Irish Wolfhound History

The American Kennel Gazette

Here is the Strange Story of the Big Irish Wolfhound

by EDWARD C. ASH (Author of "The New Book of the Dog", etc.)

Some Grevel Irish wolfhounds
As may be noted, Mrs. Barr of Ockley, Dorking, Surrey, breeds the modern dog evolved by
British breeders

I suppose one of the most romantic, unbelievable dog stories is that of the great, indeed truly magnificent, breed which is world-known as the Irish wolfhound. Surrounded by historical quotations and extracts, and representing Ireland in all parts of the world where the breed is met with, the present Irish wolfhound, they say, is the breed that exterminated the wolves in Ireland; the same historical breed that Irish poets sang about in the wild and stormy days of Ireland; in the great, painful, murderous days of chiefs burning, slaying, whipping, killing and carrying off cattle, women, horses, and anything else they could get. They were met with when the unfortunate Irish peasantry was too weak to walk upright and was to be seen crawling about on hands and knees.

And yet is this great present breed the breed, if there was a breed, as we term such things, kept in Ireland or has the world been misled by skilful propaganda and publicity?

Is it the type of the dogs found in Ireland, the dogs imported by order of the English kings and sent as presents to Indian potentates, the foreign ruling kings and princes, as royal gifts?

Have we really in this magnificent hound, this great, active member of the greyhound family, this dog with a coat as hard as nails, the true descendant of the ancient Irish breed used, so it is related in the killing of wolves; and said to have died out after the last wolf was taken?

A wonderful breed it is indeed. I remember the atmosphere the breed created when, on a visit to Mrs. Barr's kennels at Ockley in Surrey, I saw all her great, fine hounds. How small, how insignificant indeed, appeared the average dog compared with these magnificent specimens of the canine race - great strength and weight, plus activity; the greyhound giant, as nimble as its smaller, hare-chasing relative.

Can we sort the grain from the chaff I wonder? In the Ossianic literature many are the notes as to dogs, but is this literature reliable? And if we agree it is, then are the dogs described therein the Irish wolfhound? And even if we agree in the affirmative on both these counts, we may turn and ask ourselves whether the dogs described were indeed the ancestors, the true, lineal progenitors of the breed carrying the same name today?

Woodcut from the History of Scotland 
 Was this the Irish wolfhound? A woodcut from
"The History of Scotland in the 16th Century".
Notice that the dog is of the greyhound type, and
apparently smooth-haired

Let us take some examples; they are charming in their way, whatever may be their worth. Oisin, the son of Finn in A.D.250, tells St. Patrick of the battle of Gabhra and the great deeds done that day, and in the story he unfolds he says: "Sweeter to Mac Cumhaill, and the nobles of the Fenians to hear the voices of the hounds than to solicit mercy."

To this, St. Patrick replies that it would be sorrowful if the Fenians preferred their hounds to praying to the saints.

And this leads to a passage in which Oisin asks about the Heavenly City, and the Saint replies that it is a place without hunger and thirst, without poverty, without affliction. And Oisin listens, not at rest, wanting to ask about the dogs, whether dogs were allowed in the Holy City. Is anybody refused? Would his hound be allowed to come with him? Would his hound be refused entry?

There are many such stories: of presents of hounds; of brave deeds; of the hunting by a hound of a magical wild boar. The forests resound to cries of the hounds, and to the rattle of chains. We meet with a King Cormac, the master of hounds, surrounded by men of exceptional bravery and skilled in the art of hunting.

But we never get a description of the dogs, nor can we expect one until we have the story of an evil pirate and his daughter, "a great lump of a wench, bald and swart," who used to let the hound go to feed on the men they saw waiting on the land.

The last of the race 
 This was the last of the race, according to Mr. Lambert
when he read his paper to the Royal Society of England,
this being the illustration that he used.
Compare this with Mrs. Barr's dogs.

