Irish Wolfhound History

The Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

Saturday, November 21st, 1840

The original of this article is in the Library of the British Museum, so the illustration given here is a drawing done from a photocopy

hound chasing a stag

In what has been called, and, considering the qualities required, not inappropriately, the "Art of deer-stalking", the dog plays a comparatively subordinate part; the 'stalker' trusts rather to the unerring accuracy of his rifle than to the speed and prowess of his canine followers; but in the olden days of deer-hunting, before rifles were known, or any species of fire-arms dreamed of, it was very different; skill on the part of the hunter was undoubtedly needed then as now, but with his gallant dogs rested in a great measure the success of the chase. The stag had not then simply to be brought to any particular place, within range of the sportsman's shot; he had to be fairly followed and overtaken by superior swiftness, seized, and overpowered by superior force. It will be evident that dogs of no ordinary kind could accomplish this; we shall not, therefore, be surprised to find that the Highland deer-hounds were superior to every other known breed for the combination they exhibited of speed, endurance, courage, and power. But it is a matter of surprise, we may add, it is a matter to be lamented, that their noble race appears to be on the very eve of extinction. In the present paper we propose to give a few notices of its history, appearance, habits, etc., for which we must again express our acknowledgements to Mr. Scrope's recent work..
This animal has been known by various apellations, as the Irish wolf-dog, the Irish greyhound, the Highland deer-hound and the Scotch greyhound, for there appears no doubt that all the dogs thus denominated were essentially of the same breed. Its original home is supposed to have been Ireland, from whence, during the proud days of ancient Rome, it was frequently conveyed in iron cages to assist in the sports of the city of the Tiber. In Buffon we find the following passage:- 'The Irish greyhounds are of a very ancient race, and still exist (though their number is small) in their original climate; they were called by the ancients dogs of Epirus and Albanian dogs. Pliny has narrated, in the most elegant and energetic terms, a combat between one of these dogs, first with a lion, then with an elephant; they are much larger than a mastiff.' Of their size, power, and of their possessing the true greyhound form and appearance, the following quotations from Holinshed and Evelyn offer satisfactory testimonies. The former says, in his 'Description of Ireland and the Irish', written in 1586, "They are not without wolves, and greyhounds to hunt them, bigger of bone and lim than a colt;" and the latter, speaking of a bear-garden, "The bulls (bull-dogs) did exceeding well, but the Irish wolf-dog exceeded, which was a tall greyhound, a stately creature indeed who beat a cruele mastiff."
Of the antiquity of the existence of a similar (and doubtless the same) race of dogs in Scotland, possessing a great general resemblance to the present greyhound, but much larger, stronger, and more courageous, there are many evidences. In the church-yard of Meigle, a village in Perthshire, are some sculptured stones, respresenting, in relief, the figures of several animals of this kind: the date of these sculptures is considered to have been prior to the introduction of Christianity. In various other parts of the country similar representations are found. In England also the breed appears to have been greatly encouraged. In the Anglo-Saxon times, a nobleman never went out unaccompanied by some of these dogs and his hawk, and so highly were they esteemed, that by the forest laws of Canute it was ordered that no person under the rank of gentleman should keep one. Until after the Norman Conquest the chase was always, even in England, pursued on foot: the nobles of the Conqueror's train introduced the custom of hunting on horseback. As cultivation increased, and the most formidable objects of chase - the wolves - decreased in this country, the breed degenerated in size and strength, whilst the quality now more desiderated - speed - was, on the other hand, still more strongly developed; the result is the present race of greyhounds. But in Ireland, Scotland and Wales the rugged character of the country kept up for a much longer time the ancient deer-hunts in all their essential features.
In describing the deer-hound we may first present our readers with the following translation from the Celtic, showing what the ancient ideas were of his personal requisites:-

'An eye of sloe, with ear not low
With horse's breast, with depth of chest,
With breadth of loin, and curve in groin.
And nape set far behind the head;
Such were the dogs that Fingal bred.' 

