Irish Wolfhound History

Modern Dogs by Rawdon Briggs Lee

Published 1893 by Horace Cox, London



Some there are who believe that this historical hound became extinct soon after the last wolf was killed in Ireland, which happened in 1710. Others hold the opinion that it never became extinct at all; but survives in the Scottish deerhound, with which they say it was identical. A third division have equally strong opinions, something between the two, which are to the effect that so recently as eighty or ninety years ago very few real Irish wolfhounds remained, and these not readily traceable back to the oldest strains. Others advocate the smooth greyhound as the true article. Then, to complicate matters still further, the Great Dane has become mixed up in the controversy. There is no doubt that at one time or another this big dog has passed himself off to the believing and credulous inhabitants of the Emerald Isle as their own beloved native dog, and, as a fact, many authorities of the past generation write to prove that the Irish wolfhound was, if not a Great Dane, a smooth-coated creature very like him; and additional evidence that such was the case is to be found in the following instance.

Some four years or so ago, I was shown by the Earl of Antrim a life-sized painting of an enormous hound which had been in his family for about a hundred years. Through generations this had been handed down as a true Irish wolfhound, a noble creature that had saved the life of one of his lordship's ancestors under peculiar and extraordinary circumstances, so the faithful creature had its portrait painted. Now this dog was a huge southern hound in appearance, marked like a modern foxhound, with long, pendulous ears, possibly an animal identical with the matin of old writers. The painting gave the idea that the subject had, in life, stood about thirty-four inches high at the shoulders.

It was but natural, when I introduced this interesting discovery to the public through the columns of the Field, that discussion and controversy thereon would arise, and such was the case. Little new material as to the history of the Irish dog was elicited, and it was to be regretted that Lord Antrim could afford no further particulars as to the animal to which attention was first drawn.

One might have expected to find something reliable and convincing as to what the Irish wolfhound really was in the "Sportsman's Cabinet", published in 1803. Here we have an excellent engraving from a picture by Reinagle, of a huge dog, an enormous deerhound in act, the identical creature popular reputation stated such a dog to be. Unfortunately the letterpress describes quite a different animal - more of the Great Dane type than of the deerhound. And so the authorities who wrote at that time differed quite as much on the matter as do the admirers of the race at the present time.

To Captain Graham, of Dursley in Gloucestershire, we owe considerable gratitude for the trouble he has taken to resuscitate the Irish wolfhound. Enthusiast though he be, he is not like so many other enthusiasts, led away to say things he cannot prove, or, indeed, to lay claim to his hounds being descended in direct line from those animals which may have or may not have killed the last wolf near Dingle over 180 years ago. The gallant gentleman acknowledges the breed in its original integrity has disappeared, but he believed, when first writing on the subject twenty years ago, that so much of the true strain remained that, with the aid of the modern deerhound, and with judicious management, the breed in its "pristine grandeur" could be recovered.

The difficulty, to my mind, would be to exactly define the original Irish wolfhound. The popular idea - and this is not always correct - was of a big, powerful dog, with a wire-haired or rough coat, built on the lines of a deerhound, but altogether a heavier and stronger animal. What height a full-grown specimen should be there is a diversity of opinion. Old writers have said he was as big as a donkey; others that he stood from 36 inches to 40 inches at the shoulders. In the museum of the Royal Dublin Society there are two skulls of wolfhounds dug out of barrows by the late Dr. Wilde. The dimension of them have been very useful to those who believed in the bigness of the wolfhound. Unfortunately for the side of the latter, these skulls, when carefully measured and compared with others of living dogs, deerhounds, wolfhounds, and greyhounds, could not have been possessed by animals more than 29 inches high at the shoulders.

However, it is not my province here to say what kind of an animal the historical Irish deerhound was, whether there were two, three, or four varieties, or whether any dog that would tackle and hunt a wolf was, from the moment he did so, called a wolfhound. This would only be similar to what occurs in our own days; for have we not the ordinary foxhound called a staghound or a buckhound when he is entered to hunt the deer?

