History of the Irish Wolfhound

I have to say that it is most probable that all we have of the earliest times of the great Irish hound are more myth or legend than fact. Many of the tales given as being of the Irish hound (several of which can be found in the old books) are found also in other countries about other dogs. It is also very likely (as is stated in Hugh Dalziel's book on "British Dogs") that translations from other languages were inaccurate and, also, that in Victorian times, with Richardson and then Captain Graham and his associates, the "facts" were stretched and sifted to fit the belief held. Whatever the truth, the stories from the past are fascinating and whether the breed we have today in any way resembles the ancient Irish wolf-dog (if such an animal actually existed as a breed as we know it today) seems beside the point, when it is such a delightful and beautiful creature. As is quoted in 20th Century Dogs: "If it had emanated from under a gooseberry bush, I should not love and admire it less; and I could not love and admire it more if it traced its pedigree from the Hound that issued from the ark."
 
I have gathered together everything I have been able to find over the past thirty and more years, and am gradually getting all of it on this site, but I am constantly changing and adding to it as I come across either information or books or pictures, so it is usually in a state of flux, for which I apologise.
 

Earliest times

The Romans

Iceland

Cu-Chulainn

Gelert

Major Richardson

Capt. Graham

I.W. Club founded

Others involved in the breed
recovery

Cheevra

Major Kennels

Dog shows 1859 - 1914

Early pedigree

Reports on the breed during
the late 19th century 
 Show reports during the
late 19th century
The breed clubs
 Regimental Mascots

The Great War 1914-18

KC Registrations during
The Great War
 The Irish hound as it was
described in early books
 The Second World War and
immediately afterwards
 1950 to ......... Feeding in the early days   Exercising in the early days
Kennelling in the early days The Irish wolfhound and coursing/
hunting 
   
 
The name Irish wolfhound is quite a recent one but the hound itself goes back far into the mists of time. It is mentioned, as cú (variously translated as hound, Irish hound, war dog, wolf dog, etc.) in Irish laws, which predate Christianity, and in Irish literature which dates from the 5th century or, in the case of the Sagas, from the old Irish period - AD600-900. Only kings and the nobility were allowed to own the great Irish hound, the numbers permitted depending on position. For example, the Filid (the professional class of composers of sagas and other tales, who were of the lesser nobility) were entitled to two hounds. There were plenty of kings and nobles, as ancient Ireland was divided into fifths, each with a king, and each fifth comprised numerous kingdoms (there were 150 kingdoms in Ireland) each of which had a lesser king subject to the kings of the fifths.

The hounds were used as war dogs and as guards of property and herds. They were also used to hunt deer, boar, and wolves and were held in such high esteem that battles were fought over them. The Second Century AD saw the rise of the Fianna, whose domination lasted to AD 300, by which time they had been overthrown and destroyed in three great battles. The greatest of their chiefs was Fionn mac Cumhall (Fionn, son of Cumhall). The Fianna did not use chariots or even horses but were foot soldiers and the stories of the Fianna are of battles and great hunts with colossal hounds. Each Fian had “two hounds and two keen beagles”, while Fionn himself had three hundred full-grown hounds and “puppy hounds two hundred”. His favourite hound was Bran, who “always killed more men or beasts than Fionn.”
 
men and hounds
Drawing by Nanci Cipri Schlexer
History Index
 
The Romans were in England at this time and from the Roman Temple of Nodens at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, we have the Lydney Dog dating from about 365 AD. This is a bronze statuette which apparently represents a half-grown wolfhound. The Temple of Nodens was a healing shrine where dogs were used to lick the sores of visitors as a cure.
Lydney dog statuette
Lydney Dog
 
At about the same period we have the description of Celtic hounds in the works of Arrian: “There is nothing more beautiful to see, whether their eyes, or their whole body, or their coat and colour.” “The neck should be long, round, and flexible. Wide chests are better than narrow ones. The legs should be long, straight, and well-knit, the ribs strong, the back wide and firm without being fat, the belly well drawn up, the thighs hollow, the tail narrow, hairy, long and flexible with thicker hairs adorning the tip. The feet should be round and firm. These hounds may be of any colour.” The hounds were so greatly prized that they were frequently given as presents to important personages and often their collars and chains were of precious metal: “There were seven hounds held with silver chains with a ball of gold between each of them” and “with a long chain of antique silver he held in leash two hounds of the chase.
 
