When we chose to stay at Ashford Castle in County Mayo, Ireland, we knew it would be a spectacular place to spend New Year's Eve 2010. We knew the castle offered many activities, but it wasn't until our driver Kevin suggested falconry that we considered it. I'm now eternally grateful to Kevin for this idea as it became one of the most unforgettable moments of our holiday, and I suspect it's one my daughter will treasure forever.
It was on the morning of January 2nd, 2011 that we left the castle for the short walk to Ireland's School of Falconry . Falconry is a sport rich in history, having been in existence since at least 2000 BC. In medieval Europe falconry was a sport of the nobles, and was a very popular leisure pursuit. It's truly one of those things that has a very old-world feel to it as it's never really caught on in North America, and frankly, after experiencing it, I have no idea why.
The falconer we met with was a young woman from America. She came to Ireland to train in falconry because falconry is not an easy career to pursue in North America. She gave us an introduction to the facility, showed us the birds, and after some explanation introduced us to our hawks. My husband had decided to be the official photographer, so my 11-year old daughter and I would fly the hawks. I thought it would be interesting - but I had no idea how amazing an experience it would be.
Our hawks were young Harris hawks named Samhradh (Gaelic for summer) and Fomhar (Gaelic for autumn). The falconer had given us leather gloves and a quick lesson in holding the hawks, but it wasn't until the hawk was actually placed on your hand that you realized that this might well be an experience unlike any other.
As humans we are used to our bond with certain animals, particularly mammals like cats and dogs. One look in a hawk's eyes, though, and you see a sort of canny intelligence that seems very unlike our own. These are creatures who are obviously very clever - and very, very focused. I thought we'd be flying the hawks inside the falconry school, but the joy is that you are able to fly the hawks in the forest - like walking a dog, but so much better. The hawks launch from your hand at your command and flap through the sky. In the forest they dive bomb through the trees, occasionally landing on a tree to await your command to return (and the reward of a bit of raw chicken, of course - clever animals don't work for free). It was astonishing to see them maneuver through the dense forest, and to see them on occasion consider whether returning to your hand was worthwhile or if the forest held better offers (the falconer said that sometimes they do take off, leading to a merry chase and larger enticements to return).
The hawks seem so large and yet are so very light on your hand, as if they are all feathers and beady eyes. Their claws and beaks are formidable, and yet these Harris hawks seem so very trustworthy and calm. My daughter was absolutely taken with them, and she performed her duties as a falconer even better than I, reacting calmly when her hawk would begin to bate (which means a furious flapping of the wings while trying to escape your clutches). She took to the hawks like some children take to dogs, and I could see a light in her eyes as she communed with a species very different from our own.
The flight and walk take about an hour, and what a joyous hour it is. All you hear is the flapping of wings and laughter as the hawks cast off and return, occasionally choosing to return to different people, meaning that at times we would find ourselves with each other's hawks. My daughter learned that if she cast her hawk off just right it would fly right by my head, ruffling my hair with it's wing tips and making me duck every time. This led to raucous laughter, of course, and repeated attempts to fly her hawk right at my head. Her hawk complied to a point and seemed in on the joke, often coming close enough for me to feel feathers on my face before diverting off in another direction.
At the end of the hour we walked and flew our hawks back to the falconry school where they would enjoy a well-deserved rest. Our falconer allowed me to hold the resident owl, an astonishingly beautiful bird named Dingle. He makes the hawks seem especially light as he is a phenomenally heavy bird. Dingle is not all feathers and amber-coloured round eyes, but rather a very solid creature. He was raised by a woman and as such sees women as other owls. He does not recognize men and children as equals, and thus only I, as the sole woman in our party, could hold him. It was truly an honour, but not one I could maintain for long as his weight made my arm hurt, and to be quite honest the look in his eyes was a bit unnerving as it was just a bit more predatory than the hawks'.
When we left the school of falconry the falconer commended us both on our abilities, but was especially pleased with my daughter. She said many children find the hawks frightening or overwhelming, but was amazed at how my daughter communicated with the hawks and remained calm regardless of their behaviour. I could have told her this. My daughter truly seems to have an ability to connect with animals that is beyond explanation, and it seems species is not a barrier to this talent. The falconer gave my daughter two feathers from the hawks to remember the experience, and the feathers came home with us from Ireland, of course.
As I said at the beginning of this post I don't understand why falconry has never caught on in North America. It's an incredible experience, with an almost fantasy-like quality, and if it was more widely available here I think many people would find it as exhilarating as we did. It seems, though, that this just may be another of those experiences that you need to travel to find. If you want to try it then I can think of no better place to do so than at Ashford Castle, Cong, County Mayo. If you do go then please give Samhradh and Fomhar a bit of chicken for us, and tell them we miss those beady little eyes. And be wary of Samhradh as he may have developed a taste for flying at people's heads...