Mr. G.W. Hickman, of Birmingham, has written most exhaustively and carefully on the subject on one side; so have Mr. H. Richardson, Captain Graham, Mr. R.D. O'Brien, Limerick, and others on another side. I have to deal with "modern dogs" and so the wolfhound, as he is now resuscitated, must be described by me. There is no doubt that by careful crossing between certain dogs obtained from Ireland about 1841 with the deerhound and the Great Dane, an animal of a certain distinctive type has been obtained, which, in its turn, breeds perhaps quite as truly up to a certain standard, as most other canine varieties. Captain Graham, who must be said to be the chief supporter of the modern variety, says that his own strain "he can trace back to those had by Richardson in 1841-42, though not beyond 1862 from father to son. He says the breed had been kept up by Mr. Baker, of Badylohm Castle, and Sir John Power, of Kilfane, from 1840 to 1865, or thereabouts. He further says that on good grounds it was believed that "these dogs were descended from Hamilton Rowan's, so called, last of his race, Bran by name, a fine dark grey, rough hound that was his constant companion." Captain Graham had a grandson of Kilfane Oscar, a dog he obtained from Sir Ralph Payne-Galwey, and from this he traces the purity of the blood as far back as it will go. He advocated a cross with the Great Dane and deerhound, and latterly, on the popularisation of the Borzoi or Russian wolfhound, has suggested a third cross with that variety.

He, at the time I write, has a litter of eleven puppies by the Borzoi, Korotai, from his wolfhound bitch Banshee, but whether such a cross is desirable is an open question, and the Irish wolfhound would, I fancy, have found greater favour with the public had the original Great Dane and deerhound blood not been departed from.

Some of the Irish wolfhound seen at modern exhibitions are extremely fine animals, docile and quiet as they recline on their benches, and by no means quarrelsome, evidently quite contented with their lot. Indeed, they possess an excellent reputation as companions, especially such as are not the first cross between the two modern varieties already alluded to.

Never having been the fortunate possessor of any Irish wolfhounds, and being desirous of obtaining the best information about them as companions, I wrote to a friend who at times had kept two or three of them, and who would gladly give me his opinion. That friend says the Irish wolfhound is very good with children, is the best domestic pet of any big dog, and none more useful in a quiet country place. He never had a case of anyone being bitten by his Irish dogs, though from their size and appearance, they are a great deterrent to bad characters and the tramping fraternity generally. Some of the strains that contain the Great Dane first cross are not quite of the same disposition as the others, being not nearly so dignified in their demeanour, and inclined to steal whenever an opportunity is afforded them to do so. They are exuberantly affectionate, seldom at rest a moment, but still not quarrelsome. The finer strains are generally more lethargic, stately, and sedate; strong in their attachments to an individual, and extremely quiet and good-tempered with other dogs; the latter often approaching to softness. Still, when roused and angry, they can give a good account of themselves, and punish their enemy severely. In no degree are they so quarrelsome as many of the deerhounds of the present day.

This is not a bad character at all for a dog that is to be made an every-day companion either in town or country; and certainly, so far as I have studied and noticed the variety, I must agree with the excellent testimonial the Irish wolfhound receives from one who has kept him for half a generation.

This dog has been recommended as likely to be useful with "big game," not elephants and hippopotami, but with wolves, hyenas, and such inferior animals as are to be found in South Africa and other great hunting countries. Whether they would do so well as either the pure Dane or the deerhound is an open question. They are not sufficiently smart and active to cope successfully with powerful beasts of prey, though perhaps, if brought up to the work and at an early age trained to hunt they would be able to do as well as any other breed of dog. But it is folly for a young fellow to obtain a hound of any of these varieties - Great Dane, deerhound, or Irish wolfhound - from some of the show kennels, rush him over to the Cape, on into the interior of Africa, and expect him to take as kindly to hunt "the king of the forest" or the leopard as he would to accepting a biscuit from the hand of some fair mistress. An Irish wolfhound requires to be properly entered to game just as carefully as do the pointer, setter, and retriever; and generations passed in kennels or in the drawing-room have no tendency to improve him as a destroyer of wild animals when they come in his way.

