Our trip to Ireland's Ashford Castle, April 20-24, 2006
The oldest part of the castle was built in the 1200's with additions being added over the years until it was converted into a hotel in the 1930's so some parts are "cooler" than others. The oldest part is where the dignitaries stay. Our room was not in that part, unfortunately.
However, our room was huge, with a separate foyer/dressing room and a marble bathroom with 2 sinks! The castle is so big we had to walk almost a city block to get to it, over the most uneven floors I've ever seen in a building, and up and down several staircases, but it was in one of the 'outcroppings' or whatever they're called, and had windows on three sides.
The view from our room:
We arrived in Dublin Friday morning, rented a car (THAT was an experience - finding the car was like solving a Da Vinci Code puzzle) and drove across the country (4 hours) to the village of Cong in county Mayo where the castle is located. We had lunch in a little inn where the innkeeper pulled up a chair and regaled us with stories of her daughter's experiences in Chicago. She then told us where all the Healy's lived in the area!
The next day we drove to the coast and back. The country side was gorgeous, even though (or maybe because?) it was cold and overcast much of the time. We drove around as much as possible (KC could pretend he was on the Nuremberg Ring) and saw the ocean, peat bogs, castle ruins, and lots of sheep. Here's were we got "lost" on the Connemara loop:
The Connemara Loop:
A wide road (it really is, compared to most!):
Barb scaring the sheep (I just wanted to pet the lamb!):
A peat bog:
The highlight of the trip, however, was the falconing! We both got to handle and fly, multiple times, a Harris hawk and an owl! We have hundreds of pictures - here are the best ones:
A peregrine falcon:
A young hawk:
Hunting with Harris Hawks:
You release the birds by throwing them into the air. They fly into the trees and follow you as you walk, waiting for you to flush out game, which they will then kill for you. There was no game, obviously, so they just followed us through the forest, periodically flying close to our heads to remind us they were there.
When we wanted to call them back, we stuck our our fist, placed a bit of food on it, and then looked at them. If you didn't look at them, they wouldn't come!
Ready to be released:
Securing the bird so he doesn't fly until you want him to:
Releasing the bird:
Can you see him?
Hiding in the trees:
Mantling (protecting his "kill"):
The next thing we did was witness a live demonstration of how they kill their prey. Using a decoy (stuffed rabbit pelt) the instructor pulled it along the ground and the hawk 'killed' it and then waited for the trade - plucked meat in exchange for the fresh kill. The benefit to the bird, and the reason it's willing to make the trade, is that plucking and skinning a rabbit is hard work!
Here are pix of the demonstration:
Ready to "hunt":
Waiting for the trade. While she was waiting, she kept pulling on the rabbits fur as she would have done if it had been a live kill - instinct dies hard!
The best part of the lesson was our introduction to Dingle, a European Eagle Owl, the largest species of owl.
Isn't he gorgeous? Look at his furry feet! I fell in love with him (that is my fist he's on)!
Dingle! (European Eagle Owl):
Look at his huge wingspan!:
Here he is flying to my fist:
"Yum, yum! Baby chicken head!"
Here he is flying to KC's fist:
The set up (can you see the chick leg on KC's fist?):
Coming in for the kill:
Mantling (protecting) his kill:
"Thank you, KC, that was delicious!"
At this point our instructor suggested that we make Dingle spread his wings for a photo-op. To do this, KC was told to tilt his fist slightly outwards to throw the bird off balance. Here's what happened (watch Dingle's eyes):
"Oh oh! Now what? I'm off balance!"
"Better flap my wings ...!"
"Hey! Let go of my foot!"
"You airhead! I almost fell!"
I crack up every time I see that sequence!
I don't think the school uses Dingle to hunt. I'm pretty sure he's only for show. His eyesight isn't as good as the hawks - he hunts mostly with his ears - so he doesn't fly to the fist on command. They lure him with large pieces of food (the hawks got 1/2" square bits while Dingle got a whole head or a whole leg) and make sure he sees them before they walk him to the other end of the field and release him. The school is pretty popular so that's probably how they feed him and, knowing that, he appears to fly "on command". They did tell us he wasn't their smartest bird.....
After falconing, we went for a bike ride. I haven't been on a bike in 20 years and the path was winding, muddy and full of treacherous holes so I had a difficult time, especially since my left foot isn't totally healed and the bike was a bit big for me. I spent a lot of time trying to get back on it and didn't see much of the scenery...
The gorgeous forest we were in:
How I spent most of the ride:
The hill KC made me climb ...there was no way I could have ridden the bike up that hill! :
The beautiful view of Lough (lake) Corrib at the top of the hill,
and me, worried about having to get on my bike again:
Another attempt to get the bike going:
My poor feet at the end of the day:
As you can see, we had a great time! In addition to all these adventures, we saw a real cork tree, we had lunch in a 'real' Irish pub and delicious dinners in the castle dining room - house cured lamb, wild salmon carpaccio, organic spinach gratin with chestnuts and hazelnuts, and roasted parsnip soup among other things. For breakfast, KC had both black pudding and white pudding (blood and innards respectively) while I stuck to eggs florentine.
We had tea in the Prince of Wales bar (three tiers of sandwiches and pastries - pistachio tartlets, cranberry scones, ham and pecan sandwiches, etc...) and in the Dungeon Bar we were treated to Irish Karaoke! We THOUGHT it was going to be an Irish lass singing, accompanied by her harp and a pianist, but she kept pulling people in out of the audience! Some of them were entertaining - really Irish with decent voices - and the rest were abysmal! It was definitely an 'experience' .
As 'high end' as the castle was supposed to be, there was a touch of Faulty Towers to it - dishes delivered out of order and then by three different waiters simultaneously - but that just added to the ambiance. On one of our treks to the room we saw a finch sitting on the window sill, INSIDE!
Our favorite souvenirs? A falcon's hood (used), and some Healy's Honey!
One last look at the gorgeous countryside:
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Last Revised: May 03, 2006
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