Words from Wells

The Sport of Kings

There is a rich history of falconry on the Island of Ireland. The skill of falconry was initially a way to catch food for impoverished people and a sport for the rich – the so called ‘Sport of Kings.’

A hawk was an expensive commodity and in 1693 a newspaper named Dublin Intelligence carried an ad for a lost hawk belonging to Lord Capall, offering a handsome reward for its return.

It was common for Lords, officials and noble gentry to keep falcons and hawks and they employed falconers to train them. This would have been one of the highest ranked jobs among the staff hierarchy on an estate.

The earliest reference to Falconry in Irish history is in the text Betha Colman Maic Luachain, (The Life of St. Colman Maic Luachain). Where it references an exchange of land and commodities between Domnall, The High King of Tara and Colman, where two hunting hawks were part of this exchange.

Goshawk remains have been found in Ireland that are believed to have been buried in 3000 BC. What is unclear is whether the skill of falconry was practiced or if these wonderful birds of prey were merely enjoyed by their noble owners. Actual falconry references are nowhere to be found until the 12th century. It was at this time that the island of Ireland had built up a reputation for having the best caliber of hawks, falcons and sparrow hawks. A French falconer by the name of William Tardisse wrote on Goshawks ‘But truly there is no goshawk more excellent than that which is bred in Ireland in the north parts, as in Ulster, and in the County of Tyrone.’

They were so highly valued that a trade opened up and these birds were sold or used to pay rent and even for political gain. A 14th Century document from Kilkenny Castle detailing particular hawks that could be used for rent payment. A black market for these birds soon emerged and by 1481 stiff fines were imposed for any trappers, tradesmen or merchants that carried a hawk out of the Island of Ireland. In the late 16th Century, an inventory of Goshawk nests was written for Kerry and Limerick.

The 19th century saw the formation of the first Irish Falconry association. This association was the first of its kind and sought to generate a resurgence of the sport.

Today at Wells House and Gardens you can enjoy the sport of Kings and learn about falconry through our resident falconer and his Harris hawks which will open your eyes to this ancient skill and how people worked together with hawks and falcons to form a formidable hunting team.

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