Irish Wolfhound History

THE DOG in Health and Disease by Stonehenge (Editor of "The Field")

Published by Longmans, Green, and Co., London, 1887

The Irish Greyhound or Wolf-Dog

This grand variety is now extinct, no one in the present day maintaining that he possesses a strain actually descended from the old stock. An attempt has, however, been made by several gentlemen to "resuscitate it", which appears to me a most absurd one; for whatever may be the result, the produce cannot be regarded as Irish deerhounds, but rather as a modern breed, to which any other name may be given except the one chosen for it. Of course the Scotch deerhound is taken as the stock on which to graft greater size and power, and most probably this has been done, partly by the selection of very large specimens, and partly by crossing with the mastiff, or recently with the Great Dane. The result is, no doubt, the attainment of a small number of very fine animals, but there is great difficulty in keeping up the breed, even for the short time during which it has existed, as is generally the case with manufactured strains. Some of my readers may, however, like to see what is to be said by the most ardent of the breeders of this new strain, and I therefore insert a description published by Captain Graham in "The Country" of February 24, 1876, in extenso, as follows:-


To do full justice to this subject is almost impossible, owing to the fact that there has been a generally received impression amongst modern writers that this noble breed of dog is entirely extinct. That the breed in its "original integrity" has apparently disappeared cannot be disputed, yet there can be equally little doubt that so much of the true breed is forthcoming, both in the race still known in Ireland as the "Irish wolfhound" (to be met, however, in one or two places only) and in our modern deerhound, as to allow of the complete recovery of the breed in its pristine grandeur, with proper management, in judicious hands. It is a fact well known to all modern mastiff breeders who have thoroughly studied the history of their breed, that until within the last thirty or forty years, mastiffs, as a pure race, had almost become extinct. Active measures were taken by various spirited individuals, which resulted in the complete recovery of the breed, in a form at least equal, if not superior, to what it was of yore.

Why should not, then, such measures be taken to recover the more ancient, and certainly equally noble, race of Irish wolfhounds? It may be argued that, the services of such a dog no longer being required for sport, his existence is no longer to be desired; but such an argument is not worthy of consideration for a moment, for how many thousands of dogs are bred for which no work is provided, nor is any expected of them, added to which, the breed would be admirably suited to the requirements of our colonies. One after another the various breeds of dogs which had of late years more or less degenerated, as, for instance, mastiffs, fox-terriers, pugs, St. Bernards, collies, have become "the rage", and in consquence, a vast improvement is observable in the numerous specimens shown from time to time. Let us, then, hope that steps may be taken to restore to us such a magnificent animal as the Irish wolfhound.

That we have in the deerhound the modern representative of the old Irish dog is patent; of less stature, less robust, and of slimmer form, the main characteristics of the original breed remain, and in very exceptional instances specimens "crop up" that throw back to and resemble in a marked manner the old stock from which they have sprung; for instance, the dog well known at all the leading shows (now for some years lost to sight) as champion Torrum. Beyond the facts that he required a somewhat lighter ear and still more massive proportions, combined with greater stature, he evidently approximated more nearly to his distant ancestors than to his immediate ones. The matter of ear here alluded to is probably only a requirement called for by modern and more refined tastes, as it is hardly likely that any very high standard as to quality or looks was ever aimed at or reached by our remote ancestors in any breed of dogs. Strength, stature, and fleetness were the points most carefully cultivated - at any rate, as regards those used in the pursuit and capture of large and fierce game.

It is somewhat remarkable that, whilst we have accounts of almost all the noticeable breeds, including the Irish wolfhound, there is no allusion to any such dog as the deerhound save in writings of a comparatively recent date.

The article or essay on the Irish wolfhound, written by Richardson in 1842, is, it is supposed, the only one on this subject in existence; and whilst it is evident to the reader that the subject has been most ably treated and thoroughly sifted by him, yet some of his conclusions, if not erroneous, are at least open to question. It is a matter of history that this dog is of very ancient origin, and was well known to and highly prized by the Romans, who frequently used him for their combats in the arena; and that he was retained in a certain degree of purity to within a comparatively recent period, when, owing to the extinction of wolves, and presumably to the indifferenvce and carelessness of owners, this most superb and valuable breed of dog was unaccountably suffered to fall into a very neglected and degenerate state.

From the general tenor of the accounts we hear of this dog's dimensions and appearance, it is to be gathered that he was of considerably greater stature than any known race of dogs existing at present, and apparently more than equal to the destruction of a wolf.

It is an incontestable fact that the domestic dog, when used for the pursuit of ferocious animals, should be invariably larger and apparently more powerful than his quarry, as the fierce nature, roving habits, and food of the wild animal render him usually more than a match for his domesticated enemy, if only of equal size and stature. We know that the Russian wolfhounds, though equal in stature to the wolf, will not attack him single-handed; and wisely, for they would certainly be worsted in the combat.

