This weekend a leading newspaper in India published my feature on culinary travel around Ireland. There’s bread, butter, beer, blood pudding and more! Read it here.
Apart from eating & drinking around the country, I also travelled along the stunning west coast, known as the Wild Atlantic Way (read my feature on 10 must-see destinations on WAW). At Ashford Castle in Cong (County Mayo), I met Aztec and his friends at Ireland’s oldest falconry school. Read on about my hawk walk in the woodlands of Ashford Castle.
How to train your hawk
Aztec is looking at me menacingly and I’m already regretting taking him out for a walk. I’m not particularly good with animals (with the exception of horses), and when Aztec lets out a loud scream, I’m ready to abandon the entire exercise. No, Aztec is not a furry, four-legged thing, but a nearly fully-grown Harris Hawk with giant flapping wings, and a razor sharp beak trained to rip small animals into pieces.
It is a cold, rainy day as I arrive into the sleepy town of Cong in County Mayo, Ireland. After tramping about the remains of the 13th-century Augustinian Cong Abbey, I head further to the sprawling estate of Ashford Castle.
Ashford Castle stands on the site of the 13th-century Castle of Cong; parts of the old castle still stand, and have been integrated into the current structure. The castle saw various changes of regimes and owners, and was expanded according to the architectural styles of the day. The current castle has soaring turrets, French chateau elements, Georgian windows, Victorian extensions and the like. Still there’s no denying the grandeur, especially when you drive through the estate and see the castle’s towers peeking through the trees, and then having it loom up ahead suddenly. Ashford Castle, now a luxury hotel, stands on the shore of Lough Corrib, and is surrounded by 350 acres of landscaped gardens and woodlands.
After a quick rest in my room, I head out in the hotel’s vintage saloon car (whose chauffeur is better dressed than I, complete with a top hat). The rain has mercifully stopped. We drive down the long driveway, past the golf course, and arrive at the Falconry School at Ashford Castle, which is the oldest in the country.
Falconry (the hunting of wild game with a trained bird of prey) has a long history in Ireland. The earliest reference to it has been made in a 7th-century Irish text. Later with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century, falconry became an established sport amongst the nobility. Since then Ireland has had a reputation for having the best hawks, which have always been a valuable commodity, and were also used as a form of rent payment.
At the school I meet Ed Coulson, one of the hawk minders and my guide for the day. We begin the tour by saying ‘hello’ to the school’s prized possession – Dingle, a European Eagle Owl who arrived as a baby in 1999 when the school started. Dingle is massive, at least a foot tall, with large amber eyes that stare at you disconcertingly. And he is gorgeous – with black and golden markings, and a white collar – he could proudly star in any of the Harry Potter movies!
Next, we proceed to the ‘bird cages’ – the entire periphery wall is lined with a metal fence, giving the birds plenty of room to fly about, without escaping. There are a few peregrine falcons and several Harris Hawks, with charming names such as Sonora, Swift, Milly, Aztec, Summer, Inca and Wilde.
For the next 45 minutes or so, Coulson and I walk further into the woods releasing Aztec periodically and then calling him back for his meal. My earlier apprehension has given way to excitement and a measure of fondness for the bird. My heart leaps with joy every time I hear the now familiar swoosh as Aztec lands on my arm.
Hands down, the best experience of my trip to Ireland!
Etihad Airways flies from Mumbai and Delhi to Dublin, via Abu Dhabi. The drive from Dublin to Ashford Castle (240 km) can be done in 3 hours. Alternatively, take a train to Galway and then a local bus service to Ashford Castle.
Where to stay
The rooms at Ashford Castle are sumptuously done up and many of them give sweeping views over the lake.
A 60-minute hawk walk is priced at €80 per person; discounts available for groups. Details at http://www.ashfordcastle.com/estate-activities/falconry
This feature was commissioned by Deccan Herald and was published in their edition dated February 7, 2016. Read it here.