(Note: It was actually Mr. Haffield who read his paper to the Dublin Natural History Society;
Mr. Lambert wrote a book called the Linnaean Transactions)

But the good Caelite, though much afraid, calls upon the Creator to aid him; and he vanquishes the hound, throwing it over the rocks, after a frantic struggle, and it falls in the sea and perishes. It was shaggy-haired and a dirty gray, and wore round its neck a chain of rude iron.

We have elsewhere a complaint that the priests in Ireland were becoming too fond of sport, and had numerous hounds and servants. In later times, and here we have authentic matter, we find in the royal papers orders for Irish wolfdogs - for Irish greyhounds or Irish dogs. A huntsman, Reginald, goes to Ireland to get some, taking boys with him who receive a wage of three pence half penny a day. A half penny is allowed per day for each dog to get it food, and he obtained 19 of such dogs from various lords.

We meet with another envoy, setting out for the same purpose, being taken and held as hostage. What happened to him we do not know, nor are we ever likely to know though we can guess without difficulty.

It was in 1800 that an English author, writing on the breed, shows a fine, upstanding, wire-haired dog which he suggests is the Irish greyhound though, in the text, he admits that the breed is quite extinct, and that probably the famous dog was a Great Dane. On which matters he may, indeed, have been correct, for the Danes did settle in Ireland, and it is quite possible that they brought their dogs with them.

 Practical Dog Book
 Here is a drawing showing "The Ideal" during the early
days of Irish wolfhound history in England. What a dog
indeed compared with that of today

In British historical times, the breed had caused no little interest so that it is not surprising to find that when the English people become dog-interested that they should have taken up the Irish wolfhound question with great concern.

They had, for examples, accounts of deputies sent to Ireland for the express purpose of getting dogs; they had angry letters from a king, asking why the dogs have not arrived, and further letters of advice to say that the dogs should not be sent all in one ship in case the ship should founder on its way to England.

There are adventures with made dogs - see "The Book of the Greyhound" - and the amusing account of the Pennyless Pilgrimage made by one John Taylor to the Earl of Marr's estate, in 1618, and the letter of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple asking him, in her charming way, to get her an Irish greyhound.

"I have one of the General's," she writes, "but 'tis a bitch, and those are always much less than the dogs." And she asks that a very large one indeed should be sought out for her. "'Tis all the beauty of those dogs or of any kind, I think." Then, later, she writes to say that they are two of the finest greyhounds she ever saw. "Irish greyhounds" she calls them.

 Irish greyhound
 During the very period when the breed was the dog that was important, this woodcut was
published and was called "Irish Greyhound". Certainly, it was not a rough-coated dog then
(Note: the wording may not make good sense but is as it was in the original)

It is significant that they are termed "greyhounds, large greyhounds", the larger the better, and it is not perhaps then quite surprising when turning to Warelli's book on Ireland, published in 1658, that we find an account of the great Irish breed called wolf-dogs "being creatures of great size and strength, used for hunting wolves."

But we may perhaps feel a little surprised when, on opening the book, we see the goddess of hunting, Diana, with two Irish dogs which are but merely ordinary greyhounds such as are to be seen on any racing track or coursing field, no larger, and no smaller. And we may then, if we know the true story; if we have all or much of the evidence, come to the conclusion that the greyhounds of Ireland, the famous wolf-killing dogs, were no more or less than ordinary greyhounds, often of heavier build, and that in England at that time the greyhounds kept were mostly dogs more of the type of the present day whippet.

Was Captain Graham misled when he wrote that the dogs in an ancient book on Ireland were exactly like the dogs they were showing? Here is the picture from the old history. The dogs appear to be ordinary greyhounds.   two hounds from Warelli's book

In 1693, John Ray backs up this contention by describing the Irish greyhound to be the largest dog he has yet seen which, in shape and habit, is exactly similar to the ordinary greyhound. From then on all evidence seems to run one way, that the famous dog was smooth-haired and a greyhound.

