Irish Wolfhound History

The Great Hound of Ireland

By Walter A. Dyer

Country Life, February 1920 (U.S.A.)

Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews 
 Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews with her Irish wolfhounds, Patricia and Cymbaeth. Mrs. Andrews says "Being Kentuckian, I like men and dogs by the yard, so wolfhounds have an instant appeal for me. They are wonderful people."

In January, 1916, I contributed to COUNTRY LIFE an article entitled "The Hounds of Celt and Gael", in which I undertook to set forth something of the history and characteristics of two splendid but little known breeds, the Scottish deerhund and the Irish wolfhound. During the past four years, however, not a little water has run under the bridge. In spite of his size and the cost of his maintenance, the Irish wolfhound has been slowly gaining ground in this country and has made stanch friends here. New light has been shed on his history, which had been obscured by the mists of legendary lore, and we have come to know something about one of the noblest breeds in dogdom.

In this country there is no one who has done more to foster interest in the breed or who knows more about it than Mr. Joseph A. McAleenan of Center Moriches, Long Island. He is not a fancier in the commercial sense, but a sportsman and lifelong friend of the dogs of Ireland. He recently wrote me as follows: "I hope you are not going to write of the dog of past centuries. Write of the present dog. The field is large enough and the breed holds an interest that is purely modern. The old Irish dog has had his day and the bards of ancient Ireland have endowed him richly in their songs, weaving a romance about him that will never die. These old pagan songs are well worth the reading and the wild rhythm of their cadence bespeaks strong men and momentous events. But it is the modern dog that counts now."

I can appreciate Mr. McAleenan's point of view, for a great deal of the literature that has been written about the Irish wolfhound, however interesting in itself, has done little to advance the cause of the modern dog, which is worth all the attention we can give it. And yet I feel that the breed would mean less to us if deprived of its historic and romantic background, particularly as we have at last something authentic to base it on. For this, indeed, Mr. McAleenan is himself largely responsible, as I shall presently show.

Our text, then, is the Irish wolfhound of today, as developed by Captain Graham and bequeathed to us. It is not the old dog at all, but a manufactured breed, surprisingly well reconstructed. No man knows how near it comes in likeness to the dog of old, but it is as accurate a revival as Captain Graham could make it, and no one knew more about the matter than he. In fact, we had only a rather vague idea of what the old dog was like until Father Hogan's labor of love came to light. And because of this, I am led to disregard Mr. McAleenan's wishes to some extent and write of the ancient prototype of our breed.

Star-Eyed Deirdre 
 Mrs. R.S. Rose's Star-Eyed Deirdre. Mrs. Rose counsels
making haste slowly in the matter of breeding for size in
order that we may produce descendants worthy of the fame
of their forebears

Edmund Hogan, an Irishman and a Jesuit priest, devoted many years of a busy life searching the ancient and modern classics for all references to this great hound and for evidences of its character, size, and appearance. He published his little book, "The History of the Irish Wolfdog" in Dublin in 1897, but a disastrous fire destroyed almost the entire edition. A few copies escaped, but Father Hogan was unable to have the work reprinted.

Ten years later Mr. McAleenan had 200 copies privately printed, and one of these has been presented to me by Mr. Robert M. Barker of Syracuse, N.Y., another champion of the breed. In this slender volume we have the only authentic account of the ancient dog. Though fragmentary in form, in the aggregate it tells much and should serve as a gide to all future breeding.

Once the faithful friend of the kings, warriors, and chieftains of Ireland, the breed long ago ceased to interest the Irish people, who considered it an extinct mammal like the great Irish elk. All that was left, they thought, was a collection of three or four huge skulls in the Irish Museum of Science and Art. The old dog did indeed become almost extinct, though there is evidence to support the contention that his blood still survives through an Irish remnant and, indirectly, through the blood of the Scottish deerhound. And upon this remnant, in a manner that I shall presently describe, was built up a modified breed that needs no apology. And those who love the new breed are naturally interested in the story of the old.

