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.