"The wolf-dog is of the make of a greyhound ......... this sort came originally from France ......... to kill wolves, but with us to kill stags and does very well to turn the water wheel" is a not published in 1732.

Once again we must pass evidence and detail to meet A.B. Lambert, who, in 1794, read a paper on the Irish wolfhound to the Royal Society, or I think it was. He shows one of the last of the famous breed, but adds that they were larger at one time and more like a greyhound.

The last wolf had been dead some time then; indeed, for 84 years no wolf had existed in Ireland. In 1775, an Irish wolfhound was valued at 20 guineas each. (Note: this would be approximately the same as £1,748.56 in 2002 or $3,272.39 in 2005) He had seen two in Dublin, but they were then rare to be nearly extinct. Once more, years slip by before we have a period of references to an extinct breed no longer to be found in Ireland and some suggestion as to its origin, a cross with a Danish dog and a greyhound. And so the matter might have ended if it had not been for a journalist who, seeing an interesting subject - the Irish wolfhound - set about to supply to a penny newssheet - an entertaining production, published in Ireland - an account of the breed.

Poor Mr. Richardson! We, who are journalists and authors, know well enough of the difficulty of trying to fit unfittable facts to a pet theory. Now Richardson had never seen an Irish wolfhound and admits so much, not a pure-bred one at least. And, in some desperation, he turns to Scotland and claims that the rough greyhound of Scotland is the Irish wolfhound, that the Scottish people, when they went to Ireland, took their dogs with them, and that the Irish dog was, because of this, just like the Scottish dog. (Note: Actually Richardson says that the Irish took their dogs with them when they went to Scotland) He tries to find some pure blood, and claims that a Robert Evatt of Monaghan and a Mr. Carter of Dublin still had the pure breed, and had crossed the breed or kept it pure (?) by using the best Scottish and Welsh dogs. A Mr. Rowan's dogs, described as blood hounds, were the true Irish breed. But he admits that Mr. Rowan kept Great Danes; Mr. Rowan having "the last of the race". (An article by Richardson in the Irish Penny Journal can be read here)

It happened that in 1848 or thereabouts, an Englishman wrote a book on dogs "Anecdotes" and, as was common at the time, let himself go, merely writing what he thought would sell his work or cause it "to go" well. Having, no doubt, read Richardson's article on the Irish breed, did it all one better by telling a true story of the famous breed, so good that, in an abbreviated form, I give it here.

It recounted how, in a coffee room in Dublin, a man came in accompanied by a great Irish wolfhound, "the last of the breed." There was only one person in the room who went up to the dog and noticed it. The owner of the dog asked the stranger not to touch the dog which, he explained, was uncommonly fierce and boded no stranger to touch him.
On this, the stranger resumed his seat. The dog finally went up to him and wished to be fondled. The owner of the dog, greatly surprised, said that never before had the dog allowed anybody to touch him.
"May I have your name, Sir?"
With pleasure, the stranger told who he was, and no other than the last of his race, one of the most ancient and noble to be found in Ireland, a family descended from an Irish king! And that explained it.

As Punch suggested in a review on this book that many stories were hard to swallow, but if you could swallow the Irish wolfhound story the others would be easy. The paper went on to say that it might suggest that one of the ancient breed of Irish dogs should be added to the staff of Heralds' College for the sole purpose of nosing out true royal blood and noble blood. (Note: The author of Anecdotes of Dogs was Edward Jesse and the book was published in 1858 - to read the piece on the Irish wolfhound, click here)

Once more years went by, and then the breed started. Forty years after Richardson, a Captain Graham became interested and set out to discover some of the pure breed, offering rewards for the best specimen of the breed, and so forth. But he soon found that there was no such breed existing at the time, and we find him giving the prize to a Scottish deerhound with the remark that the dog was the nearest to the ancient Irish breed that he had seen, needing only more substance.

It appears from this that they had in mind Reinagle's famous drawing, and wanted a dog of that stamp.