The ancient wolfdog of which we are speaking was a rough-coated dog of the greyhound type, not allied to the mastiff. It was called the Cu or Mil-Chu and was the big-game hunting dog of Ireland. There are external reasons for believing that it was related to the Irish terrier of the north; certainly there is a facial resemblance between the two breeds. Watson says that there were several types of wolfdog, and cites evidence to prove that a smooth dog of the Great Dane type was common, but he also quotes writers who speak of a rough greyhound. Hogan finds that the majority of the references point to the greyhound as the predominant type, and suggests that for the sort of hunting engaged in far greater speed was required than the Great Dane or alaunt possessed. It is probable that there were other sorts of dogs used in Ireland in the hunting, but the speedy wolfdog was supreme.

Irish Master of the Hunt with wolfhound 
 Mr. McAleenan's son in the costume of an ancient Irish
master of the hunt, with the wolfhound Finn McCumhal

All early accounts emphasize the gigantic size, strength, and speed of this wolfdog, which was eagerly sought by Roman Consuls, kings and noblemen of England, Scotland, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, and Poland, by Cardinals and Papal Nuncios, and Great Moguls, Grand Turks, and Shahs of Persia. The breed was world-famous.

"To the Blessed Edmund Campion, S.J.," writes Father Hogan, "we owe the first description of the form, size, and use of the great Irish greyhound. In the year 1571 hewrote at Turvey, near Dublin: 'The Irish are not without wolves, and greyhounds to hunt them bigger of bone and limb than a colt.'" He begins a long series of references with one regarding a gift of seven dogs sent to Rome in 391 AD. "All Rome viewed them with wonder," wrote Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a Roman Consul, "and fancied they must have been brought hither in iron cages." From a people acquainted with the huge dogs of Molossus, this is a notable tribute.

Almost as far back as the beginning of the Christian Era these dogs were highly prized in Ireland, both for battle and the chase, and in Rome they were used in the arena to fight lions, bears, dogs, and men. Down to the seventeenth or eighteenth century pure white appears to have been the favored color.

About the third or fourth century there flourished the mighty warrior and huntsman, Finn, son of Cumall, celebrated in the cycles of the poet Oisin. This Finn McCumall was chief of the household of King Cormac, commander of his armies and master of his hounds. He kept more than three hundred hounds and the poet sings of his great hunts and the slaughter of deer and wild boars. Bran, Finn's favorite hound, became a sort of Irish divinity. Another favorite named Conbec slept in the same bed with Finn and could run down any stag in Ireland.

Robert M. Barker 
 Mr. Robert M. Barker with his imported bitch Arbury (right)
and Edain. The latter has the better type of Irish wolfhound head.

Father Hogan's book, indeed, abounds in classic references to the dog in Irish literature. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries hunting continued to occupy much of the attention of the Irish nobles and chieftains, and the wolfdog continued to aid them in their great hunts. A writer in the sixteenth century says: "Two of such greyhounds [he previously speaks of them as gigantic dogs of the rough greyhound type] had strength and courage enough to dispose of a wild boar, and would have been tall and powerful enough to seize a wolf across the lins and trot off with him as easily as a greyhound can a hare. In color both hounds were of a dark-gray brindle without any white." From this time variations in color were frequently noted.

It was in 1691 that the Battle of Aughrim took place and the well-known story became current of the dog who would not leave the body of his slain master. But it would avail little for our present purpose to multiply these references. They are all in Father Hogan's book. The noteworthy fact is that the breed became less numerous after the seventeenth century. So many of the best dogs were sent out of the country as royal gifts that writers began to refer to them as already scarce. By 1700 nearly all the wolves had disappeared from Ireland, and presumably there was less use for the dog. In 1750 the Earl of Chesterfield, who had been Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, complained of the scarcity of the wolfdogs and the infusion of Danish blood which tended to make them clumsy.

