Following a Nora Roberts Trail Across Ireland
By Ginger Warder
The luxurious castle resort, charming Irish town and falconry school that inspired a bestselling author’s recent trilogy deliver a true storybook experience.
Romance novels get a bad rap and those of us who love to read them are often thought of as frivolous at best, our so-called “pedestrian tastes” bringing us down to a level far below that of the literati.
It appears, however, that we know something that the cultural elite don’t—Nielsen ranks my favorite writer, Nora Roberts, as the third bestselling author in the 21st century, bested only by James Patterson and J.K. Rowling.
So after devouring Roberts’ new Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy, I set out for County Mayo in Ireland in a rented car to see if the newly renovated Ashford Castle, charming town of Cong and Ireland’s School of Falconry could possibly deliver the same kind of magic as Roberts’ enchanting story of modern-day witches battling centuries-old demons with the help of valiant hawks, hounds and horses. And the answer is yes—they absolutely can.
A Deep Love for Ireland
Roberts has always had a deep love for Ireland and has often drawn inspiration from the lush green fields dotted with stone walls, the charming thatched-roof cottages, and the warm and witty residents of this magical country. In fact, her first published romance novel, Irish Thoroughbred, paid homage to Ireland’s heritage in the equestrian world.
In a letter to her readers in another Irish-inspired book, Born in Fire, Roberts says: “ My ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland, and the pull has always been there to see for myself the green hills and to sit in a smoky pub while listening to traditional music being played. When I was able to make the trip with my family, I knew I was home the moment I landed at Shannon Airport.”
The Castle and Village of Cong
It’s no secret that Roberts has visited Ashford Castle or that the castle and Ireland’s School of Falconry, located on the grounds, were major inspirations for the O’Dwyer series. In August of 2014, she appeared at an event at the castle to promote the release of the trilogy and chronicled the details of her return visit (she had been there two years earlier) on her personal blog. But, not surprisingly, “mum’s the word” with the staff at this five-star resort on confirming or denying celebrity visits.
Built by an invading Anglo-Norman family in 1228, Ashford Castle was originally known as the Castle of Cong. In the first book of the trilogy (Dark Witch), Iona Sheehan arrives from America to meet her destiny as a Dark Witch of Mayo. She meets her two cousins, Branna and Connor O’Dwyer (also Dark Witches of Mayo) and her arrival sets in motion the centuries-old curse and battle with the evil sorcerer, Cabhan.
Of course, in true romance novel fashion, each witch battles his or her own personal demons in the quest to find true love, while risking their lives to vanquish the villain. And, of course, all are insanely beautiful and talented or handsome and virile, as the case may be.
Each of the witches has an animal guide, with whom they can communicate telepathically: for Iona, the horse Alastar, for Connor, the hawk Roibeard and for Branna, the wolfhound Kathel. But how much of this story came from Roberts’ imagination and which parts are an accurate reflection of the town and the castle? I found some parallels at Ashford Castle: the resort does have an equestrian center that offers guided trail rides and lessons and also has two resident wolfhounds, who are honored with statues at the castle entrance.
The characters themselves seem to be composites of people Roberts’ may have met on her many trips to Ireland: the gorgeous Black Irish with raven hair and blue eyes, the delicate blondes of Viking heritage and the vibrant redheads that one sees throughout the country. Character Iona Sheehan treats herself to a week in the oldest section of the luxurious castle, and in fact, Ashford Castle is a collection of different buildings including the oldest original section that dates back to 1228.
The 350-acre castle grounds wind around the lake, Lough Corrib, and through patches of thick forest. There is also a thatched roof cottage that houses a restaurant, Cullen’s at the Cottage, where Iona has dinner on her first night at the castle. The walk from the castle to the village of Cong is exactly as Roberts described it, down a winding path that comes out in the village at the ancient Cong Abbey.
On your right as you enter the town is a quintessential stone cottage, with the ruins of the abbey and its graveyard on your left. At the corner, there’s a statue of John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara commemorating the village’s claim to fame as the setting for the movie The Quiet Man, as mentioned in the books. And the town does indeed have a quaint hotel, cozy pubs and several small shops, including one selling locally made soaps like character Branna’s Dark Witch shop.
A Hawk Walk to Remember
In the books, Connor O’ Dwyer manages the falconry school, a focal point of the second book of the series, Shadowspell. In reality, the hawk walk experience is one of the most popular activities at Ashford Castle and as magical and inspiring as Roberts’ description. It was overcast and drizzling a bit on the day of my group hawk walk.
