Irish Wolfhound History

Dogs and Their Ways by the Rev. Charles Williams

Published by Routledge, Warne & Routledge, 1863

The Wolf and Boar Hound

Of the species called the wolf-dog much has been said in disputing as to its origin, but it is probable that a wave of colonisation flowed from Ireland to Scotland, bearing thither this invaluable animal. Scotland, indeed, was by the older writers called Scotia Minor, and Ireland Scotia Major, a name applied to it in the third century, and which continued to the twelfth. It has been therefore conjectured that Fion MacCumhaill, the Fingal of Macpherson, whose dog Bran, "the mountain torrent", was renowned for the chase of the boar and the wolf, and for might and prowess on the field of battle, was an Irish chieftain, and Bran was an Irish wolf-dog.

As the wolf and wild boar existed in England, it may seem strange that this dog was not introduced here, but for this some reason may be assigned. In Saxon times the people were serfs; the bond-slave fed the swine of his master in the woods, and had strong fierce dogs to aid him against the wolf, but a breed so valuable as a wolf-dog of greyhound race would be reserved exclusively for the chief, the noble, and the prince. As, too, the history of England at that period is one of wars between rival monarchs, and between Saxons and Danes, any particular notice of such a dog cannot be expected. When the Normans rose to power, the forest laws were more stringent and sanguinary than before, and the very dogs used by the serfs were so mutilated as to prevent their engaging in the chase.

On this point, Sir William Betham, Ulster King-at-arms, said: "From the mention of the wolf-dogs in the old Irish poems and stories, and from what I have heard from a very old person long since dead, of his having seen them at the Neale, in the county of Mayo, the seat of Sir John Browne, ancestor to Lord Kilmaine, I have no doubt they were gigantic greyhounds. My departed friend described them as very gentle, and that Sir John allowed them to come into his dining-room, where they put their heads over the shoulders of those who sat at table. They were not smooth-skinned, like our greyhounds, but rough and curly-haired. The Irish poets call the wolf-dog cu signifying a champion."

It is difficult to ascertain with certainty the date of the death of the last Irish wolf, but there was a presentment for killing wolves granted in Cork in the year 1710. Others are said to have been killed in the county of Wexford, about the year 1730 or 1740; and it is asserted by others that a wolf was killed in the Wicklow mountains so recently as 1770.

In the biography of a Tyrone family, published in Belfast in the year 1829, the following interesting facts are stated as to the destruction of the last wolves in their county.

In the mountainous parts of Tyrone the inhabitants suffered much from the wolves, and gave, from a public fund, as much for the head of one of these animals as they would now give for the capture of a notorious robber on the highway. There lived in those days an adventurer, who, alone and unassisted, made it his occupation to destroy these ravagers. The best time for attacking them was midnight, as then they left their lair in search of food, and when the country was at rest, and all was still, they fell on their defenceless prey and the carnage commenced.

There was a species of dog used for the purpose of hunting them, called the Wolf-dog; the animal resembled a rough, stout, half-bred greyhound, but was much stronger. In the county Tyrone there was then a large space of ground, inclosed by a high wall, having a gap at each of the two opposite extremities, and in this were secured the flocks of the surrounding farmers. Still, though this fold was deemed secure, it was entered by the wolves and the inmates slaughtered.

The proprietors having heard of the wolf-hunter, Rory Curragh, offered him the usual reward, with some addition, if he would destroy the two remaining wolves that had committed such devastation. Rory, undertaking the task, took with him two wolf-dogs, and a little boy only twelve years old, because he only would accompany him, and repaired at midnight to the fold in question.

"Now", said Rory to the boy, "as the two wolves usually enter at the opposite extremities of the fold at the same time, I must leave you and one of the dogs to guard this one, while I go to the other. He steals with all the caution of a cat, nor will you hear him, but the dog will, and positively give him first fall; if, therefore, you are not active, when he is down, to rivet his neck to the ground with this spear, he will rise up and kill both you and the dog, and so good-night." "I'll do what I can", said the boy, as he took the spear from the wolf-hunter's hand.

Immediately throwing open the gate of the fold, he took his seat in the inner part, close to the entrance, his faithful companion crouching at his side, and seemingly perfectly aware that he was engaged in a perilous business. Very dark and cold was the night, and benumbed by the chilly air, the boy was beginning to fall into sleep, when instantly the dog, with a roar, leaped across him, and laid one wolf on the earth; roused to his utmost activity, the boy now drove the spear, as he had been directed, through the neck of the foe, when Rory appeared, bearing the head of the other wolf.

It was usual in England to defend the rough greyhound-like dogs used in the boar-hunt with a kind of armour. This is evident from some ancient tapestry in Haddon Hall, situated about two miles south of Bakewell, in Derbyshire, on a bold eminence which rises on the east side of the river Wye. The frieze of the Long Gallery exhibits carvings of roses, thistles, and boars' heads. Near the end of it there is a short passage that opens into a room having a frieze and cornice of rough plaster, adorned with the heads of boars and peacocks, in alternate succession; and an adjoining apartment is ornamented in the same manner. All the principal rooms, except the gallery, were hung with loose tapestry, a great part of which still remains, and the doors were concealed everywhere behind the hangings, so that the arras was to be lifted up to enable anyone to pass in or out. On this tapestry is represented a variety of field sports, and, particularly, a boar-hunt, in which the dogs are defended by a sort of doublet closely laced on, and studded with metallic points.

Ray describes one of these wolf-dogs as the "greatest dog he had ever seen"; and Goldsmith states that he saw several, some of which were four feet high. The decline and extinction of this noble breed in Ireland, and its decline, but not total extinction, in Scotland, admit of explanation. As in the former island the wolf became extirpated, the necessity of keeping up the stock would be diminished, till, at last, the remnants of the breed would be in the possession of a few only. Nor does there appear to have been the opportunity of employing this dog as a deerhound; for it seems that few or no herds of wild or red deer have existed in Ireland for many centuries.

In Scotland, however, when the wolf was extirpated, the red deer still remained the free denizen of the mountain range. The name of wolf-hound would consequently merge into that of deer-hound, and the necessity of keeping up the dog in its original state would cease. A cross with the old rough greyhound would occur, sooner or later, with a corresponding degeneracy of size and muscular power; and thus, though the Scottish deerhound is a noble dog, he is not what the Irish wolf-dog was in the day of his power.

There are no pictures in this book.

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