But the dogs still existed. In 1755 Buffon, the great French naturalist, wrote as follows: "The dogs of Tartary, Albania, North Greece, Denmark, and Ireland are the biggest and strongest of all dogs. Those dogs that we call the dogs of Ireland have a very ancient origin and are still kept up, though few in numbers, in their native country.... These dogs are much bigger than our mastiffs (matins). In France they are very rare, and I have seen only one of them. He seemed when sitting to be about five feet high and resembled in figure what we call the Great Dane, but differed from him a great deal by the enormity of his size. He was all white and of a quiet and gentle disposition.... The Irish dog is the tallest of all dogs." Buffon's reference to the resemblance to a Great Dane leads one to suspect that he had not seen the true type of Irish wolfdog, and his impression of the size has been largely discredited. However, it is also recorded that an Irish wolfdog bitch, kept by Buffon, killed the male wolf she was brought up with, proving that one of the Irish breed was more than a match for the wolf.

About the year 1770 Oliver Goldsmith, in his 'Animated Nature,' referred to the "great Irish wolfdog, that may be considered as the first of the canine species," as very rare in his own country. Goldsmith's description, while interesting and readable, is too long to be included here, particularly as there appear to have been some discrepancies in his observations. "He is extremely beautiful," he wrote, "and majestic as to appearance, being the greatest of the dog kind to be seen in the world. The largest of those I have seen, and I have seen above a dozen, was about four feet high, or as tall as a calf a year old. He was extremely like a greyhound, but rather more robust...."

Other writers of this period describe the Irish dog as taller than a mastiff, but more like a greyhound in shape and very powerful. He was known on the Continent as the Irish greyhound. One writer says he was like a rough greyhound, but with head and neck larger in proportion.

Observers after 1780 stated that the breed was nearly extinct. One of them wrote: "They are large, noble, handsome, patient in anger till really provoked, and then truly formidable. They are, generally, about three feet high, sometimes larger; they are white or white with a few black or brown spots." This frequent reference to white might well be called to the attention of modern breeders who have clung generally to the gray shades. In 1790 Bewick described the dog as white or cinnamon color. About this time Lord Altamont had eight wolfdogs, which were said to be about all the good ones left.

From such odds and ends of references, sometimes contradictory, we, like Captain Graham, are enabled to form a composite picture of what the old dog was like. No man knows exactly how large he was, in view of contradictory statements. Watson, Leighton, and other conservative modern writers have been inclined to scoff at as exaggerated the statements of gigantic size of the ancient breed. Thirty-six inches at the shoulder is as much as they will concede. Yet we must account somehow for the repeated reference to enormous size. The old wolfdog hunted the extinct Irish elk, which was six feet high at the shoulders and would need a huge dog to pull it down.

By 1800 the old race was considered extinct, vanished like its contemporaries, the Druids. Nevertheless there persisted throughout the first half of the nineteenth century references to survivals of the breed. There were dogs called Irish wolfhounds, often admittedly not pure-bred, very large, and usually gray in color, which probably did keep alive a trickle of the ancient blood.

In Youatt's "Book on Dogs", edited in 1837, we read: "This animal is nearly extinct, or only to be met with at the mansions of one or two persons by whom he is kept more for show than use, the wild animals which he seemed powerful enough to conquer having long disappeared from the kingdom. The beauty of his appearance and the antiquity of his race are his only claims, as he disdains the chase of stag, fox, or hare, although he is ever ready to protect the person and property of his master. His size is various, some having attained the height of four feet. He is shaped like a greyhound, but stouter." "Of this magnificent breed it is probable that there now remain no pure, unmixed examples, even in the country where it was so much prized."

The probabilities are that all of these nineteenth century examples of the Irish wolfhound, however big and fine, were the result of crossing, but they may have served to keep the blood from totally dying out. There existed, indeed, three or four strains whose owners claimed for them the genuine Irish wolfdog blood, and these strains were used in founding the modern breed.

