CONG, County Mayo, Ireland — The hawk’s beady eyes locked onto mine as if she were trying to mesmerize me as her tiny feathered head jerked side to side like a metronome. She was beautiful and strong and scary, with huge yellow feet and lethal talons gripping my heavy suede glove.
I let go of the jess — the leather tether that kept her on my arm — and gave her a little nudge into the air. She pushed off with her feet and soared to a high branch in a tree about 50 yards away, the bell on her ankle jingling, a sound as if she were sprinkling magic along her path. To entice her back from her perch, I stuffed some meat in my glove and stuck out my arm, the return signal she had been trained to obey. I had to close my eyes the first few times I called her back because watching a hawk soar straight at you is as unnerving as staring down a locomotive.
We were on a hawk walk. I was doing this walk in synchronicity with my dad, who had his own hawk on his arm beside me. This was my birthday present to him, on his first trip to Ireland. Our instructor, from the Ireland’s School of Falconry, at Ashford Castle here, would count down — four, three, two, one — and we’d launch the birds back into the sky and follow their landing far afield as we kept a leisurely pace down a beautiful garden path. Then we’d call back the hawks with a fistful of meat.
This rhythm worked for quite some time and we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves for not losing these precious creatures. But then dad’s hawk spotted a mouse in the brush and went rogue. I managed to get my jealous hawk back on my arm and our group followed the jingle bell of his bird to a bloody scene on the edge of the woods. The hawk was gorging on its prey and there may have been a tail poking out of its beak. Its wings were outstretched, shrouding the scene as if it were protecting us from witnessing a homicide.
And with that, a thrilling 30-minute walk through the history and tradition of falconry as well as the stunning grounds around Ashford Castle was effectively over. That’s because when a hawk finds its own prey to eat, it won’t fly back to you or anywhere; it is literally “fed up,” the etymology of which comes from this exact scenario. It doesn’t need you or your food anymore.
There was much consternation and coaxing of the hawk. Our guide finally lured the fat bird back on a glove and we finished up the walk without more flight. We placed the hawks on their domesticated perches at the school, thanked the knowledgeable staff, and headed back to the 800-year-old castle to discuss it all over whiskey in its various bars.
Our first stop was the billiards room, nestled between the turrets. There, with an expansive view of the grounds and the River Cong, we toasted dad and watched the sun go down on a memorable day, the waning light washing the old gray stones in pink. We all agreed we’d fly back anytime for this, with bells on.
If you go . . .
From Boston, fly direct from Logan to Shannon Airport via Aer Lingus. You can also get direct flights to Shannon out of Providence.
Rent a car for a 90-minute white-knuckle drive up the Western Coast of Ireland to Ashford Castle. The good news is the lovely town of Galway presents itself midway, perfect to stop for lunch and a Galway Hooker, ale that is.
Everything is so close and easy it makes Ashford Castle a perfect destination for a long weekend getaway. And there is so much else to do there besides sampling the bars and going on hawk walks — though those are highly recommended. The grounds of this castle, formerly owned by the Guinness family, are gorgeous, overlooking a lake studded with islands. There’s plenty of fishing and even a helicopter out on the front lawn, there if guests should want or need a ride. In the morning, you can go for a walk with the estate’s wolf hounds, who also hang out in the sitting area for a brief part of the day. There’s an excellent spa, a cozy movie theater draped in red velvet and serving up fresh popcorn, clay pigeon shooting, live music, and horseback riding. There’s no need to leave for your entire stay.Tina Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.