This year, for the first time in its long history, Ashford Castle, in the lush farm country of western Ireland, opened bird shooting to paying guests on the 27,000 acres for which it has shooting rights, and the result was some of the most varied and interesting hunting on either side of the Atlantic, combined with accommodations in a castle of truly royal proportions.
Ashford Castle was built in the 18th century, incorporating the remains of a 13th century castle erected by the De Burgos, who ruled Western Ireland for 300 years. In 1852 the castle passed into the hands of the Guinness family, who spent 30 years rebuilding it. During and after World War II, before John A. Mulcahy, its present owner, bought it in the early 1970s, Ashford was operated briefly as a hotel. Mulcahy, whose history is as colorful as Ashford's, was arrested with two companions during the Civil War. The other two were executed, but Mulcahy, then 16, was considered too young to be shot and was held as a prisoner of war for a year. He then came to America, where he amassed a fortune in the pharmaceutical business.
Between 1972 and 1974 Mulcahy restored and refurbished the castle, adding, at a cost of more than $5 million, a new wing of bedrooms and suites, modern kitchens and elegant dining and lounge facilities. He incorporated all these additions within the existing framework of the castle, unifying its facade so that only a careful inspection can differentiate the old from the new.
Outside the castle the river Cong, surging through the arch of a medieval bridge, forms a natural boundary between the counties of Mayo and Galway. Sheep graze on the rolling hills, feeding on grass that is always green. Men cut and stack turf in the bogs, potatoes grow in the fields and salmon and trout swim in the rivers. John Ford's classic. The Quiet Man, was filmed here, and at every turn one expects to encounter John Wayne striding down the narrow lane that leads to the village. Instead, one meets a herd of black and white cows heading home from pasture and an old woman riding a bicycle, the head of a live turkey protruding from a sack slung over her back.
A boy with a shotgun and a springer spaniel climb through a break in a stone wall, one of thousands that crisscross the hills. In the boy's game bag are two pheasants, a snipe and a teal, good fare for an hour's shooting. English soldiers brought the pheasants to Ireland hundreds of years ago, and they have flourished. More than 3,000 are shot annually on the grounds of Ashford, which also raises and releases pheasants each year to supplement the wild population.
Pheasant shooting at Ashford, like most wildfowl shooting in Ireland, falls into two basic categories: rough and driven. The former is aptly named, for there is no counterpart anywhere to a genuine Irish bog. There are swamps, there are marshes, there is tundra, there is mud in many parts of the world, but nowhere are so many physical hazards to the hunter so deceptively combined as in an Irish bog.
Nor are they limited to low-lying meadows and bottoms. One also finds them in the mountains and on the moors, hidden in the heather and the low-hanging haze. Then there are brown turf bogs, from which peat has been cut and removed for fuel, leaving hidden channels wide enough to challenge an Olympic long jumper.
If there is an art to bogtrotting, as the Irish claim, it is surely acquired by stubborn, and probably damp, persistence. The novice should travel slowly and test the footing carefully before each step, beware of tall, thin reeds and bulrushes, which invariably conceal high water, and of quaking bogs, which may suddenly dissolve beneath one's feet, and never, never tackle even the smallest, most innocent-appearing bog alone. Unlucky bogtrotters have not only sunk in up to the armpits, some have vanished.
Why then tackle a bog at all? The answer is simple: that is where the birds are. An Irish bog no larger than a parson's garden can produce a glorious mixed bag of pheasant, snipe, ducks and woodcock.
The hunter picking his way across an acre of mud and tussock sees nothing to hold a bird—no cover, no feed. His spaniel, quartering ahead, splashes through the water, apparently reveling in his work. The hunter splashes, too, though not so merrily, slipping, sliding, staggering through water that is always deeper than he expects it to be, feeling progressively more foolish as he struggles to keep his gun dry. Then suddenly a pheasant, flushed by the dog, explodes from a muddy depression in a roar of wing-flapping and cackling, while the dog continues its quest, confident as from the start that this bog holds more hidden treasure.
