By Dea Birkett
We’re staying in a real castle, with a real moat, on a real lake, with a boat that takes you on trips. And it’s raining. Nothing’s perfect.
But Ashford Castle in Cong, County Mayo, is the best place to be on a wet day, especially since birds don’t mind a drop or two on their wings. Apart from being a fine hotel, the castle houses Ireland’s School of Falconry. So the kids and I go on a walk through the forest in the rain with a Harris hawk called Killary and a young man called Diego, the falconer.
'We all want Killary to like us very much. Diego let us know that Harris hawks are avowed carnivores; they only eat raw meat. This further disturbs River’s twin sister, Savanna, who believes her finger and thumb might figure on a hawkish menu.'
We’ve never done any falconry before and, to be honest, a couple of us were a bit worried by the size and sharpness of Killary’s talons. (Not me, of course; I wasn’t anxious. I was terrified.) But nine-year-old River wasn’t frightened at all. He pulled a big leather glove, known as a gauntlet, over his right hand to carry Killary about.
‘Hold your arm out like a branch,’ says Diego. ‘You’ve got to handle him well and fly him well, then he’ll like you.’
We all want Killary to like us very much. Diego let us know that Harris hawks are avowed carnivores; they only eat raw meat. This further disturbs River’s twin sister, Savanna, who believes her finger and thumb might figure on a hawkish menu.
‘Cast him off,’ shouts Diego, and River – not much bigger than a hawk himself – lifts his gauntlet slowly towards the showery sky. Killary soars. Then something very magical happens. As we walk along the soft, springy forest path, Killary swoops from tree to tree above us, sometimes crossing in front and sometimes flying high alongside. It’s as if he were on an invisible rein and we were guiding him through the treetops.
Diego showed River how he only has to hold his gloved arm out straight, with his back to the bird and a small piece of chicken foot between his thumb and finger as a reward, and Killary will swoop down on to it, skidding to a halt on his hand.
Every few minutes, River calls Killary back. He soars down, his wings full until the moment he lands, then River casts him back off. Soon it’s almost one seamless motion, up and down, up and down. We could walk through the rain like this forever, to the rhythm of Killary’s swoops.
‘I think Killary likes me,’ says River. Savanna snarls. Twin rivalry over a feathered friend.
‘Let’s go back and see Dingle the Eagle Owl,’ she suggests. She’d blinked at Dingle back at the falconry school, and Dingle had blinked back. Blinking was as much interaction with a winged animal Savanna sought. So we strolled back through the ancient oaks, with Killary above us, River proudly displaying his branch-like arm.
Read more about Ireland family holidays.