Quintus Aurelius Symmachus wrote a letter to his brother Flavianus thanking him for a gift of seven Irish hounds which had excited the wonder of the Roman populace. A hound named Ailbe was famed throughout Ireland to the extent that his owner received an offer from Connaught of “three score hundred milch cows at once and a chariot with two horses and as much again at the end of the year.” and a similar offer from Ulster. In the ensuing battle Ailbe chose to join in on the side of Ulster and was killed, a fate which frequently befell the cause of such battles.
 
Huntsmen and hounds
Drawing by Nanci Cipri Schlexer
 
There are many stories of the bravery and ferocity of the hounds in battle, such as the one fought by Donald Yellowlocks of Ulster to avenge the killing of his son by Fergus of Ireland, in which the Ulster hounds were “with ardour destroying and beheading each warrior”. One bitch sprang into Fergus’s chariot, which was unable to stand the added weight and promptly collapsed, and seized the charioteer by the neck and tore his head from his body. After this, being unable to find Fergus, who had jumped out of the wreck of the chariot, she killed the horses.
 
 hunting the wild ox
 Hunting the wild ox
History Index
 
The following piece comes from 'The Intelligence of Dogs' by Stanley Coren (http://www.stanleycoren.com/) reprinted with permission of the author:
 
Consider Patrick MacAlpern, later Saint Patrick, whose life was strangely entwined with dogs. Around A.D. 400, at age sixteen, Patrick was abducted by Irish marauders. He was enslaved and kept as a shepherd for six years, his sole companion being a dog. In response to a dream, he made his way some two hundred miles to the coast, where he found the ship that the dream foretold would return him to his own land.

The ship was from Gaul, and the master had put into Irish waters in order to get a cargo of hunting hounds, which were bringing fabulous prices on European markets. Not surprisingly, as a penniless runaway slave, Patrick was received rather unsympathetically when he tried to gain passage. However, just as he was leaving, he was suddenly called back. It seems that, to maximise his profit, the captain had opted for stealing, rather than purchasing, his cargo of dogs. Over one hundred great Irish wolfhounds now packed the holds and filled the deck of the ship. Taken from their masters and their familiar surroundings, the giant dogs were frantic and furious, ready to savage anyone who came near. Some of the sailors had noticed that during Patrick's brief visit to the ship, he had spoken with some of the dogs and seemed to have a calming effect on them. Therefore, in exchange for his services - which would involve feeding, cleaning up after, and otherwise caring for the dogs - Patrick received passage to the continent.
 
The ship full of Irish wolfhounds 
 
The ship was badly underprovisioned and reached a ruined and deserted section of Gaul with its stores exhausted and nothing left to feed dogs or men. Because the dogs were worth more than the ship, the crew took the animals, abandoned the ship, and set off on foot, heading inland. Finding no inhabitants or food in the area, the dogs and men were soon all in jeopardy of dying of starvation. The ship-master, who had learned that Patrick was a Christian, turned to him and in a taunting manner said, "If your god is so great, then pray to him to send us food." Patrick did so, and, the story goes, a miracle occurred. A herd of wild pigs appeared, seemingly from nowhere. Instead of bolting and running, as one might have expected, the swine stayed within reach long enough for the starving men, with the assistance of the dogs, to kill a number of them, providing meat for all. Predictably, Patrick's reputation rose considerably, and, after the dogs were marketed, the crew made a gift to him of some food and a bit of money to help him on his way.
 
History Index
 
The Romans were kept out of Ireland by the Fianna and there is very little in the way of description from that country in those days because the Irish were unable to write until the advent of Christianity in the 5th Century. “Collossal hounds”, “Imperious hounds”, “Swift and noble”, “Noble, fierce, and swift”, “Swift and active”, “Great was the bulk”, “Huge wolf-dogs”, “The terrible, nimble wolf-hounds”.
 
Colours were white, black, grey, red, and brindled but it appears that animals such as dogs and horses were dyed different colours, hence: “Yellow feet that were on Bran, Two black sides and belly white, Greyish back of hunting colour, Two ears, red, round, small, and bright
 
History Index
 
girl with wolfhound at her side The Viking's Daughter, by Herbert Dicksee
   
There was apparently much coming and going between Ireland and Iceland, which gives us the stories of hounds in the Icelandic Sagas such as that of Burnt Njal in which Olaf, son of an Irish princess, offers his friend Gunnar a hound that was given to him in Ireland: “He is big and no worse than a stout man. Besides, it is part of his nature that he has man’s wit, and he will bay at every man whom he knows to be thy foe, but never at thy friends. He can see, too, in any man’s face whether he means thee well or ill, and he will lay down his life to be true to thee.” In 795 Ireland was invaded by the Vikings. In the year 1014 Brian Boroimhe defeated the Danes at Clontarf and one of the Irish tribes which served under him was likened to “the terrible, nimble wolfhounds of victorious Banba”. The Viking era ended in 1103.
 