On this point Father Hogan quotes extensively from a letter written to him by R.D. O'Brien in 1887. "Richardson," he wrote, "in 1840-1, proved what the real type was. He collected and continued the breed and handed down not only the authentic tradition but the actual blood to Sir John Power of Kilfane; Sir John and Mr. Baker of Ballytobin, and Mr. Mahoney of Dromore were the last Irishmen found to devote real pains to the breed."

Power and Baker were breeding from 1842 to 1873. The Kilfane strain came direct from the Richardson dogs, and if it is true that these possessed the ancient ancestry, then the breed never became entirely extinct. In general, however, the Irish appeared to have lost interest in the breed, and it took a Scotchman, Capt. George Augustus Graham of the British Army, followed by a number of English enthusiasts, to undertake the revival of the breed. Captain Graham fully believed in the authentic antiquity of the strains I have mentioned, and wrote of them at length.

Mr. O'Brien continues: "The lamp, however, was not suffered to fall to the ground, for in the year 1862-3 Captain Graham of Rednock, Dursley, who was a friend of Sir John Power's, took up the subject and pursued it with characteristic energy. He obtained specimens from strains of Ballytobin and Kilfane, and has since kept up a constant inquiry for whatever animals could show a descent from the right Irish blood. With the help of some judicious outcrosses, chiefly with the Scotch deerhound, he has, in spite of an unusual series of misfortunes, succeeded in raising the race to a form much superior to that in which he found it."

Unquestionably Captain Graham deserves unlimited credit for seeking earnestly his ideal and then breeding conscientiously to fit it, and the new dog that he manufactured was as near like the old as was humanly possible to make it. He began breeding in the '60's and worked for twenty years or more before he succeeded in attaining his ideal. As a basis for the new breed he used three elements: (1) the existing strains of Irish dogs, somewhat degenerate and smaller than of old, probably of mixed blood, but almost certainly possessing the ancient ancestry; (2) the Scottish deerhound, the Irish dog's first cousin; (3) the Great Dane, to secure size and bone; and later the borzoi.

Wolfhound and Cairn Terrier 
 Shamrock and thistle - Mr. A.J. Davis's Jericho Ballaghboy and a
Cairn terrier friend from Scotland

The Irish strains, as I have said, lacked type and stamina, but Graham was content to keep that torch alight. He owned at least one dog with well established claims to Irish ancestry, and Hogan traces, in a convincing if somewhat complicated manner, the Irish blood lines from known wolfhounds of the eighteenth century direct to Graham's dogs. In other words, the breed was not extinct in 1800, as was commonly supposed; a remnant survived.

In using the Scottish deerhound Graham not only secured speed and type, but he believed that he was further perpetuating the ancient Irish blood. In the early part of the nineteenth century writers began to argue that the Scotch and Irish breeds had a common ancestry. It was conceded that there were marked differences in type. The Irish dog was larger and heavier and the Scotch hound had a more pointed muzzle and lighter ears. The two breeds were shown to have been distinct since the twelfth century. A considerable controversy was waged over the question, but Hogan believes that the evidence proves unmistakably a common ancestry, or, rather, that the Scottish breed was an offshoot of the Irish. The Irish conquered Scotland centuries ago and took their dogs with them, and the variation may easily be accounted for by the difference in environment and use. If, then, the Scottish deerhound owned the ancient Irish blood, then Graham's crosses possessed it in double measure.

Captain Graham wrote regarding the breed as follows: "We have not the breed in its original integrity, yet I confidently believe that there are strains now existing tracing back, more or less clearly, to the original breed. That we have in the deerhound the modern representative of the old Irish wolfdog is patent, thoough of less stature, less robust, and of slimmer form. From the accounts we have we can distinctly gather that the dog was always of the greyhound shape, of gigantic stature and great power; in fact, such a dog as a cross between the present deerhound and the Great Dane would produce as to form and bulk, but of superior size."

Graham proceeded along these lines. He believed that the ancient dog had been at least 36 inches high at the shoulder. His best stud dog was Bran, a dark brindle standing 31 inches high, of immense bone but very active, with a long head and great girth of chest. His best bitch was Sheelah, iron gray, standing 27½ inches high and heavy in proportion.

