Irish Wolfhound History

The Natural History of Quadrupeds and Glorious Animals

(published 1811)

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. This animal, which is very rare, even in the only country in the world where it is to be found, is rather kept for show than use; there being neither wolves nor any other formidable beasts of prey in Ireland that seem to require so powerful an antagonist. The wolf-dog is therefore bred up in the houses of the great, or such gentlemen as choose to keep him as a curiosity, being neither good for hunting the hare, the fox, nor the stag, and equally unserviceable as a house dog. Nevertheless he is extremely beautiful and majestic to 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 above 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 rather more robust, and inclining to the figure of the French Mâtin, or the Great Dane. His eye was mild, his colour white, and his nature seemed heavy and phlegmatic. This I ascribed to his having been bred up to a size beyond his nature; for we see in man, and all other animals, that such as are overgrown are neither so vigorous nor alert as those of a more moderate stature.

The greatest pains have been taken with these to enlarge the breed, both by food and matching. This end was effectually obtained, indeed, for 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; he added that they would worry the strongest bull-dogs, in a few minutes, to death. But this strength did not appear in either their figure or their inclinations; they seemed rather more timid than the ordinary race of dogs; and their skin was much thinner and consequently less fitted for combat. Whether, with these disadvantages they were capable, as I was told, of singly coping with bears, others may determine; however they have few opportunities, in their own country, of exerting their strength, as all wild carnivorous animals there are only of the vermin kind.

M. Buffon seems to be of the opinion that these are the true Molossian dogs of the ancients; he gives no reason for this opinion; and I am apt to think it ill-grounded. Not to trouble the reader with a tedious critical disquisition, which I have all along avoided it will be sufficient to observe that Nemesianus, in giving directions for the choice of a bitch, advises to have one of Spartan or Molossian breed; and, among several other perfections, he says that the ears should be dependent, and fluctuate when she runs. This, however, is by no means the case with the Irish wolf-dog, whose ears resemble those of the grey-hound and are far from fluctuating with the animal's motions. But of whatever kind these dogs may be, whether known among the ancients, or whether produced by a later mixture, they are now almost quite worn away, and are very rarely to be met with even in Ireland. If carried to other countries, they soon degenerate; and even at home, unless great care be taken, they quickly alter. They were once employed in clearing the island of wolves, which infested it in great plenty; but these being destroyed; the dogs also are wearing away, as if nature meant to blot out the species when they had no longer any services to perform.

Irish wolfdog

 Previous page  Site guide  History Index  Home page  Book index Next page