A pheasant flushed from an Irish bog takes off in quite a different manner from one raised in an Iowa cornfield. The initial flight is slower, more labored, the bird being checked momentarily by the accumulation of mud and water on its wings and tail. But the gun, too, is slower, checked by slippery footing.
The handicaps are less evenly distributed in the case of snipe, the bog's most prolific resident. The snipe, in fact, is heavily favored. A bog feeder, it spends its time digging and nibbling in the soft mud, growing fat on the grubs, slugs and insects that breed in these slimy places. A particularly vigilant bird, it is usually long gone before sportsmen or dogs are within range. Even when it chooses to conceal itself until the last moment, its avenue of escape is fairly safe. Rising first into the wind, then darting swiftly from right to left, it zigzags so nimbly that it takes a skilled shooter to bring it down.
Only one bird at Ashford is more exasperating than the snipe or more challenging to shoot, in or out of a bog. It is the woodcock, which has brought grown men to tears and has made some of Europe's finest wing shots appear to be neophytes.
The woodcock's fascination is its ability to deceive. It always flies faster than its leisurely wing flap suggests, which, according to sportsmen who know it well, is considerably faster than most other game birds. In a three-way race involving a woodcock, a snipe and a teal, says one authority, the woodcock would easily win. Equally deceptive is the woodcock's ability to drop abruptly out of sight behind a wall or cluster of trees, giving every appearance of having been hit when, in fact, it has merely changed course. But most maddening of all is the woodcock's penchant for flying out of a wood directly at the shooter, dipping over his hat before flapping off to safety.
The only way to shoot such a bird is to point and fire instantly. All the verities learned over a lifetime of wing shooting—about swinging, leading, following through—go out the window with woodcock. The best shot is a snap shot. The shooter who hesitates, who waits for a better opportunity, who foolishly tries to swing ahead of the woodcock's flight pattern, has only memories to put into his game bag. Some of the best wing-shots on other species prove to be the worst on woodcock. "I've seen Englishmen who are ranked among the best in their country come over here and miss every shot at woodcock," says Sir Richard Musgrave, a Dublin barrister well known in Irish shooting circles. "It is a bird to humble the highest. It is also the most dangerous of all to shoot because it appears so suddenly, dips so low and changes course so abruptly that the gun following it may wind up pointed at a beater or fellow hunter."
The woodcock found in Ireland is about a third again as large as the American woodcock, measuring 12" from head to tail, with a wingspan of 22" or more. A migratory bird, it breeds principally in the Scandinavian countries, although a small population is believed to breed at Ashford. Most of the birds arrive in Ireland about the end of October and leave again around the latter part of February or early March. Initially they head for high country, resting and feeding in the mountains after their long flight. Although the season opens on Nov. 1, the best shooting does not generally occur until mid-December or later, after several days of hard frost, when the birds are driven down from the mountains into the lowlands.
Tom Hennessey, Ashford's head gamekeeper, says, "The rule is hot weather, high in the hills; wet weather, under the laurels and rhododendron; bright, crisp weather, watch out; hail and snow, be ready to shoot."
A great many of the woodcock shot at Ashford each season are unexpected bonuses on hunts for other birds. John Holian, who has been guiding there since boyhood, believes that 50% or more of all woodcock taken in the area are bagged this way. While some sportsmen do go out specifically to walk up a woodcock, and occasionally succeed in doing so, the odds are heavily stacked against success. Odds are only a little better when the bird is driven.
The classic way to shoot woodcock is on a drive, and the most classic woodcock drive of all is Lord Oranmore and Browne's shoot at Ashford. It is probably the oldest woodcock shoot in Ireland. It is certainly the one most steeped in tradition, and it may very well be the best anywhere.
