June 4, 2017:
Today we opted to spend all day just enjoying the amenities at Ashford Castle. Accordingly, we slept in late (to sleep off the effects of our feast at the George V restaurant last night) before we tackled the legendary breakfast spread at Ashford Castle. OMG! If you can dream it, you can have it; from hand carved fresh baked ham leg to smoked salmon, all the way to Irish whiskey to add to your oatmeal, and the best scones we have eaten on this trip!
On the way back to our room, we got to see the Castle dogs, two gorgeous Irish wolfhounds who were visiting the lobby after their daily walk through the grounds. Gosh, these dogs are huge!
After breakfast, we walked around the Castle grounds a bit, and then headed off for our first activity of the day; a “Hawk Walk” at Ireland’s School of Falconry, located on the grounds of Ashford Castle.
We met our falconer, Joe, at the school, and he introduced us to two of the Harris Hawks we would be flying today. Their names are Geimhreadh (which sounds something like Giffer) and Airic (Eiric?). In any event, the birds are gorgeous, but a little smaller than I had imagined.
There are a total of about 38 birds at the Falconry school, but they are carefully paired because, just like in junior high, some won’t fly with other, and some attack others, and still others have problems with raging hormones. While most of the hawks are Harris hawks, there was also a peregrine falcon, an owl, and a set of 4 baby hawks.
Joe told us about the basic signals for how to control the hawks, gave big leather gauntlets to Jeff & Chuck as the first ones to fly the hawks, and we set off into the parkland. First off the bat, we gave the hawks a little “test flight” to make sure they would return to Chuck & Jeff. Mission accomplished. Then they let them fly a little further afield. The hawks fly so fast, you can barely track them with your eyes, much less the camera!
When the hawks return to you, they get a little treat of raw hamburger, and Heaven help you if you don’t have the treat ready for them every time they return! Jim quickly mastered the art of flying the hawks, and looked like a real natural. So much so that he started talking about getting a pet hawk to take care of our squirrel problem!
Finally, it was my turn, and words can’t describe how absolutely cool this was! The hawks are such fierce little predators, and yet, when one is on your hand, you feel like a team.
We all took turns flying the hawks in the open, and then it was time for something a little more difficult: flying them in the surrounding forest! Because the forest is so much more crowded, it is hard to follow them visually, and I think they had some problems, too! One ran into Faye, and somehow, Jim ended up with two of them on his arm at once.
Sadly, the hour went all too fast, and then we had to return to the school. We got to go into hawk enclosure with Joe as he put Geimhreadh away. Geimhreadh celebrated by immediately taking a bath in his water bowl. All of the hawks are really beautiful, and it was nice to be able to photograph them more closely. We also got to see the Peregrine Falcon, and the four new hawk chicks. Even though our trip is far from over, I think this experience will likely rank as one of the best of this trip!
For a day of “rest”, we have quite a few things on our agenda today. After walking back to the main castle, we walked through the Ashford grounds, on our way to the nearby town of Cong. In addition to all the sites used in the Quiet man movie (including a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara replicating a scene from the movie), there are the ruins of a royal abbey, with grave stones dating back to 1200, and at the edge of the river, the ruins of a “monk’s fishing house”. This weekend, there is also a regional food fair in town, so we spent a few minutes checking in on that.
Shortly, however, it was time to walk back to Ashford Castle to catch a boat ride out onto Lough Corrib, with a visit to Inchagoill Island, which for a time, was the home to exiled St. Patrick (when he was just a priest). There is a fabulous old church called St. Patrick’s church (“Teampull Phadraig”) built about the 6th or 7th century, as well as the remains of a later church (The Temple of the Saints) on the island. Between the two churches is an ancient graveyard, with a stone pillar called the Lugnaedon Stone, which says it marks the burial place of St. Patrick’s nephew. There are also the remains of some simple stone houses where the last of the island’s residents’ lived. Overall, the island is very peaceful, and it was nice just to walk among the ruins.
On the way back, we were serenaded by Irish music, courtesy of the talented accordion player, Martin Noone, who was an extra in The Quiet Man. People even got up and danced! Of course, it helped that there was a bar on board.
We finished up our incredible day with a great dinner at another restaurant on the Ashford Castle property, called Cullen’s at the Cottage. This was much more casual than our dinner last night, but the cottage is very cozy, and we all really enjoyed our dinner.
Tomorrow, it’s off to the further north, to the city of Donegal.