An American bald eagle came home for Christmas yesterday, a month after it apparently took a wrong turn over the Atlantic and ended up in Ireland.

The wayward eagle arrived at New York's Kennedy International Airport accompanied by Irish wildlife ranger Pat O'Connell, who captured the exhausted bird in County Kerry Nov. 18 and nursed it back to health.

How the bird got to County Kerry, in southwest Ireland, is anybody's guess. "Fluke things like that apparently happen occasionally," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Inez Connor. "It's unusual that it would fly that far and in that direction."

For its return trip, the eagle flew first-class aboard an Aer Lingus jet from Shannon Airport, where Prime Minister Charles Haughey bade it farewell. Diplomatic welcoming duties were performed by Padraick MacKernan, Ireland's ambassador to the United States, and Margaret M. Heckler, U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

The eagle, a federally protected species and symbol of the United States, was the first captured in Ireland. Press reports of its plight quickly won sympathy of the Irish, who informally dubbed the bird "Iolar" (pronounced Uller), the Gaelic word for eagle.

"It was in a very weakened condition, weighing only six pounds," Connor said. "They walked right up to it and captured it."

The 6-month-old bird now weighs 11 pounds, about average for its age. Connor said the bird's sex has not been determined. "It's difficult to tell at that age," she said.

Declan Kelleher, press attache at the Irish Embassy here, said the decision to return the bird to the United States was made by Haughey, who "took a close interest in this." MacKernan also presented Heckler with a plaque depicting an eagle, from an illustration in the "Book of Kells," an ancient manuscript that is one of Ireland's foremost national treasures.

U.S. wildlife officials were delighted with the gesture, although they have no way of knowing where the eagle came from.

"It most likely came from the northeastern United States, but it could've come from Canada," Connor said. "We think its return is entirely appropriate and a very fine Christmas gift."

Or at least a fine one for the diplomats and wildlife experts. The eagle will be spending the holidays in U.S. Department of Agriculture quarantine.

Connor said wildlife officials had hoped to transfer the bird immediately to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel and prepare it for release into the wild. When Agriculture Department officials balked, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to leave the eagle at a USDA facility in New York for 30 days.