Irish Wolfhound History

On the Breeds of Dogs Peculiar to Ireland and their Origin

by R.F. Scharff, B.Sc.,Ph.d.

Very few notes have been published in this Journal on the breeds or races of dogs endemic in Ireland. Indeed, comparatively little has ever been written on any Irish dogs except the Wolfhound, although it is a subject specially attractive to us, for the Irish, from the most remote times, have almost worshipped dogs, and ancient Irish history abounds in dog-lore.

Of all the domesticated animals, the dog is, undoubtedly, the oldest, and he seems to cherish a peculiar affection for man. The domestic dog has a remote history. Several kinds were even known to the ancient Egyptians as far back as about 4,000 B.C. It is not surprising, therefore, that the origin of the dog has caused a great deal of discussion and speculation, and that the views of those who made a study of the subject differ often widely. Some would derive dogs from wolves, others from jackals, while the opinion that domesticated dogs took their rise from wild dogs has many adherents. Darwin came to the conclusion that the balance of evidence was strongly in favour of the multiple origin of dogs. (Darwin, C.: "Animals and Plants Under Domestication." London, 2nd ed. 2 vols. 1899). Most authorities now agree with this view.

It is probably, therefore, that the origin of the domestic dog is polyphyletic; that is to say, the dog arose independently from several kinds of wild dog ancestors in one or more regions of the world. The large and ancient group of Greyhounds may have been derived from the Pariah dog, which itself seems to be a descendant of the wild Dingo dog. It has been suggested by Studer that the Torfhund or Turf-dog (as we may call it) was the ancestor of the Terriers, Pomeranian dogs, Chows and their allies. (Studer. Th.: "Die praehistorischen Hunde." Abhandl. d. Schweiz. palaeont. Gesellsch., vol. xxviii, 1901). Some of the American breeds of dogs are believed to have originated from the Coyote or Prairie Wolf, although Allen denies their relationship (Allen, G.M.: "Dogs of the American Aborigines." Bull.Mus.Comp.Zool., Harvard, vol. lxiii, 1920).

In the more remote times it was not customary to give accurate descriptions of the shape and colour of animals, but as regards our domestic stock, we derive a great deal of information from various ancient mural drawings and decorative paintings, as well as from sculptures. In this way we have gained some knowledge of the breeds of dogs kept by the Egyptians, the Assyrians, as well as the Greeks, Romans and Gauls. Many of the primitive coins bear excellent impressions of domesticated animals. Even some of the northern colonies of Rome have yielded animal designs which give us glimpses into the domesticated fauna of central Europe at that time.

The most precious and highly esteemed dog in ancient Egyptian times was the Greyhound, which on account of its agility and dash, was employed in hunting antelopes. This dog was apparently short-haired. Long-eared sporting dogs, sheep-dogs and hounds were likewise kept. Even from the Terrier and Pomeranian group there were examples, while one dog had the appearance of a modern Dachshund.

The Assyrians, on the other hand, do not seem to have known so many breeds. The hunters favoured powerful Mastiffs, such as we see so faithfully represented in the sculptures and potteries contained in the British Museum. Layard suggested that these dogs might have been brought to Mesopotamia from India. A second Assyrian dog somewhat resembled the Greyhound.

From Greece we gain our knowledge to a large extent from representations of dogs on coins (Keller, C.: Die Abstammung der altesten Haustiere. Zürich, 1902). Among these there occurs a good likeness of a small dog of the Pomeranian or Eskimo type. A leaden statuette of a true hound with pendulous ears was found in the Akropolis of Athens, showing that this variety was known to the Greeks before the Christian era. The Romans seem to have imported that breed from Gaul. In a Roman mosaic discovered at Aventicum, the ancient capital of Helvetia, various breeds of hunting dogs were figured. A skull of a dog of the type of a sheep-dog was unearthed in the Roman Settlement of Vindonissa in Switzerland. The Romans had even adopted a rough classification of dogs into the three groups of Canes villatici (watch dogs), Canes pastorales (sheep-dogs) and Canes venatici (hunting-dogs).

