IRELAND'S WILD WEST; IT'S St Patrick's Day So MARION McMULLEN Reports on Her Trip to Ireland Where She Met Some High-Flyers and a Celtic Criminal Mastermind Who Will Do Anything for a Snack

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GRIZZLY the racoon expertly picked my pocket in a micro-second.

He had sniffed out there was a tempting titbit hidden in my coat and helped himself before I even had a chance to shout "Stop, thief."

The pick pocketing mastermind is so speedy you almost need a slow motion camera to catch him in action.

He might look all cute and cuddly but Grizzly is a one creature crime wave. If there's food about, he'll find it.

The furry fiend is one of the more unusual inmates, sorry, residents at Eagles Flying at the Irish Raptor Research Centre, near Sligo.

It is home to birds of prey, owls and about 350 birds and 75 different species of animals and is one of the most surprising places you are likely to ever come across.

The centre was originally set up for pure research by Germanborn Lothar Muschketat and his wife, but his Irish neighbours quickly became curious about the critters they could see moving in.

Lothar laughs: "The neighbours started dropping by and then they would tell their friends and they would call as well. Soon we were getting people coming up every day so we decided to do it properly and have proper opening times for the public."

The centre is unlike any zoo, bird life sanctuary or birds of prey site around. Eagles, vultures, hawks and other birds of prey have the run of the place and never stray away from home.

They don't even bother the rabbits and the other wildlife animals that find their way to the centre.

"They are well fed. They don't need to bother the rabbits and the other birds," points out Lothar.

My encounter with Grizzly was a revelation, but nothing compared to coming face to beak with majestic eagle Linda.

Lothar is so knowledgeable and comfortable with the birds of prey that he happily handles them without the normal heavy leather gloves for protection.

They trust him so much that they even allow lowly mortals like myself to approach them and even stroke their feathers and they've been known to land on the heads of unsuspecting visitors.

"The last eagle was seen in Ireland in the 1940s," says Lothar, "but we are bringing them back. It's hard to believe people kill these birds. They do not do any harm. Sometimes they will eat a dead lamb, but they don't kill. We hope people can see the eagle has landed and is back." The centre (www.eaglesflying.

com) alone is a great reason to hop on a plane from Birmingham Airport and head to Ireland.

Sligo offers the whole package to visitors. There's The Glasshouse Hotel (www.theglasshouse.

ie) right in the heart of Sligo town that leaves you within walking distance of lots of great pubs, such as Hargadon's, Fiddler's Creek Bar and Garavogue Bar, and the mouthwatering food on offer at the Coach Lane Restaurant.

If you want to try your hand at cooking yourself, Source Sligo Restaurant and Cookery School (www. …