Frieze of dog with tail in mouth
From The Book of Kells
 
One old Irish law entirely concerned the ownership of hounds and even stated the amount of time for which the hounds of each grade of owner could be let loose. One provision is for a hound relieving itself on a neighbour’s property. The excrement must be removed as well as the soil under it until there is no evidence of any liquid. Sod must be put down and covered with cow dung for one month. The ground must then be tamped down and fine clay of the same quality as the adjacent soil added. Compensation of butter, dough, and curds, each in the same bulk as that of the excrement, must be paid to the landowner and, if the offence occurred in the presence of the hound’s owner, he is liable for trespass.
 
 hunting the wolf
 Hunting the wolf
History Index
 
The hounds in those days cannot have been anything like the gentle giants we know today because, when they were turned loose at night to protect homes and herds, their owners had to ensure that all guests were safely indoors as the hounds would ferociously attack strangers. This is what happened to a nephew of King Conor of Ulster, a boy of seven called Setanta, who was set upon by the hound of Culand which had been turned loose to guard the cattle. Setanta managed to kill the hound but was taken aback by Culand’s reaction: “My life is a waste, and my household like a desert with the loss of my hound! He guarded my life and my honour, a valued servant, my hound, taken from me. He was shield and shelter for our goods and herds. He guarded all our beasts, at home or out in the field.” Setanta therefore offered to take the hound’s place until a puppy as good as the one slain was grown. From that day forward he was known as Cú-Culand (Cuchullain), i.e. Culand’s hound.
To read the full story of Setanta/Cú-Culand, click here
 
 Although in this translation from The Book of Leinster the hound is said to be "An excellent bloodhound have I, that was brought from Spain." and not an Irish wolfhound, and Setanta killed him with a ball and not as in the picture below.
Setanta killing Chuland's hound 
 Setanta killing Culand's hound
 
 In the early part of the 20th Century, an Irish wolfhound kennel in southern England was named after Culand’s hound. The picture below is of some of the Cu-Chulainn Irish wolfhounds with owner Mrs. D. le B. Bennett.
Cu-Chulainn hounds
History Index
 
1210 AD an Irish hound was sent as a gift to Llewellyn, Prince of Wales, by Prince (later King) John of England, which hound was probably Gelert, slain by Llewellyn under the misapprehension that the hound had killed his baby son. Gelert’s burial place gave its name to a town Beddgelert (grave of Gelert). The full story of Gelert can be seen by clicking here.
 
In 1224 MacBranan was steward of the Irish hounds owned by Hugh O’Conor, King of Connaught. As in previous times, the stewardship of hounds was the responsibility of the head of the army. In the 16th Century an Irish hound pictured on a battle Standard was described as “A haughty, powerful monster, mightily venomous, furious, arrogant, sharp-clawed”.
 
During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, the Irish hounds were in great demand as gifts for Royal and Noble personages in various countries. Some of the recipients were the Great Mogul, the Emperor Jehangier, the Shah of Persia, and Cardinal Richelieu. Large numbers were sent to Spain and King John of Poland is said to have contributed to their near extinction in Ireland by procuring as many as he could lay hands on. In 1652 a Declaration was issued banning the exportation of hounds from Ireland on account of their scarcity.

About 1697 Ray described the Irish greyhound thus: “The greatest dog I have yet seen, surpassing in size even the Molossus, as regards shape of body and general character similar in all respects to the common Greyhound; their use is to catch wolves.” About 1750-60 Buffon describes them as follows: “They are far larger than our largest Matins and they are very rare in France. I have never seen but one, which seemed to me, when sitting quite upright, to be nearly five feet high, and to resemble in form the dog we call the Great Dane, but it differed from it greatly in the largeness of its size. It was quite white and of a gentle and peaceable disposition.”
Irish gre-hound
The Irish Gre-Hound
 
In 1770 Goldsmith wrote: “The last variety, and the most wonderful of all that I shall mention, is the great Irish wolfdog, that may be considered as the first of the canine species.....Nevertheless he is extremely beautiful and majestic in 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 about a dozen - was about four feet high, or as tall as a calf of a year old. He was made extremely like a Greyhound but more robust, and inclining to the figure of the French Matin or the Great Dane. His eye was mild, his colour white, and his nature seemed heavy and phlegmatic....the size was enormous but, as it seemed to me, at the expense of the animal’s fierceness, vigilance, and sagacity. However, I was informed otherwise; the gentleman who bred them assuring me that a Mastiff would be nothing when opposed to one of them, who generally seized their antagonist by the back.” Few pictures date from this time and descriptions vary between smooth and rough-coated hounds, with the preponderance being smooth.