A modern Irish wolfhound is in appearance just a big and rather coarse deerhound, and, previous to giving his description as drawn up the Wolfhound Club, the following statistics of the height and weight of some of the best specimens will perhaps not be without interest:- Captain Graham's Brian, figured in "Dogs of the British Isles", stood 30½ inches at the shoulder and weighed 128 lb.; Dhulart was 31 inches at the shoulder and 127 lb. weight; Bamtree, 29¾ inches and 101 lb. weight; Mask, 30¼ inches, and 106 lb. weight; Tara, 29 inches and about 100 lb.; Fintragh, 29¾ inches and 110 lb. weight. Colonel Garnier showed a particularly fine young dog at the Kennel Club's Show at Islington in 1888, which unfortunately died soon after the exhibition. The hound, called Merlin, stood 33 inches at the shoulders, and, though unfurnished, scaled 150 lb. He was fawn in colour, and undoubtedly the finest specimen of the race I have seen or has yet appeared at any of our shows.

It is rather unfortunate that so fine a dog has not attracted popular fancy. Had it done so, there would have been as much a run on the Irish wolfhound as there has been on other and perhaps less deserving varieties. The club to look after its interests is fairly successful, but there is a sad lack of enterprise amongst the general public. Even the natives of the Emerald Isle themselves have refused to answer the call, and, as a rule, the prizes at Dublin for the national breed of dog are swept away by the Saxon invader. Their terrier they patronise, but neglect the wolfhound and the Kerry beagle. Had it not been for an Englishman, Captain Graham, this canine relic of a mighty race might even now be extinct. To prevent its becoming so, earnest admirers of the dog, such as he with Colonel Garnier, Mr. Hood Wright, Newton-le-Willows; the Rev. H.L. O'Brien, Limerick; Mr. Bailey, Mr. F.D. George, Cheltenham; Mr. G.E. Crisp, Mr. Playford, Ipswich; Mr. S.E. Heap, West Derby; and some few others do their best and usually possess some few specimens of the article as genuine as it can be obtained. Most of the bigger shows provide classes for Irish wolfhounds, but the competition therein is never strong, and the chief prizes are usually taken by one or other of the gentlemen to whom allusion has been made. A dog has either to save a life or to take one, before he can ensure any amount of popularity, and the Irish wolfhound has not yet done either in his modern form.

The following is the description of the variety as drawn up by the Club:

1. General appearance. — The Irish wolfhound should not be quite so heavy or 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 tail carried with an upward sweep with a slight curve towards the extremity. The minimum height and weight of dogs should be 31 in. and 120 lb.; of bitches 28 in. and 90 lb. 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 firmly establish a race that shall average from 32 in. to 34 in. in dogs, showing the requisite power, activity, courage, and symmetry.

2. Head. — Long, the frontal bones of the forehead very slightly raised, and very little indentation between the eyes. Skull, not too broad. Muzzle, long and moderately pointed. Ears, small and greyhound-like in carriage.

3. Neck. — Rather long, very strong and muscular, well arched, without dewlap or loose skin about the throat.

4. Chest. — Very deep. Breast wide.

5. Back. — Rather long than short. Loins, arched.

6. Tail. — Long and slightly curved, of moderate thickness and well covered with hair.

7. Belly. — Well drawn up.

8. Fore-quarters. — Shoulders, muscular, giving breadth of chest, set sloping. Elbows, well under, neither turned inwards nor outwards. Leg. — Fore-arm muscular, and the whole leg strong and quite straight.

9. Hind-quarters. — Muscular thighs and second thigh long and strong as in the greyhound, and hocks well let down and turning neither in nor out.

10. Feet. — Moderately large and round, neither turned inwards nor outwards. Toes well arched and closed. Nails, very strong and curved.

11. Hair. — Rough and hard on body, legs, and head; especially wiry and long over eyes and under jaw.

12. Colour and markings. — The recognised colours are grey, brindle, red, black, pure white, fawn, or any colour that appears in the deerhound.

13. Faults. — Too light or too heavy a head, too highly arched frontal bone; large ears and hanging flat to the face; short neck; full dewlap; too narrow or too broad a chest; sunken or hollow or quite straight back; bent fore-legs; overbent fetlocks; twisted feet; spreading toes; too curly a tail; weak hind-quarters and a general want of muscle; too short in body.

Arthur Wardle illustration 
Drawing by Arthur Wardle included in the book Modern Dogs 

Antrim hound 
 This is the hound in the painting held by Lord Antrim's family but it is hard to see
why it should give the impression of being any particular size. The picture was
not included in the book Modern Dogs.

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May 8th, 2005