9. Medieval Ireland

Published on 3 May 2023 at 12:47

Ashford Castle - Ireland's School of Falconry

The Middle Ages were a tumultuous time in Irish history. In 795AD Vikings began raiding the coast and then settling and establishing the first walled cities at Dublin and Waterford. After their defeat under the leadership of the Irish High King Brian Boru, Ireland enjoyed a brief period of peace which was broken by the invasion of the Normans under Strongbow.   

Many of Ireland’s castles were built by their Anglo-Normans overlords, including the first destination on day 9 of our road trip, Ashford Castle. Today was all about experiencing life in the Middle Ages and we began by flying falcons on the magnificent castle grounds. Falconry was a popular sport of the nobility in the Middle Ages. In the same way that jousting tournaments provided knights with an opportunity to practice their skills for warfare, hunting gave them the chance to hone their tracking and weapon skills.

The Ireland School of Falconry use Harris Hawks (which are native to America) for their falconry experience because of their even temperament. These birds are amazing. They are accustomed to hunting in partnership in the wild and the falconer harnesses this natural hunting instinct by teaching the birds to trust their human partners in the same way they would other falcons. It’s incredible to watch and even more amazing to experience! 

After exploring the castle grounds we stopped for a delicious lunch at the Purple Door Cafe in Letterfrack and got some incredible deals on Aran sweaters at a tiny shop across the road (half the price of other more touristy towns!). We then headed up to Killary farm to watch a sheep dog demonstration. It was so fascinating to watch the farmer work his dog and interesting to hear him talk about the training process. We also got to bottle feed the orphan lambs which was so much fun.

Our next stop was Kylemore Abby, which has rather a romantic, if tragic, history. It was built as a country house by Mitchell Henry for his wife after they honeymooned in the area. It took 100 men four years to complete. But, just four years later, Margaret and their young daughter died from a fever contracted in Egypt. Overwhelmed by grief, Mitchell built a beautiful memorial church on the shore of the lake about a mile from the castle where he laid them to rest.

The property was eventually sold to the Duke of Manchester, a notorious gambler, who married an American heiress to prop up his dwindling fortunes. Legend has it that the duke eventually lost the castle in a late night game of cards.

And so the castle fell into disrepair...until a group of Benedictine nuns fleeing from Ypres in WWI sought refuge there.  They restored the house and grounds and still live and work there today. This is an amazing destination to explore and the 9 acre walled gardens are absolutely beautiful!

After a reviving cup of tea in the Abby tea room we headed on to drive through the Connemara National Park. This was the 3rd National Park that we visited in Ireland and we have found each to be absolutely unique and beautiful in its own way. Connemara was originally part of the Kylemore Estate and consists of 5,000 acres of bogland, lakes, and mountains. But the thig it is best known for are its ponies.

No-on really knows for sure how the ponies got here. Some believe they are descendants of Scandinavian ponies brought over by the Vikings. Others believe they are descendants of the native Irish Hobby, a now extinct breed. The most popular legend however, tells of galleons from the Spanish Armada that ran aground near here in a wild Atlantic storm. Apparently, the ships were carrying magnificent Spanish bred Andalusians on board. Some of these broke loose, breeding with the native stock, and giving us the ponies, we see today.

Explorations complete it was time to head to our accommodation for the night - Abbyglen Castle Hotel. John d’Arcy built Abbyglen as part of an ambitious scheme to found a new town (Sanderton style). He first built Cliffden Castle as his primary residence then added Abbyglen to the estate as a hunting lodge to accommodate guests. The family prospered for about 30 years until they lost their fortunes in the Great Famine. Today Cliffden is a thriving town, the castle a magnificent ruin, and Abbyglen has been restored into a beautiful hotel.

We had the most incredible stay which started with copious amounts of complimentary champagne and an entertaining talk on the history of the castle, followed by a delicious 5 course dinner. Breakfast the next morning was just as extravagant and Rachael and I decided to work off some of the calories with a game of tennis!

I have to say that each day in Ireland just gets better and better. From flying falcons, to hunting elusive Connemara ponies on windswept moors, and exploring romantic castles…what wasn’t there to like about today’s grand adventure! 

Ashford Castle and the Ireland School of Falconry, Killary Farm, Kylemore Abby, Connemara National Park, Abbyglen Castle Hotel

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