Last October, my sister Carole and I visited Ireland’s School of Falconry for an afternoon. I had been looking for a unique Irish experience, something Carole could go home and tell her children about, and this seemed perfect. Lilly (7) would love the pictures of a castle and Isaac (9) would be interested in the birds. Plus, having grown up in the farmlands of Minnesota, there’s nothing so dramatic as driving up to a place like Ashford Castle with its guarded front gate and perfectly manicured grounds. You feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a fairytale.
Located within the forested acres surrounding the castle, the school is enclosed by an ivy-covered stone wall, and its massive wood doors are like an entrance to another world. I half expected Dumbledore to open them instead of a young woman in a green pullover. The woman led us inside and to a weathering yard, where a dozen Harris hawks perched behind screens. Within minutes of arriving we were introduced to our instructor, who selected our bird for the private, hour-long Hawk Walk.
There was a long list of names on a board inside, and I really wanted Uisce because that’s the name of my favorite bar back home. However, Uisce wasn’t at a good flying weight that day, and hawks will only cooperate at this magical number. A few ounces over and they won’t be hungry enough to fly; the meat you are offering as a reward won’t interest them. A few ounces under and they may fly off and find something still alive to be hunted and preyed upon.
My memory being what it is, I can no longer recall the name of our hawk. I’ll call it Killary, as she seems to be popular among the other travel photographers who visited Ireland’s School of Falconry around the same time period, although I know it was a name more Irish and unpronounceable than that (probably Siobhan, Aoife, or Naimh).
I let Carole have the first go so I could take pictures. Neither of us were nervous about handling Killary. I don’t even remember being worried about if the talons would hurt or if she would land anywhere other than the glove. Mostly, we were excited to try something new.
Strips of leather were threaded through a ring around Killary’s legs. Carole held them to secure the hawk while we walked outside the gates and into the woods. To release Killary, Carole simply uncurled her fingers from around the jesses. She was a complete natural.
We walked through the grounds at a leisurely pace, and Killary flew from tree to tree, jingling the bells on her feet and giving away her position. Whenever Carole or I wanted her to land, we held up our gloved arm and Killary swooped down, taking the meat from our hands. I didn’t feel a thing, except for her weight and her strength as she gripped the glove. How could I not be in awe? There was something very alert, intelligent and even a little sly behind those eyes.
Hawks are impressive birds. Their eyesight is eight times better than humans, and unlike many animals, they see in color. During a hunt, they can dive at 150 miles per hour to catch their prey. That doesn’t bode well for a little field mouse, scurrying home at only 8 mph.
Some people believe there is a bond between bird and falconer, and maybe that’s true. I think it’s simply operant conditioning. The hawk trusts the falconer for food and shelter and the falconer trusts that the hawk will fly back. Our instructor said that if a falconer calls the bird without a reward (meat), soon the bird will quit returning.
The school also keeps an owl named Dingle and Peregrine falcons, formidable hunters that dive after prey at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. These beautiful creatures are worth a visit for anyone traveling through the village of Cong or staying at Ashford Castle. You can call yourself a Falconer!