The study of the origin and history of the various breeds has derived much assistance from a critical examination of the skulls and bones met with in caves, kitchen-middens, and all sorts of superficial deposits in many parts of the world. The ancient lake-dwellings of Switzerland have yielded a great deal of valuable material for such study which has been utilized particularly by Rütimeyer and Studer. (Rütimeyer, L.: Die Fauna d. Pfahlbauten d. Schweiz. Neue Denkschr. d. Schweiz. Gesellsch. f. d. ges. Naturw., 1862).

Neolithic deposits on the shores of Lake Ladoga in Russia contained some dog-skulls, which were described by Anutchin. It is of interest to note that they are of the type of the Torfhund of Switzerland, but have an even more striking relationship with the dog from the crannog of Dunshaughlin in Ireland, which will be alluded to again later on. Nehring collected many skulls of dogs in German surface deposits and described them. Ancient dog remains from Italy are dealt with by Strobel, and those from Bohemia and the neighbouring states by Woldrich and Ieitteles. French researches have been largely initiated by Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Bourguignat, Boule, and Mégniu.

The origin of the dogs of the New World has been studied recently by Miller, Gidley, Allen and others. The rich collection of skulls and bones made by Pumpelly at Anau in Turkestan is worthy of special mention, because it enables us to reconstruct the fauna which lived during the accumulation of the different culture strata in that country. Duerst identified in the earliest of these deposits a sheep-dog showing relationship with the Australian Dingo and with an extinct Russian wild dog. He states that he has also seen similar skulls from Greece in the Museum of Vienna. (Duerst, M.: "Animal Remains from the excavations at Anau." Carnegie Institution, Washington, Publ. No. 73, 1909).

Linguistic researches and historical references have also yielded useful information for the purpose of studying the derivation and origin of the breeds of dogs. I need only refer to Father Hogan's work on the Irish Wolfhound. Although these intricate problems cannot be regarded as solved, our knowledge of the subject has considerably increased of late years. We have already succeeded in tracing the origin of a large number of modern breeds from a few ancient fundamental types - I mean such as formed the original stock from which the existing breeds arose. These few breeds seem to have had a very wide range, and were probably modified in different directions either by cross-breeding or selection. The resulting breeds were, no doubt, influenced by climatic and other conditions of the countries of their origin.

It is customary to classify the modern dogs into groups, the members of which resemble one another in all essential points. Even in this respect, there is much difference of opinion among the experts. Dalziel proposed to classify them according to the manner they are used in hunting and the purpose for which they are kept. (Dalziel, H.: "British Dogs" Three vols., London, 2nd ed., 1889-97). His first group consists of dogs that hunt their game by sight, such as the Irish Wolfhound. The second contains dogs that hunt their game by scent - for example, the Kerry Beagle. In the third group he places the dogs that find their game by scent, such as the Irish Setter; while in the fourth he puts the Irish Water Spaniel and other dogs used with the gun in questing and retrieving game. In the British Museum the dogs are arranged in six groups, viz., I. Wolf-like dogs; II. Greyhound group; III Spaniel group; IV. Hound group; V. Mastiff group; VI. Terrier group. Fitzinger recognises one hundred and eighty different breeds which he places into seven divisions. (Fitzinger, L.J.: Der Hund und seine Rassen. Tübingen, 1876).

As regards the dogs peculiar to Ireland, they may have originated in this country. The early settlers must have modified the dogs they brought with them from abroad in the manner above suggested. The Wolf was the only wild dog-like creature which inhabited Ireland when this country received its first human inhabitants. It is quite possible that it interbred with the large dog that no doubt accompanied these primitive hunters. All ancient historical references point to the Irish as being devoted to hunting and fighting. The early manuscripts abound in allusions to dogs. And, as Father Hogan tells us, all the descriptions of hunting dogs - both those in verse and those in prose - are carefully distinguished into two kinds. The one was employed in starting the game. It evidently hunted chiefly by scent, and was known in Irish by the name of gadhar (pronounced guyer) (Hogan, E.: "The history of the Irish Wolf-dog" Dublin, 1897). It is generally rendered as "Beagle" in the translation. But this word having for centuries past been applicable only to a diminutive hound used for small game, one would imagine that the ancient Irish gadhar was a larger hound, something of the nature of a Foxhound or even Staghound. This matter will be further discussed in dealing with the Kerry Beagle.

