I hold my breath and watch as my son James lifts his gloved hand, and the Harris Hawk perched on the worn leather turns her head to regard him before she soars into the sparkling blue sky. He knows I’m watching, and his eyes twinkle as he takes my arm, turning to follow professional falconer Damian Werner further into the forest surrounding Dromoland Castle.
One of the many country estate-worthy programs offered at the castle — which include archery, horseback riding, clay shooting and fishing — is this glorious ability to take part in the property’s Hawk Walk. These leisurely, organized falconry expeditions are led by Werner and the falconry team, and actually allow participants to fly a hawk while being supervised by a falconer.
Along the way, Werner explains that although traditional falconry was practiced for thousands of years, it was almost exclusively with birds from the wild — due in part to the extreme difficulty of breeding birds of prey in captivity. New understanding by biologists has changed that, making it unnecessary to capture wild birds, and all of the birds at Dromoland have been bred in captivity for the express purposes of falconry.
“Falconry is an ancient and important part of human history that our ancestors practiced for thousands of years, and is found across the globe,” he elaborates, gazing upward as his eyes follow the path of our hawk. “It’s a great way to experience these magnificent creatures and to interact with them in the gorgeous setting we have here on the estate. In my opinion, there’s no better place to be introduced to this amazing tradition than these beautiful woodlands.”
He adds that guests are often surprised by how tame and comfortable with strangers Dromoland’s hawks are, and that many people are surprised at how physically light they are — expecting them to be much heavier. I nod in agreement: The thick feathers create the illusion of a much larger creature.
Our feet crunch across layers of dry leaves as we make our way along the woodland path. Through the tangle of branches, the castle rises from the parkland in the distance, its dark blue limestone turrets silhouetted against the mid-morning sun. All through my son’s childhood, I longed to take him to just such a place — a grand castle, surrounded by greenwoods and secrets and at least the possibility of magic. The closest we ever got was Disneyland; and even though he’s now grown, this foray into Ireland’s history and the world of kings and barons feels special.
Before we head inside, we follow Werner to a gate nearly hidden by foliage across from the castle’s courtyard entrance. This is the aviary, and Werner releases the hawk into her private quarters and returns with a small white owl, introducing the bird as Pickles. He allows us to hold her briefly, and she hops from my hand to my son’s without a care.
Dinner that evening in The Earl of Thomond Restaurant evokes images of films with country estates: deep, comfy chairs, polished wood and impeccable service. We’re seated facing the long windows, framed by heavy drapes, where we can watch as the dimming light and lengthening shadows measure the approach of evening.
Dromoland Castle, located a short drive from Shannon on the west coast, is the ancestral home of the O’Briens of Dromoland. The O’Brien lineage dates back a thousand years to Brian Boru, who became the only High King of Ireland. The O’Briens, we’ve learned during our stay, were the Kings of Thomond. The dining room definitely feels suited to royalty, from the superb setting to the deliciously prepared food.
We share a starter of seared Irish smoked salmon, and James chooses the roasted pasture-fed Irish free-range chicken with sage and onion arancini, while I order the halibut, served with a puree of parsnips and Bramley apples. Everything is perfect, and we linger over coffee and tea beneath the glittering chandeliers while listening to the murmur of conversation from the full room.
In the morning, we walk along pathways on a different part of the estate, where we discover the mysterious Hermit’s Grotto; a small stone structure tucked into a mossy hill. A horse-drawn carriage bearing other guests passes us on our way out of the woods, and we follow it for a bit before turning uphill to the Temple of Mercury. Built like a round Greek temple with pillars holding the roof aloft, it evokes a sense of peacefulness.
While James is exploring the trails that lead through the wooded area around the lake at the edge of the golf course, I wander through the formal Walled Garden behind the castle. I know from literature I found in my room that the garden dates to 1812, and that it was fashioned by the same landscape artist who designed the gardens at the Palace of Versailles in France. The roses have faded, but other blooms linger, and a splash in the lily pond alerts me to the possible presence of a green, shape-shifting prince.
In the Walled Garden, a sculpture trail with pieces created by artists Carmel Doherty and Will Gillchrist wends between the foliage. I make my way beneath an arbor of pear trees and pass through an opening that leads to a wild garden. There are more fruit trees here — apple and plum — and it’s deliberately less manicured. There’s a sense of something untamed and feral, a place where it’s easy to let imagination completely take hold.
I leave the garden with the intent to come back early in the morning when dew still sparkles on the leaves and petals. Passing through the castle’s entrance, I see my son in the entrance to the lounge, where he awaits my arrival. We’re to meet for Mrs. White’s Afternoon Tea, named in honor of a long-ago kitchen maid. I join him in the lounge, where the stag’s head mounted over the stone fireplace presides over an unexpectedly soothing blend of floral and plaid motifs in thick, soft fabrics. Everything, for at least this moment, is extraordinarily fine.