Old sporting books published in the last century and the early part of this one refer to the Ashford shoot, usually in terms of awe, as the ultimate sporting experience in Ireland. The late King George V, then the Prince of Wales, was part of a now legendary shooting party at Ashford in January 1908 in which six guns in a single day took a total bag of 228 woodcock, a record which has never been equaled or, indeed, even approached.
Lord Oranmore and Browne, whose ancestors built the castle in 1715, still hosts the shoot started by his forebears generations ago, and what seems to be the entire population of the village of Cong takes part. For the eight guns who actually shoot—this year there were two from the U.S., three from England and three from Ireland—there is a turnout of 30 beaters, two dozen pickers (who do not pluck feathers but pick up fallen birds), 16 gillies, 20 or 30 dogs with handlers and assorted townspeople.
The guns assemble in a confusion of dogs, people and bicycles on a country lane a mile or so from the castle, spilling over the stone walls into the fields beyond. A fine spray, halfway between rain and mist, puts a shine on the bushes and settles on the moss-covered rocks. The men and boys wear slickers and black rubber boots. The dogs are mainly yellow labs, their collars and leads made of clothesline. The guns are more stylishly garbed in tweeds and English rain gear, their double-barreled shotguns—all 12-gauge—a museum collection of Purdeys, Churchills and Holland & Hollands.
Lord Oranmore and Browne, resplendent in a great sweeping cape and carrying a walking stick, is no less dashing at 76 than he was half a century ago. His silver hair curls about his neck. His figure, erect and trim, is that of a much younger man. The charm which attracted noblewomen, a Guinness heiress and some of Britain's brightest theatrical stars (his third and present wife is the musical-comedy star Sally Gray), is evident in his courtly manners and easy grace. His Lordship distributes small white cards to each of the guns, on which the order of the beats and their positions are listed.
For each beat the guns are divided into two columns, which advance in single file along either side of a wood about three-quarters of a mile long and one-quarter mile wide. Beaters, dogs, gillies, moving more or less abreast, advance through the wood, thrashing bushes and shouting, "Hi! Hi! Hi!" The two lead guns try to keep just ahead of the flank of the beaters. The others follow behind, pickers and dogs at their heels.
Suddenly there is a shout. "Mark cock! Cock right!" The guns on the right side of the wood raise their doubles in expectation. Out of the dense trees and bush, its wings flapping languidly, a great brown bird with a great long bill seems to float directly over the lead gun's head. The double is raised and fired once, then again. The bird is gone like a wraith, untouched. The gun is mystified. There is no explanation for missing a target so large and so close.
By the end of the seventh drive the gun has missed five cocks and is considering taking up another sport. Martin Browne, his Lordship's son, offers consolation. " 'Tis a ghostly bird," he says, "and it has driven many a good gun mad. That is why we call it the cream of all game birds. Have faith."
The gun musters such faith as is left after so humiliating a morning and carries on. Again the shout, "Cock right! Cock right!" Again the graceful, almost slow-motion flapping of wings. Again the gun fires. And misses. The bird is gone before the second barrel can be discharged. Disconsolately the gun breaks the double to reload the spent barrel. Suddenly there is a clamor from the guns behind. "Mark cock! Mark cock! Cock forward!" The gun whirls around, snapping the half-loaded double closed and throwing it to shoulder as a cock floats up the line of guns, dipping erratically. The gun fires point-blank, a pure snap shot. A roar goes up from the pickers and the beaters. "Cock down! Cock down!" they shout. The gun, unmindful of woodcock protocol, dashes after the pickers into the wood, too excited to wait for the bird to be retrieved.
It is eaten that evening on toast in proper Irish style, followed by Irish coffee and endless tales of Irish woodcock shoots of other days. His Lordship proposes a toast to ghostly birds, to the ghosts of woodcock shoots long past, and finally to Ashford Castle, which has stood ghostly sentinel over them all. The toasts will be repeated next season, and the season after, and for all the seasons to come, for woodcock and Ashford are as much a part of Ireland as the bogs and the leprechauns and the shamrocks that grow in-the green land.