stone undoubtedly appealed to his love of legends, from King Alfred’s burnt cakes (FH 84:16) to Gibraltar’s Barbary Apes (FH 161:53). Did kissing the Stone bestow Churchill with his gift to speak with wit, charm and persuasion? Perhaps it only augmented what was already obvious by 1912.
The Blarney Castle administrator amusingly answers this speculation: “Churchill visited in 1912. Let’s keep to the facts. He kissed the Stone. He became the greatest orator of the 20th century. You fill in the gaps.”13
Consuelo Montagu, Duchess of Manchester (1858-1909) was one of those friends on whom Jennie [Lady Randolph Churchill] could always depend for love and laughter. The other Consuelo, the young Duchess of Marlborough, had written that Jennie had a fund of risque stories which she told with a twinkle in her eye. Most of these had first been told to Jennie by the older Consuelo.…She had a graceful figure, golden hair, large dark eyes, and an angelic expression. Yet she was the kind of woman who, while riding in a carriage to a Court Ball, decided that her stays were too tight and that she was going to remove her corset. And so she did, twisting and wrenching it out over her breast, much to the astonishment of her escort.
She was probably also the “American Duchess” who upon returning from Ireland was asked whether she had seen the Blarney Stone. “Yes, certainly I have,” the Duchess replied. “Well,” the man said with a smile, “they do say that the virtues of the Blarney Stone can be conveyed to another by a kiss.” “I guess that may be,” she answered, “but I don’t know anything about it, because I sat on it.”
—Ralph Martin, Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, 2 vols. (New York: Prentice Hall, 1971), II 210.
Churchilliana from the 1920s is rare. A notable exception is this ceramic from the old-established Stoke-on-Trent factory of W.H. Goss, shortly before declining sales forced the family to sell, a prelude to its closure a few years later. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1926, Churchill had introduced a tax on betting which proved to be less popular with the public than would have been an increase in income tax—few working people earned enough to be liable for income tax in those days. Goss’s little 1927 jug, the first Churchill toby ever produced, had him seated with hands together in prayer, wearing a top hat inscribed “Any odds bar one. That’s me who kissed the Blarney Stone.” This was a reference to his role as Chancellor, and not to his Blarney Castle visit fifteen years earlier; it remains the only connection of Churchill to the legendary rock.
—Douglas J. Hall, “Churchill Commemoratives Calendar,” Finest Hour 92, Autumn 1996
PHOTOGRAPH: BRIAN HARDY AND WWW.CHURCHILLCOLLECTOR.COM
Mr. Glueckstein, of Kings Park, New York, is a regular contributor to Finest Hour and author of “Churchill and the Barbary Macaques” in Finest Hour 161.
1. A sylph is a mystical, invisible being of the air, sometimes a slight, graceful girl. The quote is part of a longer narrative on the plaque. Oliver Hardy, and his comic partner Stan Laurel, did visit Blarney Castle, but while Laurel kissed the Stone, Hardy declined.
2. Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (London: Heinemann, 1991; softbound edition, London: Pimlico, 2000), 241.
3. See Cobh entry, Wikipedia, http://bit.ly/1ndInbz.
5. “The Admiralty Visit to Queenstown: Development of Haulbowline,” The Times, London, 3 July 1912, 5.
7. Ibid.: “Mr. Churchill st Blarney Castle.”
10. “Kissed the Blarney Stone: Winston Churchill Performs Feat amid Cheers of the Public,” The Washington Post, 28 July 1912, 4.
11. “Mr. Churchill in Ireland: Kissing the Blarney Stone,” The Mercury, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, 5 July 1912, 5.
12. Washington Post, 4.
13. Posted by the website administrator, Blarney Castle, Home of the Blarney Stone, www.blarneycastle.ie, 17 February 2011.
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