The Irish wolfhound being used for both the capture and despatch of the wolf, it would necessarily have been of greyhound conformation, besides being of enormous power. When caught, a heavy dog such as a mastiff would be equal to the destruction of the wolf; but to obtain a dog with greyhound speed and the strength of the mastiff, it would stand to reason that his stature should considerably exceed that of the mastiff - one of our tallest as well as most powerful breeds. The usual height of the mastiff does not exceed 30 inches; and, arguing as above, we may reasonably conclude that, to obtain the requisite combination of speed and power, a height of at least 33 inches would have been reached. Many writers, however, put his stature down as far exceeding that. Goldsmith states he stood 4 feet; Buffon states one sitting measured 5 feet in height; Bewick, that the Irish wolfhund was about 3 feet in height; Richardson, arguing from the measurement of the skulls of the Irish wolfhound preserved at the present time in the Royal Irish Academy, pronounced it his opinion that they must have stood 40 inches.

It is perfectly certain, from these and many other accounts, allusion to which want of space renders impossible, that the dog was of vast size and strength, and all agree in stating that, whilst his power was that of the mastiff, his form was that of the greyhound. The "Sportsman's Cabinet", a very valuable old book on dogs, published in1803, which is illustrated with very good engravings after drawings from life by Reinagle, R.A., says - "The dogs of Greece, Denmark, Tartary, and Ireland are the largest and strongest of their species. The Irish greyhound is of very ancient race, and still to be found in some few remote parts of the kingdom, but they are said to be much reduced in size even in their original climate; they are much larger than the mastiff, and exceedingly ferocious when engaged." A very good and spirited drawing of this dog is given, which almost entirely coincides with the writer's conclusion as to what the Irish wolfhound was and should be, though a rougher coat and somewhat more lengthy frame are desirable. The dogs described in "Ossian" are evidently identical with the Irish wolfhound, being of much greater stature and power than the present deerhound. From these descriptions, and those given elsewhere, we may conclude that, in addition to the dog's being of great stature, strength, and speed, he was also clothed in rough hair. In support of this we find that in the present day all the larger breeds of greyhound are invariably rough and long as to coat.

Many writers have incorrectly counfounded the Irish wolfhound with the Great Dane, though the two dogs vary entirely in appearance, if not so much in build. It seems more than probable, however, that the two breeds were frequently crossed, which may account for these statements. The late Marquis of Sligo possessed some of this breed, which he was in the habit (erroneously) of considering Irish wolfhounds.

Richardson was at very great trouble to get every information as to the probable height of this dog, but the conclusions arrived at by him (chiefly based on the length of the skulls measured by him) would seem to be decidedly wrong, for the following reasons:- He states "the skull is 11 inches in the bone"; to that he adds 3 inches for nose, skin, and hair, thus getting 14 inches as the length of the living animal's head. The head of a living deerhound, measured by him, is 10 inches, the dog standing 29 inches; he then calculates that the height of the Irish wolfhound would have been 40 inches, taking for his guide the fact that the 29 inches dog's head was 10 inches. This would appear to be accurate enough, but the allowance of 3 inches for extras is absurd; 1½ inches are an ample allowance for the extras, and if the head is taken at 12½ inches the height of the dog will be reduced to 36 inches. Moreover, the measurement of 10 inches for the head of a 29 inches deerhound's head is manifestly insufficient, as the writer can testify from ample experience and frequent measurements. A deerhound of that height would have a head at least 11 inches; so, calculating on the same principles, the Irish skulls would have been from dogs that only stood 33½ inches. Richardson says that this skull is superior in size to the others, which would prove that the average must have been under 33½ inches, and we may safely conclude that the height of those dogs varied from 31 inches to 34 inches. In support of this view the writer would point to the German boarhound; this dog has retained his character from a very remote age, and as he is still used for the capture of fierce and large animals, the breed is not likely to have been allowed to degenerate. The height of this breed varies from 28 inches to 33 inches, the latter being probably the limit to which any race of dogs has been know to arrive.

The writer has numerous extracts from various authors, and many engravings from pictures by artists, dating from the middle of the sixteenth century to the commencement of the present century; but want of space will not allow of their being introduced, though of much interest. From these sources it is gathered clearly that the dog was such as has been above stated; and from these varied accounts the following detailed conclusions as to the appearance and dimensions of the breed are arrived at, though perhaps they may not be considered as absolutely conclusive.