For years Graham worked almost single-handed, but by the early '80's his efforts began to attract attention and to gain support. In 1885, through his efforts, the Irish Wolfhound Club was formed in England. In the same year Captain Graham published a brochure covering the history of the breed to date and including as much of the pedigrees of living dogs as he was able to obtain.

In 1886 a Standard was adopted by the Irish Wolfhound Club and approved by the Kennel Club. The aim was to describe a dog as nearly like the ancient breed as possible. This Standard has since undergone revision only in minor details. Regarding size, it said: "The minimum height and weight of dogs should be 31 inches and 120 pounds; of bitches, 28 inches and 90 pounds. Anything below this should be debarred from competition. Great size, including height at shoulder and proportionate length of body, is the desideratum to be aimed at, and it is desired to establish a race that shall average from 32 to 34 inches in dogs, showing the requisite power, activity, courage, and symmetry."

By 1890 it was noted that the good dogs were breeding true to type, indicating a preponderance of the one blood. Breeders continued to make use of Great Danes and borzois for crossing, to secure size and to prevent excessive inbreeding, but the best blood lines were kept in the foreground. An increase in size was noticeable. Graham's Dhulart stood 31 inches high and weighed 126 pounds; Colonel Garnier's Merlin was 33 inches high and weighed 150 pounds.

It was not until the closing years of the nineteenth century that Captain Graham and his colleagues considered that they had achieved success, not in restoring the old breed but in producing one remarkably like it. Their achievement has seldom if ever been equaled in the annals of dog breeding. O'Leary, one of Graham's dogs, was one of the first to display the ideal type. Others followed, and from them the best of our modern dogs are descended. One of the best ever bred was Mrs. Percy Shewell's Ch. Cotswold. In recent years Mr. I.W. Everett of Felixstowe has been one of the most consistent and successful breeders. During the war the breed had a hard time of it in England, and the English breeders are now looking to America for help.

The breed did not appear in the United States much more than ten years ago. Now we have some excellent examples here, and a few are benched in most of the large shows. They are still scarce enough, however, to make breeding something of a problem. Their great size and the cost of maintaining them militates against their popularity. They bring high prices, naturally.

To Mr. McAleenan perhaps more than to any other one person is due the credit for keeping interest alive in the breed. His Finn McCumhal is one of the best Irish wolfhounds now in this country. Another extraordinarily good dog is Mr. A.J. Davis's Jericho Ballaghboy. One of the best bitches is Mr. Robert M. Barker's Edain. And there are other worthy American representatives of the ancient race.

The modern dog is a rough-coated, powerful animal of the greyhound type, rather heavier than the Scottish deerhound, with a larger head, thicker neck, and heavier bone. His face resembles that of an unplucked Irish terrier on a large scale. In size he measures up fairly well with Captain Graham's well-founded ideal. The Irish wolfhound now breeds true to type; its characteristics are fixed; and as James Watson observed some years ago, "It combines size, strength, speed, and quiet dignity of carriage, which all go to make up a dog of impressive appearance."

No American club has yet been formed to support the breed, though those interested in it are cooperating effectively. There is no American Standard, the English Standard being considered in every way sufficient for the purpose. This Standard calls for a dog of the same size and weight as the early Standard. To quote the paragraph on general appearance: "The Irish wolfhound should not be quite so heavy and massive as the Great Dane, but more so than the deerhound, which in general type he should otherwise resemble. Of great size and commanding appearance; very muscular; strongly though gracefully built; movements easy and active; head and neck carried high."

The head is long and not too broad; muzzle long and moderately pointed; eyes dark; ears small and greyhound-like in carriage.

Neck, rather long, very strong and muscular, and well arched; shoulders set sloping, muscular, giving depth of chest; chest very deep and breast wide; back rather long; belly well drawn up; loins well arched.