We entered through a side gate into the aviary and were greeted by our falconer, a genial young man named Ed. Ed gave us a brief and informative tour, introducing us to the various hawks and falcons, and providing details on their care, feeding and training. Ed’s overview was literally identical to what I had read in the O’Dwyer books, so I was certain that Roberts had done a hawk walk at least once.
What I discovered later in reading her blog was that we had taken out the same hawk—talk about serendipity—and her description of her hawk walk mirrored my own: “My first experience with a hawk on my glove two years ago is one of my best memories. This new one will go down in the books, too. We’re given our gloves, and they bring our hawks.
I have Samhradh–his name means summer in Irish. He’s gorgeous, and sits on my glove studying me as if to say let’s see how this all goes. Out we go, and Samhradh immediately tries to fly, so I stop, wait for him to settle again as he’s tethered by the jessies. He’s raring to go. Gorgeous, that golden brown spread of wings, the way they just glide without any visible effort.
A bit of chicken on the glove, and my hawk glides back again–what a sight, what a feeling, to have that handsome bird fly straight at you, and land perfectly on the glove.” Nora Roberts Samhradh was everything Roberts said he was feisty and ready to fly, dancing and swooping gracefully through the trees and landing light as a feather on my outstretched glove.
An Extraordinary Experience
And I have to wonder if perhaps Roberts’ first hawk walk on her research trip was the primary inspiration for the animal guides in the series. It’s truly such an extraordinary experience that I wouldn’t be surprised. After my walk, I spent the afternoon with one of the school’s owners, James Knight, who radiated the same kind of love and passion for his birds that her character, Connor O’Dwyer possessed.
I was curious about the training regimen for the Harris’s hawks and how difficult it was to socialize them. “We use the Harris’s hawks from the Southwestern region of America because they have a good temperament for the hawk walks. We get them when they’re about 10 days old so that we can do what’s called imprinting developing their relationship with humans before they develop a fear response.
They begin to fly around six weeks old and we start their training of coming to the glove when they’re about eight weeks old,” he told me. Coincidentally (or perhaps magically), James was reading Roberts’ books while I was there (yes, real men do read romance novels!), so I asked him if he thought that hawks and humans could really develop the kind of bond that the characters in the books had with their animal guides.
Love of Birds
As an animal lover, I would like to think so,” he replied. “And what we look for when we hire someone to lead hawk walks is not necessarily an experienced falconer, but someone who has the passion for it and the love of the birds,” he added. Just as the fictional Connor takes the Peregrine falcons out for a hunt between his hawk walks, so do the actual falconers at the school take all 34 birds out daily to fly, including the resident owl, Dingle (the probable inspiration for the owl Brutus in the books).
Since I knew James was just finishing the third book of the trilogy, Blood Magick, I asked him if he knew of any other locations on the castle grounds that might have been fodder for Roberts’ fertile imagination. When he mentioned a cave (in the books, the evil sorcerer, Cabhan, has established his lair in a cave near the river), we hopped in his Land Rover and took off to find it.
It was really fun to have a sleuthing partner who was as into the story as I was, and the cave he took me to certainly could have inspired the fictional cave if Roberts happened by it on one of her rambles around the castle grounds. Energized by our “discovery”, James later found a stone cottage ruin that we laughingly call “Sorcha’s Cottage”, the home of the original Dark Witch. Most likely, neither of these sites have anything to do with Roberts’ fictional locations, but we had a great time looking for them.
Garvin and Cronin
James is also the custodian of Ashford Castle’s two majestic wolfhounds, Garvin and Cronin. He brought the gorgeous dogs to meet me the next day and told me he often walks them through and around the castle to give the guests a thrill.
Are they the inspiration for the magical wolfhound guide, Kathel? We may never know, but one of the most magical things about reading a book is that the reader has the liberty to use his or her own imagination to visualize the characters and the setting.
In the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy, Nora Roberts has created an authentic sense of place with stunning attention to detail that convincingly draws readers into her fantasy world. For Roberts’ fans, a trip to this region in County Mayo is a Harry Potter-esque journey into the pages of her latest three books, where fantasy and reality cross paths.
And even if you’re not a fan of romance novels in general or Nora Roberts in particular, a trip to Ashford Castle is so bewitching that you may be jumping on Amazon to order her latest books (secretly of course).
If You Go: Great deals are available on airfare, hotels and vacation packages to Ireland from October through March (be sure to pack a good raincoat). Discover Ireland, Ashford Castle, and Aer Lingus.