General Appearance and Form That of a very tall, heavy Scotch deerhound; much more massive and majestic looking; active, and tolerably fast, but somewhat less so than the present breed of deerhound; the neck thick in comparison to his form, very muscular and rather long.
Shape of Head - Very long, but not too narrow, coming to a comparative point; nose not too small, and head gradually getting broader from the same evenly up to the back of the skull; much broader between the ears than that of present deerhound.
Coat - Rough and hard all over body, tail, and legs, and of good length; hair on head long, and rather softer than that on body; that under the jaws to be long and wiry, also that over eyes.
Colour - Black, grey, brindle, red, and fawn, though white and particoloured dogs were common, and even preferred in olden times.
Shape and Size of Ears - Small in proportion to size of head, and half erect, resembling those of the best deerhounds; if the dog is of light colour a dark ear is to be preferred.

   Dogs  Bitches
 Probable height at shoulder .. ..  32 in to 35 in  28 in to 30 in
 Girth of chest .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..  38 in to 44 in  32 in to 34 in
 Round forearm .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..  10 in to 12 in   8 in to 9½ in
 Length of head .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..  12½ to 14 in  10½ to 11½
 Total length.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..  84 in to 100  70 in to 80 in
Weight in lbs. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..   110 to 140  90 to 110

When Sir Walter Scott lost his celebrated dog Maida (which, by the way, was by a Pyrenean dog out of a Glengarry deerhound bitch), he was presented with a brace of dogs by Glengary and Cluny Macpherson, both of gigantic size. He calls them "wolfhounds", and says, "There is no occupation for them, as there is only one wolf near, and that is confined in a menagerie." He was offered a fine Irish greyhound by Miss Edgeworth, who owned some of this breed, but declined, having the others. Richardson says - "Though I have separated the Irish wolf-dog from the Highland deerhound and the Scottish greyhound, I have only done so partly in conformity with general opinion, that I have yet to correct, and partly because these dogs, though originally identical, are now unquestionably distinct in many particulars."

As the rough Scotch greyhound is to the present deerhound, so is the deerhound to what the Irish wolfhound was!

It may be of interest to mention here that the last wolf is said to have been killed in 1710, but there is no accurate information as to the date. The height of the European wolf varies from 28 in to 30 in., and he is, though of comparatively slight form, an animal of very great power and activity.

Richardson, being an enthusiast on the subject, and not content with simply writing, took measures to recover the breed. With much patience and trouble, he hunted up all the strains he could hear of, and bred dogs of giganctic size to which the strains now in existence can be distinctly traced. A gentleman of position and means in Ireland, deceased some six or eight years, possessed a kennel of these dogs, on the breeding of which he expended both time and fortune freely. They were, though not equal to the original dog, very fine animals. It has been ascertained beyond all question that there are a few specimens of the breed still in Ireland and England that have well-founded pretensions to be considered Irish wolfhounds, though falling far short of the requisite dimensions; and, in concluding this paper, the writer would again earnestly urge that some decided action may be taken by gentlemen possessing both leisure and means to restore to us that most noble of the canine race - the Irish wolfhound.


Since the year 1876 a club has been specially formed for the resuscitation of this breed, under the auspices of Captain Graham, and in the present year (1886) a class was made for their exhibition by the Kennel Club at their summer show - divided, as usual, between the two sexes. For these there were eighteen entries, but most of the male exhibits resembled the deerhound so closely, both in size and appearance, that they might just as well have appeared in that class. The bitches were generally of larger size than the corresponding sex of the deerhound, which is very much smaller than the dog, and this is probably due to the cross with the Great Dane, admittedly used for the purpose of increasing size. Thus Colonel Garnier's "Hecla" and Mr. Townsend's "Lufan of Ivanhoe" are by "Cedric the Saxon", a fine fawn-coloured Dane, both very large bitches; while Mr. Laloe's "McMahon", an own brother to them, is very little higher or heavier. With regard to their claim to be really descended from the old Irish wolf-dog, Captain Graham writes me that "the late Sir John Power of Kilfane had his breed in 1842, and that Mr. Mahony had the same strain about that time - that they were descended closely from Hamilton Rowan's celebrated "Brian", which he claimed to be the last of the old Irish wolf-dogs, descended, it is believed, from the O'Toole's dogs of 1815 or so. I knew Sir John Power well, and he remembered H. Rowan's dog, a great, rough, dark dog of the massive deerhound character. Of "Kilfane Oscar" I now have a grandson, and there are one or two more in other parts of the country bred by me. "Oscar" came to me from Sir Ralph Galway, who had him from Sir J. Power's son." It will thus be seen that Captain Graham claims to have in his possession lineal descendants of the genuine breed, but not pure, since they are of necessity crossed with the deerhound or Great Dane, he not having possessed an example of each sex. If he could produce the breed in its purity, it would be extremely interesting from a natural history point of view; but as he cannot, it must be regarded as the nearest approach which he is able to make. Both the winners at the Kennel Club show were bred by Captain Graham, and I have obtained an excellent portrait of the dog, from which my readers will be able to form their own opinions.

Irish wolfhound

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