By S.M. Lampson

Country Life, May 23, 1957

The great size, dignified bearing and wistful expression of the modern Irish wolfhound make it only too easy to believe that he is the scion of an ancient race in whose veins flows the pure and unsullied blood of the hounds who hunted with the Irish kings. A romantic thought, but not the truth. In fact, the modern Irish wolfhound is a 19th-century parvenu whose comparatively short pedigree is made up of a mixture of breeds who brought to it little or none of the blood of the original hounds. Nevertheless, the magnificent hounds one sees today, whether or not they bear any resemblance to the ancient hounds of Ireland, are a credit to those breeders who had the imagination and the skill to bring them into being.

The giant wolfhounds of Ireland were no romantic myths, though whether they were quite as huge as the old writers would have us believe is a matter for doubt.. These hounds are constantly mentioned in Celtic legends and history. Where they originated one can only surmise, but the Romans knew and admired them. It is said that they, together with mastiffs, were exported to Rome to fight wild beasts in the amphitheatre. More factually, we know that Strabo wrote of a powerful hound, used and esteemed by the Celtic and Pictish tribes and imported into Gaul.

It is generally assumed that the deerhounds of Scotland and the larger and more powerful wolfhounds of Ireland sprang from the same root. References to the Irish hounds appear at intervals down the years. Unfortunately, few of them describe the animals in any detail, though we hear from Camden that: "The Irish wolfhound is similar in shape to a greyhound, bigger than a mastiff and as tractable as a spanyel"; another writer remarks: "Ireland is stored of cows, excellent horses, of hawkes, fish and fowle. They are not without wolves and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and limb than a colt."

In 1562 Shane O'Neill gave Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, "two horses, two hawkes and two Irish Wolfdogs" as a present to the first Queen Elizabeth, and in 1585 Sir John Perrott sent "a brace of good wolf dogs, one black and one white" to Sir Francis Walsingham. Katherine Philips (1633-1664) wrote a poem entitled The Irish Greyhound, but devoted her rather dull lines more to character than conformation. "True courage dwells with gentleness" is her most illuminating remark.

That the wolfhound, or, as it was alternatively called, the wolf dog was of great value as a killer of wolves is proved by Oliver Cromwell's edict dated April 27, 1652, which prohibited the export of these dogs. "Forasmuch as we are credibly informed that wolves do much increase and destroy many cattle in several parts of this dominion and that some of the enemy's party, who have laid down their arms and have liberty to go beyond the seas, and others do attempt to carry away several such great dogges, whereby the breed of them, which are useful for destroying wolves, would if not prevented, speedily suffer decay, these are therefore to prohibit all persons whatsoever from exporting any of the said dogges out of this dominion." Nevertheless, we find in the letters of Dorothy Osborne a request to Sir William Temple to get her an Irish greyhound and later she reports having received "Two of the finest young Irish greyhounds that e'er I saw: a gentleman who serves the General sent them to me. They are newly come over, and sent for by H.C. [Henry Cromwell]."

The last wolf in Ireland is said to have been killed in Kerry in the year 1710. With no further purpose in life it is easy to understand why the wolfhounds became increasingly rare. Gough, in his 1789 edition of Camden, writes: "The race [wolfdogs] is now almost extinct: there are not now perhaps above ten in the country." Landowners were turning their attention to dogs they could use when shooting; the farmers and peasantry were themselves short of food and not likely to be interested in maintaining large dogs of no particular use. The deerhounds of Scotland nearly met the same fate and at one time their fortunes were also at a very low ebb.

Many writers, especially those commenting on the Irish wolfhound in the early years of the 19th century, were apt to confuse it with the great dane, thus making the disentangling of wolfhound history even more difficult. It does, however, seem probable that at some earlier date the wolfhounds of Ireland, which, as we have seen, were valued outside their own island, were crossed with the Continental boarhounds to give them additional size and speed: thus the wolfhound may have been part ancestor of the great dane. Despite the lack of reliable detailed description of the Irish hounds, there is little reason to doubt that they were, in fact, an old breed, which from lack of interest degenerated and was to all intents and purposes extinct at the end of the 18th century.

