It doesn’t matter if it’s my first or 21st visit, once I glimpse the kaleidoscope patchwork of green countryside unfolding under the plane I can’t help but have a sense of awe. As my eyes run across the stitches of the landscape, tracing shades of jade, sage and emerald to the blue and white of the cold Atlantic, I’m almost able to smell the clean linen, salty air and sharp peat smoke through the double panned windows.
Wild, gorgeous and steeped in culture and history, whose charm may come from it’s friendly people and like a good Irish tea, the combination is flavorful and comforting. I was on a trip with my daughter, and our summer adventure had taken us to the Connemara region of Ireland. We had our route mapped out, and a stop at Ashford Castle was not to be missed.
Our scenic drive from Carna in County Galway, to Cong in County Mayo, made the hour long trip totally worthwhile. Our route passed foggy mountains, streaming rivers, wildflowers, and vast, glistening lakes. The sheep along the roads calmly allowed us passage and tolerated our frequent photographs. I initially chose Ashford because it’s home to the oldest falconry school in Ireland. What I wasn’t expecting was the castle’s impressive setting, history and luxury that created an authentic fairy-tale like experience.
Dive into the history of Ashford Castle
Ashford Castle was established in 1228 and is located in County Mayo, Ireland. It is an impressive 350 acre, 5-star castle. Better yet, it is also a hotel surrounded by gorgeous countryside situated on the banks of Lough Corrib. Guests and visitors can choose from a unique assortment of activities, including:
- horseback riding
- cooking classes
In the hopes of experiencing the medieval hunting sport of falconry for ourselves, we decided it was well worth the day trip to check it out.
Ireland’s School of Falconry
My daughter and I parked our car, marveling at the scenery as we walked through the castle grounds. We spotted the falconry school sign that lead us straight to the dark brown wooden gates of the entrance. I got us registered, we met our guide and we toured the aviary where all of the hawks and other birds of prey live. We were also shown where the birds were cared for and got the history behind this unique 4,000 year old sport.
At the end of the tour it was time for the exciting part. We met our very own harris hawk, Blasket! After some basic handling instructions we were off, out of the gates and straight unto the grounds.
THE CASTLE GROUNDS
Within the first few moments, fate decided to test our fortitude. We heard the distinct sound of horseback riders approaching. Now that my (then 11-year-old) daughter was the sole person in charge of this highly trained, but ultimately instinctual creature, I was more than a bit apprehensive as the boisterous group passed us by. Hoping we wouldn’t loose our hawk within the first five minutes of the walk, I silently thanked Blasket as he remained calm and we continued on.
Once safely inside the Victorian garden’s walls our guide taught us the basic commands for take-off and return.
My daughter was instructed to make a gentle forward and upward swing of the gloved arm while releasing the jesses (the leather straps around the hawk’s ankles used for stability while walking or riding). Blasket soared straight up to a high tree branch a few yards away.
The instructor informed us that hawks have exceptional eyesight. Blasket watched every move we made, staying particularly focused on the movements of the glove.
When we were ready to continue on, following our guide’s instructions, all it took was a deliberate fist raise for Blasket to glide down and receive the piece of meat my daughter had waiting in her glove. Why the meat? Our guide explained that the hawks should be rewarded when they return. This is what keeps them from flying away and hunting for themselves.
Our next stop was the forest path. Our guide gave my daughter and me a bit of history of the castle grounds, stories of the hawk’s latest hunts and antics, and how she had gotten into falconry. As we walked and talked, we admired Blasket’s graceful flights up to the tall tree branches ahead and his dramatic return descents back to the glove. There was a moment of peace in the heart of the moss covered forest. It was easy to lose a sense of time and imagine what life might have been like here many years ago.
How to Sign up for Falconry Lessons
Behind the large wooden gates of the Falconry school you may sign up for a hawk walk. A guide will show you how to fly and handle a hawk of your own. Advance registration highly recommended.
- 60 or 90 minutes
- Private, or small group
- All ages and skill levels welcome