Thighs muscular; forelegs strong and straight, with muscular forearm; hind legs long and strong as in the greyhound, with hocks well let down; feet moderately large and round.

Tail of moderate thickness, well covered with hair, and carried with an upward sweep and a slight curve toward the end; coat rough, hard, and wiry, especially long over eyes and under jaw; colors gray, brindle, red,black, pure white, fawn, or any color that appears in the deerhound.

Mrs. R.S. Rose of Wilton, Conn., one of our successful breeders, writes me as follows: "America possesses fine examples of the best English and Irish blood strains, but unfortunately what America lacks is an established type to breed to and to judge by. What should be decided now is which of these two outstanding principles to proceed on: (1) shall our dogs lose their distinguishing features, features which were developed centuries ago in Ireland for the pursuance of their work, in an effort immediately to secure size; or (2) shall we keep the type and by judicious breeding try to continue the magnificent labor of Captain Graham in reproducing the original hound of the Gaels? Size can be produced without the destruction of type, though it is admittedly a slow task, but the result will be a most gratifying one to admirers of the breed. Nobody wants a 37-inch dog more than I do, but I don't want him unless he has all the ear-marks of the real Irish wolfhound. And my way to get him is to go about it slowly, so that in the end we can have a worthy descendant of the Canis Gallicorum, the greatest of all dogs."

Francis T.A. Junkin and Shamus O'Brien 
 Lieutenant-Colonel Francis T.A. Junkin and his magnificent Irish wolfhound, Shamus O'Brien

Whatever may be the diversity of opinion regarding the modern Irish wolfhound's claim to ancient lineage, there is no denying that we have to-day a wonderful animal both in physique and in character. He is a very king among dogs, at once noble and gracious. Had he about his splendid head no aura of historic glamor whatever he would still be one of the most impressive of quadrupeds. He is a perfect companion to man and a superb ornament to the country place. Though not aggressive, his very size and power make him an excellent watch dog. Mr. Barker calls him the dog of character, class, and distinction, of majestic appearance, stately bearing, sweet disposition, and cleanly ways. He is hardy, large, and powerful, but with the lithe ease and grace of a greyhound. And how he can run!

Beneath a wild and fierce exterior, suggestive of windy Irish moors, he conceals the gentlest of dispositions. He is quiet and seldom barks. He loves a romp, but with children he forbears to indulge in rough play. His need for human companionship is marked; he is not quarrelsome and is uniformly kind to smaller dogs. He almost never fights, but when he does—!

Among the ardent admirers of the breed is Mrs. Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews; the authoress, who writes me thus: "Being Kentuckian, I like men and dogs by the yard, so wolfhound have an instant appeal for me. They are wonderful people. I'd like a pack - if we had a thousand acres instead of thirty."

I wish I had space to quote from the numerous letters before me that contain glowing tributes to the affectionateness, loyalty, courage, beauty, and gentleness of the modern Irish wolfhound - letters from such prominent friends of the breed as Horace L. Hill, Jr., Los Altos, Cal.; Mrs. R.S. Rose, Wilton, Conn.; Lieut.-Col. Francis T.A. Junkin, Lake Geneva, Wis.; Mr. Robert M. Barker, Syracuse, N.Y., and several British correspondents of Mr. Barker. I had intended to use these interesting letters, but lack of space forbids. I must in closing, however, quote a little further from Mr. McAleenan, for he has so fully grasped the spirit of the breed.

Regarding the wolfhound's disposition, he writes: "My old dog Finn was with me constantly, and in the long walks we have taken together over the sand dunes close by the sea he would walk at my side and for miles would hold my hand balanced between his great jaws. I thought this was peculiar to him, but I was new in my experience with the breed then, and have since discovered that this is a trait, an instinct, a habit with the breed in general. No other dog can come so close to the understanding and kindly companionship that exists sometimes between humans as this dog can. A giant in stature, a lamb in disposition, and a lion in courage, affectionate and intelligent, thoroughly reliable and dependable at all times, as a companion and guard he is perfection."

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April 29th, 2005