While the gadhar was engaged indislodging the quarry from its covert, the great hound was held in leash in his master's hand. The hunters sat on an elevated spot keenly watching the result of the gadhar's efforts. As soon as the game was turned out into the open, the larger hounds called , were slipped to bring it down. The remains of a hound from a Bronze Age deposit were discovered in a crannog at Lough Gur in County Limerick. It is now in the National Museum in Dublin, and was identified by Studer as Canis familiaris intermedius. (Studer, Th.: "Ueber Hunde aus den Crannoges von Irland." Mitteil. d. Naturforsch. Gesellsch. in Bern, 1900). The skull of another dog occurred in the crannog of Dunshaughlin in County Meath. It had somewhat the shape of that of the Irish Terrrier. According to Studer it represents a rather primitive form of the old Torfhund which is widely distributed in the Swiss lake-dwellings. In ancient Ireland it may have been kept as a house-dog, where its capability as a vermin destroyer and its watchfulness would have been most useful. It belongs to the group of Canis familiaris palustris, which is the most ancient of European dogs.

Thus we have historical testimony that two kinds of dogs lived in Ireland in very early and probably pre-Christian times, and we possess fossil evidence of three ancient breeds. Since the early records deal largely with descriptions of hunting, a small dog that was not used for the chase would not be considered worthy of mention. Remains of these three dogs, viz., Canis f. Leineri, Canis f. intermedius, and Canis f. palustris have also been found in the Swiss and South German lake-dwellings, which belong either to the Stone Age or Bronze Age. Hence Studer argued that they were the original European breeds from which all the others arose.

One of the first additions that were made to these three primary types of European dogs was the Sheep-dog, which arrived apparently with immigrations of eastern tribes of man during the Bronze Age. The original type of this dog, from which the many varieties of modern Sheep-dogs have sprung, was described under the name of Canis f. matris optimae. There is no evidence as to the country where it was first produced. It was probably some part of western Asia. Scotland has several races of Collie, but it is not known whether any distinct breed of Sheep-dog was ever developed in Ireland. When agricultural tribes with flocks of sheep arrived in this country, they no doubt brought this kind of dog with them, and that must have been in very remote times. Jesse, when alluding to Galway, mentioned that the Sheep-dogs he noticed in that county were handsome animals with long thick coats and long tails. (Jesse, G.R.: "Researches in the history of the British dog", London, 2 vols., 1886). They were curiously marked, the upper parts, including the head, and tail, were black, the rest of the body light brown. This description reminds one somewhat of a Gordon setter. I have seen no other reference to Sheep-dogs or their early history in Ireland.

I have to acknowledge, however, with thanks some help which was given to me by Miss Byrne to elucidate this subject. Miss Byrne, who is working at the Irish dictionary which is being published by the Royal Irish Academy, informs me that there is an old word in Irish for Sheep-dog, viz., Con-búachaill (literally herd-dog). The word is alluded to in the ancient Irish Laws as "the herd-dog of each cattle." In Welsh of the 10th century it is bzgeilgi. It is evident, therefore, that the Sheep-dog was well-known in Ireland since very early times. We possess some evidence of this from the ninth or tenth century at a time when Olaf was in Ireland for the purpose of a foray. When a peasant entreated Olaf not to carry off his cattle, the latter replied "Take them if you can distinguish them, but don't delay us." The large house-dog of the peasant was sent into the herd of many hundred cattle and succeeded in driving out the number his owner wanted. All of them were marked with the right mark, which showed that the dog was very sagacious.

The words matud or madrad, according to Miss Byrne, were used in ancient times to signify and ordinary or common-place dog (a dog of inferior breed). In modern Irish these terms become madadh. They were sometimes employed contemptuously to persons, as "cur" is in English, and as the latter term was originally applied to a watch-dog or a "house-dog" from the Danish korre, we may assume that these Irish words also meant the same class of dog.

