King Cong in Co Mayo

Dan Buckley enjoys the royal sport of falconry and takes in the sights of the majestic Corrib at the Lodge at Ashford Castle.

King Cong in Co Mayo

Unless you have been residing in another galaxy, you will be familiar with Ashford Castle, the magnificent 350-acre estate in Cong, Co Mayo. One of Ireland’s most impressive hotels, it has hosted the great and the good — from Hollywood celebrities to royalty — in impressive luxury.

With a history stretching back to the time of the Norman conquest, and until relatively recently home to the Guinness family, it provides lavish hospitality on an epic scale.

What may have escaped your notice is the more modest and less formal but equally impressive lodge on the castle grounds.

The four-star Lodge at Ashford, originally built in 1865 for the estate manager of the castle, sits in picturesque gardens with a view across the slate grey waters of Lough Corrib.

It offers an exemplary boutique country house experience, with a little latter-day luxury and mildly eccentric decor thrown in. There aren’t too many hotel rooms in Ireland where you can sit in the bath and watch the rugby or peer out through ten-foot windows and enjoy the spectacular distraction of the majestic Corrib.

You could almost get lost in the apartment-sized rooms at the Lodge which overlooks Lisloughrey Quay.

Set on a hillock on the grounds of the 360-acre Ashford Estate, the 150-year-old lodge has 24 rooms and 26 suites, all individually designed with flair and a sense of fun.

If you manage to rouse yourself from the bungalow-sized bed, there is plenty to do outside.

Activities include some of the best fishing in the country, a cruise on the Corrib and horse riding. Golfers can enjoy the estate’s nine-hole parkland course and there’s a wealth of water sports as well as tennis, cycling, clay pigeon shooting and archery. The most exotic activity on offer is falconry, the so-called Sport of Kings.

Around 30 birds of prey are kept at the Falconry School where guests are greeted by their falconry instructor. Within minutes of arriving, they have a glove on their hand and are introduced to their hawk before setting off on a Hawk Walk to the surrounding woodlands with the falconer.

There is something almost poetic about a close encounter with a bird of prey. It is not just a visual experience but a tactile one and is, at first, unnerving as you watch nature’s fastest creatures make a drone-like swoop to snatch raw meat from your gloved hand.

Instructor Auriele O’Sullivan knows her brood by name, among them the excitable Chico that only she can tame and, my favourite, Aztec, a laid-back Harris Hawk that exhibits all the calm grandeur of an English butler.

Falconers become very attached to their birds.

“They are like family to us,” explain James and Deborah Knight who started the school in 1999. “We have never sold a hawk and we never will.”

The School of Falconry is a short stroll to the equestrian centre and a nearby empty paddock reserved for archery. Another ancient art, archery is a bit like darts, only posher, and it looks easier than it is.

It is also around the corner from Squire Danaher’s house that featured in the 1951 movie, The Quiet Man. The arrival of Hollywood stars John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara put the village of Cong on the map and it has remained an international attraction ever since.

Starring with them was local man Michael Noone who these days likes to entertain on his accordion and cajole boat trippers during cruises along the Cong River to the Corrib, encountering en route 365 islands — one for every day of the year.

Among the largest is the Isle Of Innisfree but our destiny is the smaller but mysterious monastic island of Inchagoill (Island of the Devout Foreigner).

It is home to the ruins of two churches built in the fifth and 12th centuries. The oldest is Teampall Phaidrig or St Patrick’s Church, with its strange obelisk, containing one of the earliest Christian inscriptions in Ireland.

The stone reads “Lia Lugnaedon Macc Lmeneuh,” the stone of Lughaedon, son of Limenueh, the sister of St Patrick.

Sport, boating and culture prove good sauces for the fare on offer back at the Lodge which features a variety of food, from the imaginative contemporary local cuisine served in Wilde’s Restaurant, to the less formal setting of the Quay Bar and Brasserie.

In between, dining wise, lies Cullen’s, a thatched cottage within the estate which combines traditional pub paraphernalia with a bright interior that would not be out of place on a Greek island.

The most exotic fare on offer is in Wilde’s where chef Jonathan Keane pays homage to local produce and his penchant for foraging for everything from mushrooms to mussels, to sea spinach.

The menu is daring and the combinations come as a bit of a shock, at first.

The seven-course Menu of Discovery includes foie gras trifle, black pudding with chocolate, and Jonathan’s signature dish, mussels in squid ink and liquorice. Like the falconry and archery, dining at Wilde’s helps to make The Lodge at Ashford an unforgettable and exhilarating experience. There is a Four Seasons, Four Reasons package on offer at the moment, including one-night B&B, clay pigeon shooting, a 3-course dinner, from €199, with a second night for an extra €100. See www.thelodgeac.com

DID YOU KNOW 

Many modern day expressions originate from falconry due to its long history. They include:

Larking around: Traditionally women falconers used to fly small falcons, such as merlins, at larks. This was not viewed as important falconry by the men (although it is actually very difficult) so the women were said to be ‘larking around’ while the men went about the serious hunting!

Hobby: A type of falcon or hawk that was not considered a serious hunting bird – just a hobby!

Pointless: To locate prey such as partridge, pheasant or grouse for the falcon to chase, falconers often use pointing dogs (pointers) to ‘point’ where the prey is. If the falconer returned from a hunting session without the dog having ‘pointed’ to any prey, the hunt was ‘pointless’, there had been no ‘point’ to it.

Boozing: When a bird of prey drinks it is said to be ‘boozing’.

Fed up: When a bird of prey has eaten it’s fill it is said to be ‘fed up’. Fat and full, the bird wishes to do nothing but sit around and digest its meal.

One fell swoop: Originates from ‘one fell stoop’ describing the deadly dive (stoop) of a falcon catching its prey.

Under the Thumb: When a bird of prey is being held on the falconer’s glove, the jesses (the leather straps attached to the bird’s legs) are held secure under the thumb of the falconer’s glove. So if a bird is ‘under the thumb’ it is safely and securely back on the falconer’s fist.

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