A club was formed. It has the object, we read, to promote the complete recovery and to fairly establish the race, rather an amusing way of putting it seeing that the breed was long enough extinct, if there had been a true breed. They wanted, so the points show us at a glance, a dog similar to the Scottish deerhound; and as we have seen, a good, solid deerhound, and, having no such dog, they set about to make one by the simple expedient of crossing the Great Dane with the deerhound in order to get a deerhound with the more robust shape and strength of the Great Dane.

The result, of course, was at first quite a number of dogs and bitches that were too much Great Dane and had painfully weak coats, whilst in others might be seen too much of the deerhound.

But the breeders, led by Captain Graham, kept up their flag, and their courage and went on with the thankless task of making an Irish wolfhound as they intended it should be.

Attacked from all sides, Captain Graham set out to persuade the doubting Toms that the ancient breed was of the type they, these new breeders, had evolved. Indeed, they went further to say that there was no new breed but the ancient blood sifted and improved.

Once or twice the captain did admit enough to end the argument, such as his statement in 1879 that it was impossible to do full justice to the breed as there was a general impression that this noble dog is extinct. Then he goes on to say there is enough of the old race left in Ireland and in the modern deerhound to allow a recovery.

But he said this before the club was started. And now, with the world crying out that the dog was no Irish dog and no Irish wolfhound but a Great Dane-deerhound, Captain Graham destroyed his enemies by one fell swoop, by stating that, in an ancient book on Ireland, there was a picture of the famous breed; in no other than the 1658 book I have mentioned.

It is, as you will admit, an astonishing claim to have made. It would seem that Captain Graham had not seen the picture and had himself been misled by somebody else. For we can hardly believe that a gentleman of his standing would have deliberately misled the public, and do on something which could be seen; and would, when seen, utterly destroy his arguments.

It is obvious, however, that nobody bothered to look it up; and taking it for granted, allowed the Captain to win. There was, however, much correspondence, claim after claim being made that the ancient Irish breed was at one place or another. The interest had spread to the United States and in The Country of New York a sketch and an account of the famous breed was published.

Then a Mr. Adcock, a famous breeder of Great Danes, claimed that he had the true ancient Irish breed; but as far as I am aware, nobody took the trouble to go and see the subjects of his claim.

two puppies from the Grevel kennels 
 Do modern Irish wolfhound puppies give any hint as to their
origin? Can we see, or do we imagine that we see, the Great
Dane in these youngsters?

Now from what I have related it will be seen that the famous breed of Irish wolfhound of today is indeed no more or less than a breed made by Captain Graham and others from the deerhound and Great Dane and as neither can truly be said to have Irish blood in them, unless, as it has been claimed the deerhound is indeed the Irish dog, which of course it may be, it has no relationship to Ireland at all except in name!

From the Graham dogs and those of his brother breeders the entire race of present-day Irish wolfhounds claim descent. They are magnificent dogs far better than the breed in the early days of their history. Mrs. Barr, who has a strong kennel in ideal surroundings, tells me that her dogs can travel as fast as a greyhound, if not faster, taking, as they do, immense strides, and having plenty of muscle to carry their weight.

Fearless, courageous, powerful, they have outdistanced, in type, their relative, the deerhound, where great strength and agility is combined. It is a great unforgetable sight to see the immense hounds racing along in the woods and over the pastures at Ockley, on a hill side. Certainly, Captain Graham's dream has been fulfilled, in these truly magnificent members of the canine race.

I can hardly end this short note on the breed without saying that I happened to discover an illustration of the very time that the breed was the most famous, when the British Government was importing the breed. It is marked "Irish greyhound" so that there can be no doubt as to its type and the illustration shows a dog somewhat like a Great Dane, a smooth skinned animal, suggesting that the Irish dogs had not, necessarily, a wire rough and hard coat, though, of course, some may have had so. There is indeed a letter mentioning rough coats among British historical documents.

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May 12th, 2005