It seems probable, according to references given by Dalziel from a Greek source, that the Irish in early Christian times had two kinds of Greyhound - the smooth and the long-haired. Richardson thinks that the smooth-coated Greyhound is comparatively of recent date, but he gives no evidence in support of his belief. (Richardson, H.D.: "The Dog, its origin, natural history and varieties." New ed., London, 1857). Considering that smooth-haired Greyhounds were well-known in ancient Egypt, and probably also in southern Europe, it is quite likely that they found their way to Ireland at an early period in history. In fact the word milchú which occurs in Irish manuscripts has always been rendered as Greyhound. In the old Welsh laws of the 10th century, the word milgi occurs which has the same meaning, for mil is swift, and gi dog. It seems to have been considered rather a precious hound, for Miss Byrne gave me two references in which it is mentioned being led on a silver chain. It is also quoted among a list of Irish dogs in an old manuscript.

Another dog which is referred to in the list of dogs known in ancient Ireland is the archú, of which the literal meaning, according to Miss Byrne, is slaughter-hound. The contexts suggest that it was a large and fierce watch-dog. From these and other considerations we may assume for the present that it was the English Bloodhound. Dalziel quotes a second century description of a hound which seems to correspond with the modern Bloodhound. The latter is always considered as endemic in Britain. Like the Beagle, Foxhound and Harrier, it has large drooping ears and a smooth coat. All these dogs hunt by scent. In early Britain the ancestor of the Bloodhound or Sleuth-hound was known as the "Lymer" or "Lymehound". It was often employed in tracking wounded deer and deer-stealers, on account of which the name of Bloodhound was given to it. There is no reason to suppose that it was at all common in Ireland, or that it was ever used in the chase.

In ancient Ireland pet-dogs were also known. Miss Byrne tells me that they were called messán, and more recently mess-chú, both meaning a little dog. Althugh the word orc was generally applied to the young of various animals, it seems to have been used occasionally in the sense of pet-dog or lap-dog, instead of the words referred to. We cannot determine the actual breed and nature of this dog, for now-a-days we possess quite a number of them. Pet-dogs were already well-known in Roman times. A minute dog was imported both into Greece and Rome which has been identified with the modern "Maltese" dog, but it is not at all certain that it came orginally from Malta. Some authorities hold that it was reared in Sicily. That small pet spaniels were first introduced in King Charles's time is not authentic. They are probably much older. There are reasons for the belief in fact that the earliest pet-dogs were of the Spaniel type, and it is probable, therefore, that this was the kind of dog that found its way to Ireland long ago.

The Mastiff (Irish maistín) was probably brought to this country in comparatively recent times, for the Irish word is modern. It is an English breed, but the ancestor is stated by some to owe its introduction in England to the Normans. Leighton, however, looks upon it as the oldest of the native British dogs, and suggests its having been brought to England by the Phoenicians as early as 6th century B.C. The word Mastiff has possibly been derived from the Latin mastinus, while the Irish term may have been borrowed direct from the Spanish mastin. (Leighton, Robert: "The Complete Book of the Dog", London, 1922).

Having now dealt with a few preliminary considerations concerning domestic dogs in Ireland, we can proceed to the discussion of the breeds peculiar to Ireland and endeavour to trace their origin. At the present time the following breeds are regarded as endemic in this country:

Irish Wolfhound
Irish Terrier
Kerry Beagle
Irish Water Spaniel
Irish Setter

I have arranged them approximately according to the date of their origin, but we have no reason to suppose that the modern Irish Terrier, for example, was exactly like the Terrier in ancient Ireland. We can only affirm that this type of dog was then present, although we know very little of the shape, size or colour that it possessed in the distant past. It is not my intention in the following notes on the Irish breeds to dwell at length on the general characters of the breeds. Any of the numerous books on dogs will supply that want. What will be more useful is a short resumé of the history of the breeds as far as can be ascertained, and any other observations not available in books of reference.


A good deal of mystery is attached to this dog, and some people actually believe that, like the Irish Elk, it became extinct long ago. But since no less than two books and several learned disquisitions have been published on the nature and history of this dog, there should be no excuse for lack of knowledge on the subject. The earlier writings deal more especially with the general features and pedigree of the Wolfhound, whereas the more recent little book by the Rev. Dr. Hogan is an historical essay. (Hogan, E.: "The History of the Irish Wolfdog", Dublin, 1897). Unfortunately almost the whole issue of this work was destroyed in a fire, and copies are difficult to obtain. Hence a brief resumé will not be out of place.