A Mr. Watson in County Carlow, said to have killed the last wolf at Myshall in 1786, kept hounds described as “Coarse, powerful animals in no way resembling the grand old giant rough greyhound, commonly known as the Irish wolfhound.” Once their prey was gone, the Irish hounds fell upon even harder times with only a few families keeping them “more for ornament than for use” and complaints abounded that they were “reduced in size” or “made coarse through being crossed with the Danish breed” or “now so crossed that two are hardly seen alike.” However, it is unlikely that standardisation of breeds as we think of it was practised in those times when the Irish hound was at its greatest. Any dog large, powerful, fast and fierce enough to do the job would have been used and it is quite probable that types varied widely and that there were smooth and rough coated varieties, particularly when they were being bred as companions once there was no longer work for them.
 
Great Wolf Dog
Great Wolf Dog
 
In his “Natural History” of 1772, Brooke states: “The Irish wolfdog is, as “Ray” affirms, the highest dog he had ever seen, being much larger than a Mastiff dog but more like a Greyhound in shape.” Smith, in his “History of Waterford” in 1774, says: “The Irish greyhound, though formerly abounding in this country, is likewise become nearly extinct. This dog is much taller than the Mastiff, but made more like a Greyhound.” Bewick in 1792 says that: “These dogs are about three feet high, generally of a white or cinnamon colour, and made somewhat like a Greyhound but more robust. Their aspect is mild, their disposition peaceable, their strength is so great that in combat the Mastiff or Bulldog is far from being equal to them. They mostly seize their antagonists by the back and shake them to death, which their great strength generally enables them to do.

In 1859 Woods’ “Natural History” states: “The Irish Greyhound is four feet in length, and very firmly built; it is of a pale fawn colour and much rougher than the smooth English Greyhound. Unless excited by the sight of its game, or by anger, it is a very peaceful animal; but when roused exhibits a most determined spirit. In these days their numbers are comparatively few. When fighting it takes its antagonist by the back and shakes the life out of the foe by main strength. One of these dogs measured sixty-one inches in total length; twenty-eight and a half inches from the toe to the top of the shoulder, and thirty-five inches in girth.” “The Scotch Greyhound is still rougher in its coat than its Irish relative but hardly so large in its make.”
 
History Index
 
hounds in an old Irish kitchen
Hounds in an old Irish kitchen
 
The “Encyclopaedia Britannica” in 1877 states: “Of the wire-haired breed the Irish greyhound or wolfdog is an example. This magnificent breed is now become extinct in that country. It was probably introduced from Ireland into Scotland, where its modified descendant, the deerhound, still bears witness to the great strength and agility of its progenitor.” In May 1878, the New York “Country” says: “All the testimony which comes down to us agrees as to his sagacity, courage, strength, speed, and size. On his size there is a difference of opinion. Allowing that he attained a height of from thirty-two to thirty-five inches, he is taller than any breed now living, yet the early accounts of him state he was from three to four feet high.”

Major H.D.Richardson, a Scot living in Dublin, took up the cause of the Irish wolfhound and wrote several articles on the subject, exhorting gentlemen to save the breed before it was too late. Eventually, he took his own advice and gathered together what specimens he could find which he considered carried the old bloodlines. Little is known of Richardson’s breeding programme but it is probable he used some outcrosses, including one to a Pyrenean, and he also interbred any genuine specimens of the old Irish Wolfdog that he found with the Glengarry Deerhounds. It has also been said that Glengarry used a Pyrenean, but that was a different type to the breed we know today, being taller and less heavy, with prick ears, and resembling the ancient Spanish hounds from which it was descended.

This picture headed an article by Major Richardson in The Irish Penny Journal, No. 45, of Saturday, May 8, 1841, on THE IRISH WOLFDOG. To read the whole article, click here.
 
The greyhound! the great hound! the graceful of limb!
Rough fellow! tall fellow! swift fellow, and slim!
Let them sound through the earth, let them sail o’er the sea,
They will light on none other more ancient than thee!

