Hawks are massive and powerful birds, and it’s incredible to get a chance to interact with one up close. During the walks, you gently raise your arm, which signals the birds to take flight. As they spread their wings, you can see all the different colors and patterns in their feathers. You can see the muscle in their legs. You can feel their power. Then, before you know it, they’re whipping in and out of trees and gliding through the air.
The trainer then places a piece of meat in your palm, which immediately tells the hawks to come home for a treat. Seeing a hawk come straight at you, soaring at full speed, can be a little intimidating, but after a few rounds, you get used to it. You learn to simply enjoy and respect that you’re a guest in the hawk’s home. This is their forest, and that’s a beautiful thing.
For dinner that night, Paula had arranged for us to dine with her at one of the castle’s restaurants called Cullen’s at the Cottage. Cullen’s doesn’t have the formality or pomp of the George V. It’s a place to let your hair down and laugh with friends. The menu is mostly seafood, but includes lots of other options, including the restaurant’s signature dish, Peri Peri Chicken.
After sitting down at the table, our conversation quickly turned to Irish heritage. I, however, kept quiet. So many Americans claim to have Irish heritage, and I didn’t want to sound like yet another American who comes to Ireland, acting like it’s the motherland.
That was however until I heard Paula make a certain comment. She said something like, “You know, growing up, all Irish families had an image of the sacred heart and a picture of John F. Kennedy hanging on their wall.”
While I’m sure the main joke was the line about JFK, it was the comment about the sacred heart that got me. I know this image well. My Grandma (on the supposed Irish side) was a devout Catholic. We called her “Hanna” because, apparently, my older brother was never able to say “grandma” and said “Hanna” instead. Hanna always had Catholic relics everywhere. Pictures of Jesus with the sacred heart, a statue of Mary with the sacred heart, bibles, rosaries, you name it.
“My grandma had lots of scared heart stuff in her house,” I blurted out rather aimlessly. Paula looked at me, “Was she Irish?” she asked. “I don’t really know what we are,” I said. “I mean, my mom’s family lore has always been that we’re Irish, but I don’t think anyone actually has solid evidence of our family tree.” Paula adjusted the little ascot she was wearing. “What was your mom’s surname?” “It was Brazzill,” I responded. “But there are some disputes over how it was initially spelled. I think my aunt said it could have been O’Brazzill at some point.”
Paula, quite frankly, said, “No, I doubt it. Brazzill is much more common than O’Brazzill, but the spelling is a little different, it normally wouldn’t have a double Z and L, but yes, Brazil is an Irish surname, and in fact, there’s quite a lot of Brazils who live in the county above the castle.”
I was shocked. It was the first real validity of Irish ancestry I had ever heard in my life. “Besides,” Paula said with a laugh, “you look Irish!” That was the second time I had heard that in two days.
The next morning was our big day. An excursion through western Ireland had been planned for us by the castle that included meeting a traditional basket weaver, exploring the Killary Fjord, learning how a shellfish farmer harvests clams and oysters, and even a chance to pour our own pint of Guinness at an Irish pub. And after we returned from the journey, it would be time for the formal dinner I had been dreading.
But there was something ominous in the air. It was now mid-March. COVID had made its way into Europe. Italy was seeing thousands of COVID cases each day, and rumors had begun swirling around Ireland of an impending government lockdown.
Our first stop was to the basket weaver, and I immediately realized how different things were. While demonstrating how he makes baskets, he made sure to keep his distance and said he didn’t want to shake our hands. I totally understood his concerns and wasn’t offended, but instead was growing scared. This man’s house was built onto the side of a mountain. I stared out the large windows, seeing sheep on the hills, and the river below. It felt like I was in a storybook, protected and removed from the world. A deadly pandemic seemed so intangible, especially when you’re surrounded by the idyllic Irish countryside. But with each passing hour, I could feel it getting closer.