The Irish Wolfhound had acquired fame in very remote times. Even in Roman times it was exported to Rome for the games and excited the wonder of the people on account of its great size and strength. The best dogs were kept in Ireland for hunting and killing stags, white being the favourite colour. As an instance of the great value which was attached to these dogs, it may be mentioned that in the first century of our era the King of Leinster had a Wolfhound of such strength and breeding that six thousand cows and other things were offered for it by the King of Connacht. It is also of interest to note in connection with the origin of the Scottish Deerhound that in the same century the sons of Uisneach, in their flight from Ulster into Scotland, took with them 150 Greyhounds, as the Wolfhounds were then called.

In the third or fourth century flourished the great warrior and hunter, Finn, son of Cumall. In an ancient poem are given the names of three hundred of his hounds. About the year 1280 Edward I ordered deerhounds to be sent to him from Ireland. It was in the 16th century that we first learn something more definite about this dog, which henceforth was sometimes spoken of as the Irish Wolfhound. It is described as having a long rough coat, pendent ears, the forehead being slightly raised, muzzle long and the line of profile arched. Two such Wolfhounds had strength and courage enough to dispose of a Wild Boar, and were sufficiently tall and powerful to seize a Wolf across the loins and trot off with him as easily as a Greyhound can deal with a Hare. The colour of these dogs was of a dark-grey brindle without any white.

Irish Wolfhounds were exported in great numbers during the 17th century, some of them to India, others to Spain, Italy, Sweden, Poland and Persia. Eventually, the country became so depleted of Wolfhounds that a great increase of Wolves took place. An Order in Council had, therefore, to be made in 1652 prohibiting their export. About the year 1694, the naturalist Ray described the Irish Wolfhound as the greatest dog he had ever seen, surpassing in size even the molossus (Mastiff), and being similar in all respects to the common Greyhound. Riedinger figured it in 1720. At that time and later the Irish Wolfhound was evidently being crossed with the Great Dane, the Mastiff and other dogs, for the pure race was becoming scarce. A few gentlemen preserved them. Goldsmith commenting in 1770 on this fact said that the largest of them he had seen was about four feet high, or as tall as a calf of a year old. It was extremely like a Greyhound, but more robust and white in colour. Wolves had then become extinct in Ireland, but in Spain these fierce creatures were still hunted with the Irish Wolfhound.

The dog described by Lambert (Transactions Linnean Society, London, 1797), probably was one of the hybrids alluded to, for its figure is more like that of a Mastiff than of the hound mentioned by those who knew him intimately. Captain Graham considered Lambert's dog to be a degenerate specimen of the Great Dane. (Graham, G.A.: "The Irish Wolfhound", Dursley, 1885). According to some authorities the true Wolfhound had become extinct about this time, but Richardson, Graham and Father Hogan all agree that the type survived until the next century.

The Irish Wolfhound Club carries on the task of keeping up the stock of the old breed, and its secretary, Mr. John F. Baily, who kindly allowed me to examine a copy of Graham's book, and who has studied the problem for many years, is in full agreement with Richardson, Graham, and others, that the modern breed corresponds in all essentials with the old one.

In the earlier part of this paper I have already commented on Father Hogan's opinion that the Irish word was applied to this breed of dog. Originally of many shades, although white was the favourite hue, the Wolfhound is now always bred of an iron grey colour. The stuffed head referred to by Dr. Hogan as being of Hamilton Rowan's strain, as well as a magnificent example of the Wolfhound given by The O'Mahony, which both agree with the old description, are now in the National Museum in Dublin.

The view that this mocern and still existing strain of the Irish Wolfhound corresponds with the old breed is supported by the fact that the Scottish Deerhound is essentially of the same race. Richardson maintained long ago that the two were originally identical, although the Scottish Deerhound had assumed certain distinctive characteristics in the course of time. (Richardson, H.D.: "The Irish Wolfdog". Irish Penny Journal, May, 1841) Bell, who made a special study of the Scottish Deerhound, comes to the same conclusion, confirming the opinion that it originated from the Irish Wolfhound. (Bell, E.W.: "The Scottish Deerhound". Edinburgh, 1892). When we consider that the Irish conquered Scotland centuries ago, and that they took their deer-hunting dogs with them, it is not surprising that it should be so. In the olden times the Irish warriors who colonized Caledonia were called Scots. They kept up their breed of dogs for hunting, and even in the 17th century these dogs were still known as "Irish Greyhounds". Moreover, whereas we have numerous records of the exportation of Wolfhounds from Ireland, no evidence exists of any exports of Deerhounds from Scotland, showing that the latter are of more recent origin.

