I swung my arm forward with an exaggerated swooping motion, and, as promised, Milly took to the air. Just a few powerful pumps of her red and brown wings, and she was rising up over the strip of manicured lawn before us.
She soared over trees flanking both sides of the lawn, but she soon circled and headed back toward me.
I again held out my arm. Milly was coming in quickly. Too quickly. I turned my head away, just as a gentle plop landed on my outstretched, oversized leather glove. There she was — regal, alert, and clearly more comfortable than I was as her human perch.
The Harris hawk had done this countless times before with countless strangers. But boy, I felt special.
Mark Barrett, Milly’s trainer, quickly proffered a piece of raw beef, her reward. Then I got mine: I walked with her a moment — I was on a Hawk Walk, after all — and watched as she held her head high, noticing everything, the hunter that she was born to be. The encounter was part of a one-hour lesson in the 4,000-year-old sport of falconry at medieval Ashford Castle, on Ireland’s western coast.
There are many ways to spend an afternoon in Ireland. I had already been to pubs and eaten fish and chips. I’d visited the Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, where many leaders of the Irish rebellions were imprisoned and sometimes executed. Earlier this day, I had hiked a national park on the Connemara peninsula and bought an authentic Irish knit sweater. But walking the grounds of an Irish castle with hawks coming to and fro was unlike anything I had done before.
Honestly, left to my own devices, I might not have thought of such an excursion. But luckily my friend Roy did – one of the advantages of traveling with friends.
Ashford Castle — a five-star hotel now — sits between Galway and Westport, in a town called Cong in County Mayo. Its towers rise above a landscape of winding roads and stone fences — exactly what you come to Ireland to explore.
Getting past the guards at the gate without spending a small fortune for a room was easy enough. They pointed my friends, my husband and me in the direction of the Hawk Walk. The long driveway meanders past the golf course and winds down to the castle, which sits on Lough Corrib, a large lake. Ashford, built in the 13th century of gray stone with multiple battlements, is spectacular, and I quickly decided that we’d need to stop for a drink and to walk the grounds on our way out.
We continued on, past signs for boating and archery, until — at the edge of the 330 acres, up a pebble path and behind large wooden doors — we found the Irish School of Falconry.
Welcome includes meeting birds
Once inside the gates, Mark greeted us, and gave us a tour of the school’s 35 or so birds of prey, caged in a U-shaped cluster. He started with its lone owl, a male European eagle owl, the first resident visitors come across, and seemingly all-knowing.
Turns out he’s not universally adored. One of the hawks, Rua, views him as a potential threat because he has night vision and she doesn’t. The dislike is mutual.
The falconers need to know the personalities of each of the birds. Some don’t fly well together so they aren’t sent on walks at the same time. Falconers have their favorites, as well.
Mark is fond of Milly, a Harris hawk whom he has taken hunting.
Mark — from Sligo, about two hours north — has traveled many times to the United States with his American girlfriend, and has spent a fair amount of time outside Philadelphia. That Mark was our guide felt like a welcoming gesture for our group of eight, mostly New Yorkers. He was young, eager, and cared more about the birds than the tourists, in a delightful way. He regaled us with stories of hawk training, including taking one to the local pub, where it is welcomed.
But while birds of prey are trainable, and falconers can grow attached, the bond isn’t mutual. The hawks consider Mark a means to get more food, whether a chance to hunt on the grounds or get treats of chopped up mice, chicks and raw beef. All raw. All meat. Fruits and vegetables need not apply.
Falconry is sometimes called the oldest sport in the world, having originated in the Far East around 2000 B.C. Officially it means hunting game in the wild with a trained bird of prey, and it was a way to feed families before bows and arrows. It’s still used for hunting today and is legal in all U.S. states but Hawaii.
Flying birds of prey is part beauty, part science. Mark and the falconers at the school carefully manage the birds’ diets, particularly when they fly. In the wild, birds hunt when they are hungry — but still have enough energy to hunt. Flying weights are different for each bird; they’re listed on a blackboard inside one of the rooms.
Milly’s, on this particular day (they can change with the seasons) is 2 pounds, 3 ounces. Our other hawk, Uisce, Gaelic for water, isn’t listed on the board. Mark has measured food for the birds, kept in separate pouches in a shoulder bag.
Our group of eight all put on the special gloves. My friends Chip and Martin volunteer for the first flights. Mark shows them how to hold the hawks by their jesses, soft leather straps attached to their legs, before we walk outside the gates.
We walk up a short path through woodlands to a break in the trees. Trim lawns stretch in front of us.
Chip goes first, swooshing Milly away. I take my glove off and get my camera ready, excited for the photos I imagine I’m about to take.
As Milly flies in, I’m ready: glove under the arm, elbows in, camera steady. But Milly keeps coming, past Chip, straight toward me a few feet behind him. I duck, Mark acts, whistling Milly to him. Note to self: These Harris hawks love these leather gloves, no matter where they are.
Within minutes it all seems natural. “Who’s got him?” Mark would call, and somebody would eagerly stretch out their gloved arm.
We walk through the woodlands and back to the gravel road, the hawks coming and going. While the hawks are trained to respond to whistles and taps to the glove, just holding up the glove — with or without meat — is often enough.
They are also trained to not stay so close all the time, getting bigger rewards for flying farther away and landing in bigger trees. A few trees on the walk are dubbed jackpot trees by the falconers. At the end of our walk, I don’t think any of us want it to be over.
As we head back to the school, I put Milly’s jesses under my thumb to make sure she doesn’t go anywhere.
As we walk through the gates, a couple are preparing to depart on their own Hawk Walk. They’re dressed to the nines in period garb, as if ready for a Renaissance festival or actors in a Shakespearean play.
“How odd,” I thought to myself. Then the hawk landed on the woman’s arm, and her costume seemed complete.
I whispered to my husband, “Next time.”