Irish Wolfhound History

David Wilson, of Weston, Mass., an authority on the Scottish Deerhound and a licensed Irish Wolfhound judge, has written for me the following note on the Deerhound and Wolfhound:

"In the Irish Wolfhound Standard comparison is made to the Scottish Deerhound and, as a breeder and student of the Scotch dog, I have been appealed to, to make some comparison of the two breeds. I hardly dare do so, for such expression of my personal ideals would undoubtedly create controversy even if it met with the approbation of some. I might as well compare the broadsword with the rapier. Yet there is more in this line of a comparison than at first appears. What breeder of dogs can afford to ignore a study of other breeds approximating to their own in appearance?

"In studying an English dog book recently I was amused to find how every and all pretexts were used to claim ancient ancestry for so many breeds. To what end I am still in doubt, for it seems to me the really important thing is what is the appearance and the character of the breed today and how does this fit in with modern needs. True, the origin of a species has a certain interest, particularly in my own breed and the Irish Wolfhound, for in both instances it is the endeavour of breeders today to raise hounds in accordance with ancient standards. The greatest benefit therefore to the present day breeder is not to be derived from legendary tales of their great prowess or poetical exaggerations of great size (in which there may be considerable veracity), but in forming a clear mental picture of what the ideal Irish Wolfhound or Scottish Deerhound should look like.

"After studying practically all available literature on the two breeds and allowing for pride of nationality in the authors, I have come to the conclusion that Wolfhound and Deerhound had common origin in the old Celtic Grew-hound. So many of the early names applied to dogs mislead us, for little attention was paid to the name of the breed and a great deal of attention given to his accomplishments. A dog which excelled in hunting hares was liable to be labelled a hare-hound and so we find various names applied to mediaeval hunting dogs. Wolves were exterminated and extinct in Scotland at a much earlier date than in Ireland but deer have always been more numerous in the first mentioned country. It seems fairly certain that the original purpose of the great Celtic hound in Scotland having been turned from wolves to deer, his character was molded the best to suit the requirements of his time. Strength could not be sacrificed for speed nor speed for strength, and so we find a combination of both in a hound somewhat lighter than the traditional Irish wolfdog. In this connection I may mention that the most efficient Deerhounds were not htose of unusual size but dogs of 29 to 30 inches at the shoulder. Speed to overtake quickly and strength to kill quickly were necessary, for a long chase meant expended strength when it was most needed besides putting long distances between hounds and master.

"When the common origin of the Wolfhound and Deerhound is conceded, there is found a very good reason for reference to the Deerhound in the Irish Wolfhound Standard. In similar manner the Deerhound Standard refers to a similarity to the Greyhound. To understand the reason for such comparisons the time and conditions under which the standard was compiled must be taken into account. About 1830 Deerhounds in Scotland had reached a very precarious limitation in numbers. MacNeil of Colonsay undertook the uplifting of the breed from the few remaining purebred Deerhounds then existing and after careful and patient effort set the breed well on the way to recovery. At that time the Greyhound was fairly common and certainly well known. What is more natural that, in creating a quick mental picture, the similarity of the Deerhound's lines to the Greyhound be used. Then too, we must remember that the Highlands of Scotland were tightly closed against the southerners. Even in the 19th century it was difficult to find a true Highland Deerhound south of the Forth although an occasional specimen might have accompanied some Highland chief on a visit to the Scottish capital.

"Some 50 years after the restoration of the Deerhound breed had been started by MacNeil, Captain Graham conceived the idea of reviving the Irish Wolfhound. His task was much more difficult. MacNeil had the requisite stock for a Deerhound restoration, few in numbers perhaps but pure-blooded and of good calibre. Graham had much less to go ahead with and in securing assistance of another breed wisely and naturally had recourse to Deerhound blood. It seems likely that his earlier efforts were productive of many distinct Deerhound characteristics and therefore it was only natural that in describing the then rare Irish Wolfhound to liken him to the then commoner and better known Scottish Deerhound. In this manner the legacy of comparisons has been handed down, although conditions have again been reversed and at the present time the Irish Wolfthound exceeds the Deerhound in numbers.

"The question now arises whether such references to the similarity of another breed have sufficient merit to be retained in a revised standard and whether such a comparison is misleading or guiding. There are arguments both ways. A broadly written standard is open to varied interpretation yet it gives latitude to breeders. It would seem that Irish Wolfhound breeders alone could determine whether the breed has reached that point where minute details must be agreed on. We must not forget that broad standards mean not only latitude for the breeder but also for the judge. The Deerhound Standard is well detailed. There is no room for divergence of opinion and little room for a variety of types, yet withal there is ever present the difficulty of American judges forming a clearly visualized ideal.

"There is one point in connection with the employment of British standards in America which is worthy of attention. While such standards are compiled from long years of study and experience and with a much larger field to study, the conditions for breeding in this country are not quite the same as in the British Isles. It is specifically to climate that I refer and its effect on coats. I have discussed the effect of climate on the quality of sheep wool and given some little consideration to the quality of pelts of fur bearing animals as affected by climatic conditions. As a result I am doubtful that the harsh, crisp coat produced in the rainy climate of Ireland or the damp mists of the Scottish Highlands can be as readily reproduced here where much drier and greater cold induces the growth of fine heavy undercoats. I have imported a number of dogs - several mature - and noted the gradual change of their coats under the influence of this climate. I do not advocate a departure from our present ideal of the wiry coat but simply mention that it is more difficult of attainment in this country.

"In visualizing the ideal hunting dog of any breed a great deal can be accomplished by always keeping in mind the original purpose of this dog. When this is firmly kept in mind we are less likely to be influenced by passing fads or fancies. Nor are temporary set-backs in the ring as likely to discourage us. I could write a great deal about my breed and give justifying reasons for many pecularities of conformation such as the necessity for long body, a supply backbone, strength of neck, girth of chest (not merely depth of brisket), etc., but all of these are to be easily understood when viewing the Deerhound as a hunter of deer. The allusion to other breeds in our standards serves one good purpose in inducing a study of dogs other than our own. So will our knowledge be widened.

F.B. (Fredson Bowers)

Fredson Bowers lived in West Newton, Massachusetts and bred Irish Wolfhounds at one period, although apparently he gave up the breed. He was also a bibliographer and a Professor at Virginia University and wrote many books. He died April 11th, 1991. One of his ex-pupils, Roy Flannagan, included the following in his retrospect of Fredson Bowers after his death: "He was a legend, his name enough to invoke hushed tones on buses at the MLA convention. He singlehandly re-built the English Department at the University to the national prominence it enjoys today, hiring only the best, seeking and obtaining endowed chairs, knowing to the penny what his budget was at the same time he never ceased looking for talent and supreme intelligence. In his private life, he lived an Horatian ideal, in an open neoclassical house that overlooked a vista that would have made Capability Brown proud to have designed it. In his versatility, he judged dog shows and wrote books about show dogs, he wrote for many years a classical music column for the best newspaper in the state, and he could talk on any subject, usually with authority. He was a great debater. He had the sharpest mind and the strongest intellect of any academic I have ever known."

I do not have a date for the publication of this article - HJ

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