Some of the finest living specimens are described by Mr. Macneil as varying in colour from pale yellow to sandy red, with considerable differences in the length and quality of the hair, and as having one common peculiarity - the never failing accompaniment of purity of breed - namely, that the tips of the ears, eyes, and muzzle are black, whilst the rest of the body is of one uniform colour, whatever that colour may be. The principle difference between the original deer-hound and the common greyhound consists of the greater height of the shoulders, in the generally larger proportions of the head, neck and muzzle, and in the quality of the bone, which is coarser. The gentleman we have just referred to estimates their former average height at thirty inches, their girth at thirty-four inches, and their weight at a hundred pounds. In disposition the deer-hound is more playful and attached than the greyhound, but bolder and fiercer if aroused; he is also more sagacious. A striking peculiarity of this breed is that there is a greater difference in size between the male and female than in any other of the canine races. Of this noble race there now remain in England and Ireland no traces whatever, and in Scotland there are not probably in all above a dozen pure deer-hounds to be met with. As we have before observed, therefore, the race appears doomed to entire extinction, unless the possessors of the few remaining animals use extraordinary exertions to increase their number. That some such exertions may be made appears the more probable from the circumstance that the old Scottish mode of chase, deer-coursing, has not yet fallen into desuetude.
Mr. Macneil's paper furnishes us with a very graphic account of the proceedings of a small party of six sports- men, attended by a deer-stalker, etc. in the island of Jura, in August 1835, from which we extract the following passage as illustrative of the qualities of the Highland deer-hound, even 'in these degenerate days'. We omit all the preliminary manoeuvres to obtain a favourable position, as they are essentially the same as those we have already described in the article on 'Deer-Stalking':-

"The dogs were slipped, a general halloo burst from the whole party, and the stag wheeling round set off at full speed, with Buskar and Bran straining after him. The brown figure of the deer, with his noble antlers laid back, contrasted with the light colour of the dogs, stretching along the dark heath, presented one of the most exciting scenes that it is possible to imagine. The deer's first attempt was to gain some rising ground to the left of the spot where we stood, and rather behind us; but being closely pursued by the dogs he soon found that his only safety was in speed; and (as a deer does not run well up hill, nor, like a roe, straight down hill) on the dogs' approaching him he turned, and almost retraced his footsteps, taking, however, a steeper line of descent than the one by which he ascended. Here the chase became most interesting; the dogs pressed him hard, and the deer getting confused found himself suddenly on the brink of a small precipice of about fourteen feet in height, from the bottom of which there sloped a rugged mass of stones. He paused for a moment, as if afraid to take the leap, but the dogs were so close that he had no alternative. At this time the party were not above one hundred and fifty yards distant, and most anxiously waited the result, fearing from the ruggedness of the ground below, that the deer would not survive the leap. They were, however, soon relieved from their anxiety; for though he took the leap, he did so more cunningly than gallantly, dropping himself in the most singular manner, so that his hind legs first reached the broken rocks below; nor were the dogs long in following him; Buskar sprang first, and, extraordinary to relate, did not lose his legs; Bran followed, and on reaching the ground, performed a complete somerset; he soon, however, recovered his legs, and the chase was continued in an oblique direction down the side of a most rugged and rocky brae, the deer, apparently more fresh and nimble than ever, jumping through the rocks like a goat, and the dogs well up, though occasionally receiving the most fearful falls. From the high position in which we were placed, the chase was visible for nearly half a mile. When some rising ground intercepted our view, we made with all speed for a higher point, and on reaching it, we could perceive that the dogs, having got upon smooth ground, had gained on the deer, who was still going at speed, and were close up with him. Bran was then leading, and in a few seconds was at his heels, and immediately seized his hock with such violence of grasp as seemed in a great measure to paralyze the limb, for the deer's speed was immediately checked. Buskar was not far behind, for soon afterwards passing Bran, he seized the deer by the neck. Notwithstanding the weight of the two dogs, which were hanging on to him, having the assistance of a slope of the ground, he continued dragging them along at a most extraordinary rate (in defiance of their utmost exertions to restrain him), and succeeded more than once in kicking Bran off." The poor animal is at length killed, but though told with great animation, we prefer omitting an account of the final struggle, in which the sufferings of the stag, we think, must have caused emotions more painful than could be compensated even by the excitation of the succesful end of the chase, to a humane and well-constructed mind.

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