We got up and had breakfast at the Dolmen House in Cong. It was comfortable and the Full Irish Breakfast excellent, and I recommend it if you happen to be visiting. We packed our bags and set out down the road to Ashford Castle, and saw a strange creature!
The creature was not in that picture, I fumbled the camera out too slow to catch it, unfortunately. Anyway, it was dark, probably black, and had a long tail and big paws. The tail swished back and forth like a cat's, and it was generally feline in the way it loped along the road. When we got close, I saw that it was about the size of a big dog, like a Rottweiler, or so, but its ears and tail were not dog-like. When it saw us, it ducked into the brush along the side of the road, and I missed getting a picture of it. I wondered aloud what kind of wild cats lived in Ireland, I wasn't aware of any - but we were on our way to Ireland's School of Falconry, where I reasoned some people with knowledge of animals would be working.
We arrived early at Ashford Castle, and wandered around the exterior and as much of the interior as they would allow. The castle is an imposing granite structure that was first founded in 1228, and was given a modern renovation and turned into a hotel and conference center some time ago. It as played host to many important functions, probably most famously to President Reagan in the 1980's. It sits on the shore of Lough Corrib, and is now a five star hotel. We had intended to stay there, but there was a big event as well as a couple of weddings there, so it was booked solid months ahead of time. This all turned out fine, because we ended up staying at another castle (more on that later!) in Scotland, which we loved, and wouldn't have seen the Lucky Bog Cat had we been in Ashford overnight.
The original square fort and subsequent military structure is architecturally distinct from the French style Chateau that was added in 1715 by the Baron Oranmore.
The castle grounds are vast, and incorporate a golf course, many hidden and lovely gardens, rambling greens, and of course, the National School of Falconry. We hiked out to the Falconry school for our morning appointment for a "hawk walk" as recommended by grrm and parrismcb. Along the way we found a secret garden of sorts, tucked down in a hollow, hidden by a tall flowering hedge with an oak door. Our timing was amazing - every flower was in bloom, the weather was cool and perfect, and the scent of Spring was in the air with just the faintest hint of Winter at the edges in the wind.
It's not without truth that Ireland is called the Emerald Isle. There is a kind of green that happens there and nowhere else, and we were everywhere surrounded by it on our walk. The path to the school was a verdant dream.
It lead by a winding path to a walled and enclosed compound.
Once let inside, we were greeted by our personal falconer who would take us on the walk. First we had an educational tour of the facilities, with detailed explanation of the care for the birds, and an introduction to all the hawks, falcons and owls that are at the School. It was kind of like Hogwarts for raptors.
Finally we were gloved up and introduced to the Harris Hawks who we would be hawking with for the morning.
Harris Hawks are unique amongst raptors, because they are social birds that hunt as a pack. For this reason they will trust any person that their handlers, with whom they have a long-established relationship, introduce to them. With other birds of prey, the falconer must themselves build up this trust relationship, but with the Harris Hawks, it is possible for a stranger to work with them as long as they are accompanied by the handler. We took our birds, Sara and Feorha, out on a walk through the castle grounds. They are well trained to seek morsels of food right out of the hands of their handlers.
The handler carries a pouch full of chicken bits, and in this case, a shrew or vole that Feorha, the cheeky boy, ran down and caught. The handler had to snatch that vole ought of his claws, or he would have gorged on it and been unwilling to fly again.
The hawks must know that they're rock stars, because they're more than happy to pose majestically.
I really wish this picture weren't blurry.
When you "cast off" the hawks with a throwing motion, they swoop off through the trees very aerobatically. When you hold up your fist, they assume you've got a treat for them, and will soar right down to your glove.
After a nice long walk with Sara and Feorha, we made our way back to the school, and put the hawks on their perches to rest. The guide then introduced us to the School's owls.
She fed the vole that Feorha had caught to the owl while pyr8queen held the owl, which she was...interested in but perhaps every so slightly unenthusiastic.
The owl was surprisingly heavy for his size.
We also asked the falconers about the cat we saw. They said they were unaware of any wild cats in Ireland, other than just house cats on the loose. They were very puzzled by our sighting, and had no idea what we might have seen.
Reluctantly, we left the School and got on our way, but not before stopping off for a little more shopping and some coffee and rhubarb pie in the Cong Cafe. And a little more coffee at The Hungry Monk Cafe. The rest of the day was a long trip - all the way across the country to Northern Ireland, basically.
Along the way, in a tiny town with a turnabout called Charlestown, we stopped at the Riverside Hotel and Restaurant, an ancient tumbledown tavern situated along the water for supper.
I had a salmon in white wine sauce with bread-and-butter pudding for dessert. The salmon was superb.
While we dined, we observed the multi-generational family who owned and operated the hotel serve food and drinks to other local families who were there for a leisurely meal. Satisfied and rested, we got back on the road with plenty of light left in the day. Along the Northern edge of Ireland, the views are pastural and sweeping, with rolling hills and white cliffs.
We hiked up a well kept path to a waterfall along the way.
We tried to investigate the Marble Arch Caves, but it was too late in the day, and the educational center next to it was closing just as we arrived at the top of a winding, narrow mountain road that was yet another white-knuckler. So we pressed on to our evening destination, a town just over the border in Norther Ireland called Enniskillen. Immediately on crossing the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, there was an obvious difference. The roads were wider and more recently paved, and there were actual street signs. In addition, although every house still had a peat fire burning, there was much more evidence of economic activity, with shops and businesses other than just farms and inns. It's clear that every home in Ireland is a largely self-sufficient farm, with just enough income to keep afloat, and keep the house tidy and in good repair; poverty in Ireland isn't obvious, because the people there are industrious. But scratch under the veneer of fresh paint and well kept walls, and you find people with just barely enough money to get by.
We stopped in a shopping center in Enniskillen to get some cash - the Republic uses Euro, and the UK uses pounds. We also called the Willowbank House for directions, and finally made our way there to check in. It looks over Lough Erne, and is large and lovely house kept by a very friendly proprietor and her husband. The view from the front of the house was gorgeous, and pyr8queen insisted we take a picture.
We got recommendations for dinner, and settled on the Horsehoe and Saddler's Bistro and Winebar in town. I can't believe I didn't take a picture of the beef three ways that I had for dinner, but I remember it as being excellent in all three ways. We had a long chat with Marshall Coalter, the owner, who just stopped in to see how we were doing. I was curious about the place, it being very thoroughly modern in a very old building. He told us that he used to use this upstairs area as a night club, but the liability for a bunch of people dancing and drinking wasn't as big a return as it would be for catered events and upscale dinners, which was sort of contradictory to what my impression of restaurant economics was. Never the less, his business was doing well, and he'd put together a top notch wine cellar, list of craft brewed local beers, and hired a great chef.
After our excellent meal, we stopped at Tesco's in Enniskillen. I always make a point of visiting a supermarket in every country I visit, because little speaks as clearly to a character of a people as what they need to put on the table every day. I was shocked to find no less than three aisles of pastry in this enormous market - and an entire aisle of ciders. I love my counter and am a proud American - but man, they are whupping our butts in Northern Ireland when it comes to pastry and cider. We took a tiny cake and a couple of bottles of cider back to the Willowbank House, steeped in a luxurious bath, and called it a night.