The modern dog is not in fact descended from the
ancient Irish hounds, but from a mixture of breeds in the 19th century

This, then, was the state of affairs in the latter half of the 19th century, when the breed revival began. An Englishman, Captain George Augustus Graham, an admirer and breeder of deerhounds, became actively interested in the old Irish breed. Others had already done some preliminary work, notably Mr. H.D. Richardson and Mr. McNeill, of Colonsay in Argyllshire. It was, however, Captain Graham who carried on and gathered other enthusiasts as he progressed. Starting from the not unlikely premise that "we have in the Deerhound the modern representative of the old Irish Wolfhound" - the words are his own - he began his breeding operations. Undoubtedly Captain Graham faced many problems, since neither he nor anybody else had seen the original wolfhound and the animals on which he pinned his hopes were only said to be descendants of the old breed. Rather disdainfully he repudiated the claims of several strains - those of Lord Altamont in particular - to descent from the original hounds, since by reason of their colour or coat they did not fit in with his almost self-made picture of a giant deerhound. Since even the original Irish wolfhounds never seem to have been particularly carefully bred, and by the time of which I write most of the dogs that were even reputed to carry the blood of the ancient breed had been crossed with great danes, Captain Graham had set himself a very difficult task; nevertheless he was convinced that he could increase the size of deerhounds by careful feeding, rearing and crossing. He had a picture painted of his ideal hound. In the eyes of a modern beholder it is a strange, heraldic-looking animal with a head something like that of a Bedlington terrier, goitrous and dipping badly behind the shoulders! The height aspired to for the revived hounds was about 35 inches at the shoulder.

Since a certain amount of public interest had been aroused in the resurrection of Irish wolfhounds, Captain Graham persuaded the promoters of the Dublin Dog Show of 1879 to include a class for "The nearest approach to the Old Original Irish Wolfhound", with himself as judge. The result was very disappointing and produced no previously hidden or overlooked wolfhounds; the winner, Brian, was admittedly only an oversized deerhound.

For the rest of the century Captain Graham and a small band of enthusiasts plodded along. Death and disease brought many disappointments, but gradually an improved and more level type of hound emerged. There is no doubt that both great danes and borzois were made use of at this period, and it would seem that Captain Graham had revised some of his earlier ideas, but he had the honour of owning and breeding the breed's first champion in Sheelah, a bitch born in 1882. In 1885 the Irish Wolfhound Club was formed with Captain Graham as its first president.

The new century brought better things and brighter prospects, and new names appear among the breeders of Irish wolfhounds. The hound Ch. Wargrave, who had made his first appearance in 1897, sired both Ch. Atara, a bitch whose progeny did a tremendous amount to improve her breed, and the dog Ch. Wolf Tone. Mrs. Percy Shewell, who owned Ch. Wolf Tone, also owned Ch. Cotswold, a wheaten-coloured dog who stood 34 1/2 inches at the shoulder - probably the tallest hound ever to have appeared in the show-ring up to that time.

The bright light of publicity also turned on the Irish wolfhound when, in 1902, Rajah of Kidnal was presented to the Irish Guards as their regimental pet and accompanied them on ceremonial occasions. There were, however, those who said that an Irish terrier or Irish setter would have had a better claim for the position. Success always seems to evoke envy.

If Captain Graham laid the foundation stones of the modern breed of wolfhound Mr. Everett undoubtedly built on them, and his Felixstowe hounds were prominent and almost supreme in the show-ring for a number of years.

Two major wars and the accompanying restrictions and shortages of food have not made the breeding of such large dogs an easy matter, and it is surprising that the great majority of modern hounds are strong boned and sound. It speaks well of the ability of such breeders as the late Mr. E.V. Rank, Miss Croucher and Mrs. Nagle (whose Sulhamstead hounds are nearly, if not quite, as famous as her Irish setters) that the breed is in such a good position to-day and that a sound hound standing 37 ins. at the shoulder is far from uncommon.

The breed's standard of points asks for an animal of great size and commanding appearance, very muscular, strongly though gracefully built, carrying its head and neck high. The coat is "rough and hardy" on the body, legs and head and especially wiry and long over the eyes and under the jaw. The usual colours are grey, brindle, red, black, pure white or fawn.

Whether the Irish wolfhound of to-day does in fact physically resemble the hounds of the past one cannot be certain. His character, however, remains the same - "gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked."

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