On our way to Mount Falcon in Co Mayo the McKeevers went walking in the Burren (you can read about that next week) and we got soaked.
Thinking of the grand estate, I thought: “We can’t bring a big bag of wet clothes into this beautiful place,” so we parked at one of those petrol station laundromats in Tuam and did a wash.
There really was no need as Mount Falcon is one of the best places we have experienced for activities so a bag of wet clothes would have been a badge of honour.
That was my first misconception. The second was that the activities were limited to guests, but this is not the case either. The estate is open to all (COVID-19 restrictions abiding of course) and the atmosphere is welcoming. We tried a few of the activities during our stay and as varied as they were, it was the people that were at the heart of the experiences.
Therapy in weaving
Originally from West Sussex, Annie Gambrill and her husband came to Mayo to live off the grid and be as self-sufficient as possible and they are getting there step by step. She now teaches weaving and spinning classes on the estate.
I ask Annie if weaving is therapeutic. Her reply: “It really is, you get into a natural flow, the flow of the spinning is backwards and forwards and when you get into the weaving it’s left to right.”
Not long after Annie moved into her new home in Kilalla, Co Mayo, her new neighbour told her she could have the fleece from her sheep, which sadly she reflects “is worth very little”. Annie accepted, but in exchange offered to teach her neighbour to spin – a skill she had learned as a young girl. And as simple as that, Kilalla Woolcraft was born.
“I’m working with women who have their own flocks. I’ve been spinning since I was 10 and it’s just one of those things that always stuck with me that.”
Annie had not spun in a long time before moving to Ireland but she says: “It is one of those things, you know, a muscle memory. And when I went back to it I taught two people and one of them said that I should start teaching and I thought well I’ll give it a go.”
Initially, she set up a couple of classes in the creative centre in Kilalla, which were really popular.
Although the pandemic put a stop to her classes, Annie found a new home to share her creativity in Mount Falcon where she is doing a two-hour workshop in the bamboo tent or on the lawn if the weather behaves.
Annie qualified in animal science from college and, since arriving in Ireland, has been building her farm and garden to support her aim of self-sufficiency.
“We’re getting there. I mean I don’t think anyone can really be 100% self-sufficient but we grow the majority of our own fruit and vegetables.
“Our goat keeps us supplied with milk. All of our neighbours have eggs from our hens as well as ourselves.
“And we’ve just got a sheep as well, which is a pet sheep. He’s like the foundation of my flock.
Annie has also amassed a collection of old disused spinning wheels and looms, lovingly restoring them to working condition.
“I think I have 11 wheels, so I can teach 10 people and have one demonstration wheel. I have three wheels which are in different stages of restoration, I collect them because otherwise they’d probably get thrown away or thrown on the fire or something because they’re just not used now.
Annie’s husband is a bespoke carpenter and joiner. “He enjoys working with his hands and creating something beautiful. I do all of the restoration [of the spinning wheels], so it’s hard for him not to get involved but if something is broken I will ask him if I should glue it or make a new one.”
Annie does make pieces to sell also but says that commissions make her somewhat anxious. “When people say, I want something like this – because their vision and my vision could be absolutely different – so I prefer to make something, and then try and sell it.”
You can find Annie on Instagram @killala.woolcraft
The next experience we tried was the Birds of Prey experience where we met policeman-turned-falconer Martin McPhillips.
“They’ve got supernatural powers,” Martin McPhillips explains to the children surrounding him, their eyes wide with delight. “Some of them have fantastic hearing – much, much better than ours. Some have eyesight that means that they can see an awful long way and they also see in ultraviolet. That means that they see you like a little rainbow. They slow things down in their mind so when they see you moving, they see you changing colour and you move in really sloooooowwww motion.”
The first bird that our group is introduced to in the Mount Falcon aviary is a peregrine falcon – a boy called Phantom. He’s wearing his “fancy hood”, which Martin explains makes him think its nighttime, which keeps him calm. He is effectively “hoodwinked.” I for one will never forget this piece of information as Martin is asked individually by each child present, over the course of the demonstration, why Phantom is wearing a hat. With the patience of a saint, he answers each child with the same level of sincerity and good humour.
Perhaps he learned this patience when he worked in the UK Special Forces – at one point in his career, he was a guard for members of the Royal family.
In response to my question on how he became a falconer, he explained that it is more of a vocation.
“It’s more than just being an animal trainer. It takes two years to train an apprentice and this apprenticeship is generally unpaid. This sorts the wheat from the chaff. A lot of people will think they’re OK for it and they don’t last. So about one in 10 is generally what happens.”
Mount Falcon currently has an apprentice falconer in training, Anna Baraldini. She’s local, from Foxford, and came to Mount Falcon to do her transition-year work experience in the hotels gym.
However, the lure of the aviary was far more attractive to Anna and, according to Martin’s estimate, at 17 she is the youngest working female falconer in Ireland.
A woman’s world
The male falcon is smaller than the female. Martin explains: “Women are the boss birds in the raptor world; bigger, smarter, way more ferocious and if you happen to be an owl, often you dress up in nicer clothes.”
Raptors – that’s eagles, owls, falcons and hawks – are the great great grandchildren a million times removed from dinosaurs. The term “raptor” is derived from the Latin word “rapio”, meaning to seize or take by force. This is appropriate as raptors use their feet to capture their prey and kill it, and the beak is just a knife and fork for eating their dinner, Martin tells our enthralled groups of small people.
Falconry is around for hundreds of years and there are lots of phrases used in the English language that come from falconry, like “hoodwinked”.
Again, to emphasise that the falcon world really is a woman’s world – while Dia McKeever is holding Phantom, Martin tells us that the bird, who has his anklets on “his Jesses” is effectively “under her thumb and wrapped around her little finger”. That’s where that phrase comes.
Other familiar words with their origins in falconry include:
But it’s definitely worth hearing Martin explain them as you stroll through the woods at the Mount Falcon birds of prey experience.
We also tried archery, which the girls loved, but unfortunately we didn’t get time to try out the many fishing options. But I am not too concerned as we needed to save something for our return trip to Mayo.
Details of all activities, food and accommodation options are on the Mount Falcon website mountfalcon.com