Trip to Ireland

Bring on the Raptors Learn the Art of Falconry at Ireland’s Ashford Castle

By Anita Draycott

Some would argue that Ashford Castle, on the border of County Mayo, is the fairest of all Ireland’s palatial estates. Indeed, Ashford has a list of awards and accolades almost as long as its history.

Dating from the 13th century, the castle spread along the shores of Lough Corrib with imposing baronial fireplaces, suits of armour and whimsical turrets, was the private residence of the Guinness family for almost 100 years.  In 1939 it opened as a grand hotel. Actors John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara who starred as feisty lovers in the 1952 silver-screen classic, The Quiet Man, stayed at Ashford during filming. Many of the scenes were shot on the grounds and in the charming adjoining village of Cong.

Ashford’s other claim to fame is its Falconry School of Ireland where you can actually fly the birds with the help of a guide. Each raptor has its own distinct personality. I met the bossy Harris hawk called Milly, Dingle the wise owl and Rig the grumpy eagle—to name a few.

Our guide chose Killary, a handsome Harris hawk, to accompany us on our 60-minute hawk walk. We were each given a sturdy leather gauntlet and into the forest we strolled with Killary initially tethered to our guide’s glove. Once into the woods, the guide demonstrated how to call and release Killary.

Raptors, who can fly up to 240 miles per hour, were used for hunting as far back as 2,000 BC in the Far East. In Medieval Europe, falconry became the noble sport of kings. Often the birds were used to hunt for prey to feed the soldiers.

Each time he performed his take-off and landing ritual, Killary received a reward of a raw chicken leg tucked into the palm of our gloves so he was a bit lazy about actually hunting for critters, which was fine with me. With wingspans of up to six feet, razor-sharp beaks, powerful talons and eyes “like a hawk,” it’s thrilling enough to have such a powerful “terminator” at the end of your arm.

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