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March 17, 2014


My daughter left for school this morning like thousands of children across the country – dressed from head to toe in green and after eating a breakfast of green pancakes and green milk. St Patrick’s Day is upon us, but this year the Irish are celebrating with a little more fervor than ever and for good reason. Scientists at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum have proven beyond doubt that Ireland’s most iconic tourist attraction, The Blarney Stone, famous for giving you the ‘Gift of the Gab’ if you kiss it, is definitively……. Irish!

For centuries, in pubs all over Ireland, debate has raged over the stone’s origins. One camp holds the stone was chiseled from Stonehenge. Another that Robert the Bruce sent it as a gift after his stunning victory at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The debate was ended recently with the discovery of a nineteenth century microscope slide containing a microscopic sliver of the stone so small that it is transparent. Under a microscope, the slide revealed the rock to be a limestone composed of the mineral calcite and containing recrystallized fragments of fossil brachiopod shells and bryozoans…..all of which are unique to Cork where the stone is located.

Dr John Faithfull, curator at the Hunterian museum, said: “This strongly supports views that the stone is made of local carboniferous limestone, about 330m years old, and indicates that it has nothing to do with the Stonehenge bluestones, or the sandstone of the current ‘Stone of Destiny’, now in Edinburgh Castle.”

Alongside the science of the microscope was a touch of the leprechaun. As part of a digitization program, Becky Smith, an intern at the museum, spotted the slide among 40,000 older geological slides contained in handwritten ledgers. . The slide is part of the rock and mineral thin-section collection put together by Professor Matthew Forster Heddle, of St Andrews, one of the giants of 19th-century geology in the UK.

Faithfull said: “It was probably made between 1850 and 1880, during the period when new microscope techniques began to revolutionize our understanding of rocks, and how they form. “He was a pioneer in the use of these techniques to investigate the rocks and minerals of Scotland, and elsewhere. He also seems to have managed to obtain fragments of a number of important historical stones: the collection also includes slides cut from several of the stones at Stonehenge. This was not vandalism – it was bringing the latest scientific tools to bear on the origins of these monuments. We don’t know how Prof Heddle got the Blarney microscope slide, or whether he had it made himself, but he was a major scientific figure, with excellent contacts, and was always keen to acquire interesting samples for scientific investigation. However, in this case, he doesn’t seem to have published anything about the stone.”

There is a long tradition of hanging upside down from the battlements of Blarney Castle, which is the only way to access the stone,  in order to kiss it so using a hammer to extract a sample required some dexterity.

Faithfull added: “Very few pieces of the Blarney Stone seem to exist outside Blarney Castle. Apart from our microscope slide, the only other one I’m aware of is in a monument at the University of Texas. However, this object seems to have its origins in a beer-fuelled party, and the genuineness of the fragment must be in doubt.

The Blarney Stone is famous for bestowing the gift of eloquence on those who kiss it. We don’t know if kissing the microscope slide would have the same effect, although I have tried it.”

Honestly….this is not just Blarney….it’s true!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!