The case in favour of the argument that the existing strain of the Irish Wolfhound corresponds with the old one is even stronger when we call to aid the actual skulls of the two. Several skulls of a large wolf-like dog were discovered in a crannog near Dunshaughlin in County Meath and first identified by Sir William Wilde as those of the Wolfhound. (Wilde, W.: Upon the unmanufactured animal remains belonging to the Academy. Proc. R. Irish Academy, Vol. vii, 1860). These skulls are in the National Museum in Dublin. They were subsequently examined by Prof. Leith Adams, who commented on their extreme likeness to those of Wolves. (Adams, Leith: On the recent and extinct Irish mammals. Proc. R. Dublin Soc. (N.S.), vol. ii, 1878). Yet he decided that they must have belonged to a breed of dog similar to the Scottish Deerhound. More recently casts of the same skulls were submitted to Prof. Th. Studer, of Berne, who pronounced them to belong to the Irish Wolfhound. By comparison with skulls of the modern breed, such as that of Capt. Graham of Dursley, or H. Walker of St. Moritz, he found the modern more slender and elongated than the prehistoric ones, but clearly of the same variety. He expressed the opinion that the ancient Wolfhound might have reached a height of over a metre (that is to say 39 inches) at the shoulders. He also stated that the skull of the Scottish Deerhound shows an agreement in shape and form with that of the Irish Wolfhound but that it is somewhat more elongated and more slender. (Studer, Th.: Die praehistorischen Hunde. Abhandl. der Schweiz. palaeont. Gesellsch. vol. xxviii, 1901).

Many authorities have commented on the very close relationship of the Irish Wolfhound to the Wolf, and some even doubt whether any valid and reliable distinction between the skeletons of dogs and Wolves can be found. Studer, however, first drew attention to a peculiarity which always seemed to distinguish dogs and Wolves from one another and that is the position and shape of the eye-sockets. The eyes in the Wolf are placed somewhat more laterally than in the dog, with the result that they alter its whole physionomy. In the skull this fact becomes apparent by measuring the angle between the plane of the orbit and that of the brow by means of the clinometer. If that angle measures from 40° to 45° the skull belongs to a Wolf. If it exceeds 45° the skull is that of a dog. Reynolds contends that even this useful distinction cannot be absolutely relied upon in all cases. (Reynolds, S.H.: The pleistocene Canidae. Palaeontographical Society, vol. ii, part 3, 1909). He remains, therefore, in the position of those who acknowledge that there are no constant distinguishing characters between Wolf and dog.

When examining the remains of undoubted Wolves from Irish caves, I found that the skulls and limb-bones were not as powerful as those of the Wolfhound. The latter, therefore, probably exceeded the Irish Wolf in strength and swiftness, but the teeth of the Wolves, particularly the first upper molars, were decidedly larger than those of the Wolfhound. (Scharff, Seymour, and Newton: The Exploration of Castlepook Cave. Proc. R. Irish Acad., vol. xxxiv. (Section B), 1918)

Richardson held that we are indebted to Greece for the ancient race of Greyhounds. How and when it reached Ireland he does not suggest. But he maintained that the original Irish Greyhound was unquestionably a long-haired dog, and that it attained a height of 36 to 40 inches. The view that the Irish Greyhound, or Wolfhound as it is now called, had any relationship with the Great Dane he holds to be entirely mistaken, for those dogs are lethargic and sluggish in their movements, which rather fits them for the purpose of the boar hunt. The desideratum of the Wolfhound on the other hand was a combination of extreme swiftness to enable him to overtake his rapid and formidable quarry as well as vast strength to seize, secure and slay him when overtaken. (Richardson, H.D.: "The Dog, its origin, natural history and varieties. London (new edition), 1857).

The Irish Naturalist, August and September, 1924

The Irish Naturalist was first published in April, 1892 and ceased publication in December, 1924. My thanks to Dr. Robin Govier of the National University of Ireland, Galway, and to Prof. Valerie Hall of Queen's University, Belfast for the above article.

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