OLD MS.
Picture from Irish Penny Journal
 
In 1846-7 Richardson wrote a book entitled “The Dog; its Origin, Natural History, and Varieties”, in which he asserted that the Irish Wolfdog and the Highland Deerhound were one and the same breed, although much degenerated in the latter. However, in 1847 Thomson in his “Natural History of Ireland” writes “The noble race of domestic animals, the Irish wolfdog, has now, I fear, become extinct. As Dr. Scouler says: ‘The wolfdog must now be included in the list of lost animals, although the date of his disappearance is within the memory of people still living. He was a very distinct race from the Scotch deerhound or wolfdog, which resembled the Irish breed in size and courage, but differed from it by having a sharper muzzle and pendant ears.’” Both Richardson and Dalziel (in “British Dogs”, 1879) made a distinction between the Scottish Deerhound and the Scottish Rough Greyhound. Dalziel, in fact, complains that the Scottish Rough Greyhound has been “mixing with his larger brethren the Deerhounds” to the detriment of the size and weight of the latter.

Richardson based much of his breeding efforts on the Glengarry Deerhounds, noted for their size and heavy build. Glengarry appears to have had the object of producing a strain of hounds, one brace of which (dog and bitch) should be sufficient to track, follow, and pull down a deer, and he bred the bitches almost as large as the dogs. In 1859 the “Gazetteer of the World” says: “The Irish Greyhound is now seldom met with, its appearance is beautiful and majestic, its height about three feet, its courage and strength so great that the Mastiff or bulldog is far from equal to it.
 
Richardson's breeding was passed on to Sir John Power of Kilfane, Mr. Baker of Ballytobin, and Mr. Mahoney of Dromore, who were breeding from about 1842 to 1873.
 
History Index
 
Many crosses with Great Danes have been carried out since the seventeenth century. Some of the earlier ones were fairly light in build and greyhoundy in shape, as with le grand Danois (on left), very much like le Mâtin (on the right and otherwise usually called the Belgian dog and supposedly the dog from which all other dogs are descended) from Buffon's Histoire Naturelle:
Le Grand Danois Le Matin
but later ones were quite different, being tall and massive, much more like the Great Dane we know today:-
Great Dane
 
The chief complaint against using the Dane as an outcross was that the offspring were clumsy and had straight stifles. Halfway through the 19th century, Captain George Augustus Graham came on the scene, and determined to bring back the Irish wolfhound to its former glory. He had a hard task before him because, not only were there very few specimens available of the old bloodlines, but some of them were not able to breed and others were very delicate. He complained that death and disease robbed him of his finest specimens. He started breeding around 1863. For more on Captain Graham click here.
 
An interesting article on the origins of dogs in Ireland and, more specifically, the Irish wolfhound appeared in The Irish Naturalist in August and September, 1924. To read the article, click here.
 
It is interesting that, among the greatly divergent types which were around at the end of the last century, there was one beautiful hound of excellent type which appeared in many of the pictures by Herbert Dicksee. Was it an actual hound or only Dicksee’s idea of what a hound should be? If it was a real animal, from whence did it come and why did it differ so greatly from the other hounds of the period? The Deerhound people claim it as one of theirs and, in fact, when wolfhounds first started being shown, several of those in the ring had previously been shown as Deerhounds.
 
Hound from Dicksee etchings
 
The Irish Wolfhound Club was founded in 1885, and the Kennel Club recognised the Irish Wolfhound as a sporting breed in 1925. In 1902 a hound was first presented to the Irish Guards as a mascot. (For more on the Irish Wolfhound as a Regimental Mascot, click here) The breed got into difficulties during the First and Second World Wars. After the 1914-18 war, the descendants of Hindhead Mollie did a great deal to get the breed back on its feet. Mollie’s sire was Hy Niall, bought as a four month puppy for a few shillings from a tramp. Hy Niall was registered at the Kennel Club as an Irish wolfhound with a made-up pedigree. After the Second World War, the American-bred Rory of Kihone played the largest part in the breed’s recovery. He was a gift from his breeder, Miss F. Jeannette McGregor, to the English Club. More on Rory and on the other American hound of this time, Ch. Cragwood Barney O'Shea of Riverlawn, can be seen by clicking here.
 
For more details on the great names in the breed in the U.K., on how the Irish wolfhound was described in early books, and on how the breed progressed from Graham's time onwards, see the index at the top of this page.
 

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Updated 12/10/2012