Irish Wolfhound History

Baily's Magazine of Sports and Pastimes

Vol. XXXIV, 1879

The Irish Wolfhound by J.E. Harting

Although the Irish wolf-hound can no longer be numbered amongst the 'Dogs of the British Islands', a certain interest must always attach to the history of an animal that once played so conspicuous a part in the annals of the chase.

To say that this fine race has become entirely extinct, although very near the truth, is happily not quite the case yet, for we have reason to believe that there is still so much of the true breed existing as, with proper management, to admit of its complete recovery. It is a fact well known to breeders of mastiffs that, until within the last thirty or forty years, these dogs as a pure race had almost ceased to exist, but active measures having been adopted to restore the breed, it has been entirely recovered, in a form at least equal, if not superior to, what it was of yore. There is no reason why a similar success should not attend a properly managed attempt to restore the more ancient and equally noble Irish wolf-hound. To say that the services of such a dog, being no longer required for sport, it is no longer desirable to preserve the breed, is an argument which scarcely deserves consideration; for very many dogs are bred and exhibited at the present day for whom no work is provided, nor is any expected of them. Moreover, although it may be true that the Irish wolf-hound can no longer be turned to account by sportsmen in this country, the same cannot be said of our colonies, where such a dog, in the pursuit of wolves, deer, kangaroos, and other animals, would prove a most useful ally.

From the fragmentary accounts which have been published of the appearance and dimensions of this dog, it is to be inferred that it was of considerably greater stature than any race existing at the present day, unless perhaps we except the Great Dane, or Boarhound, with which many writers have confounded it.

The original greyhound was unquestionably a long-haired dog, and the modern smooth-coated and thin animal now known by that name is of comparatively recent date. Of this we have sufficient evidence in the ancient monuments of Egypt, where, as well as in Persia and India, rough greyhounds of great size and power still exist. A dog of the same kind has been described as well known in Arabia; and a gigantic rough greyhound was found by Dr. Clarke on the confines of Circassia, and by him described as identical with the old Irish wolf-hound. (Clarke's 'Travels in Russia, Tartary, and Turkey' 1816) Ray describes the dog correctly as a tall rough greyhound; so also does Pennant, who descants on its extraordinary size and power, although he falls into an error in identifying it with le grand Danois of Buffon.

Much difference of opinion has been expressed on the subject of its stature. Buffon states that one measured 5 feet in height when sitting up. Goldsmith says it stood 4 feet; while Richardson (author of 'The Dog: its Origin, Natural History, and Varieties'), whose practical acquaintance with the subject on which he wrote entitles him to respect, was of opinion that the average height was probably about 3 feet 4 inches. The discrepancy between the first and last of these measurements obviously arises from the circumstance that, in the former case, the dog was measured from the top of the head when sitting up; while Richardson refers to its height from the shoulder when standing. Moreover, Buffon's dog, as we have hinted, was perhaps not a wolf-dog at all, but a Great Dane.

Captain George Graham, of Rednock, Dursley, Gloucestershire, a gentleman who has devoted many years, much trouble, and considerable expense towards the restoration of the Irish wolf-hound, has a splendid specimen of this dog, which he bred himself, and whose pedigree he can trace back for more than thirty years. This animal at twenty-three months old, weighed over eight stone, and measured thirty-one inches at the shoulder. Its colour is dark brindle, and it has a splendid full coat, with wonderful depth of chest. Captain Graham has other dogs of this breed in his kennels, descended from animals procured in Ireland many years ago, before the race had become quite so rare as it is at present. His researches into the history of the Irish wolf-hound, coupled with his own experience as a breeder, have led him to consider the following to be its points:-

General appearance and form — That of a very tall, heavy Scottish deerhound; much more massive and majestic-looking; active and tolerably fast, but somewhat less so than the present breed of deerhounds.
Head — Very long, but not too narrow; skull much squarer between the ears than the present deerhound, and flat; nose large; neck very muscular, and rather long.
Ears — Small in proportion to size of head and half erect, resembling those of the best deerhounds. If the dog is of a light colour, a dark ear is to be preferred.
Coat — Rough and hard all over the body, tail, and legs, and of good length; the hair on the head long and rather softer than that on the body, and growing over the eyes and under the jaws.
Colour — Black, grey, brindle, red, and fawn, though white and parti-coloured dogs were common, and by some preferred in olden times.

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

From this table it will be seen that Captain Graham's estimate of the height does not reach that assigned by Richardson, whose calculation, it appears, was based on the measurement of skulls of the Irish wolf-hound preserved in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy. 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, which he measured, and which stood 29 inches high, was 10 inches; from which he infers that the height of the Irish wolf-hound must have been 40 inches. But as Captain Graham has pointed out, the allowance for covering the skull is excessive, 1½ inch instead of 3 inches being much nearer the mark. Thus, if the head of the wolf-hound be taken at 12½ inches instead of 14 inches, the height would be reduced to 36 inches. Moreover, a deerhound that stands 29 inches should have a head measuring at least 11 inches instead of 10 inches. So that, on this calculation, the Irish dogs which owned the skulls referred to would only have stood about 33½ inches. Thus we arrive at a very fair notion of the appearance and size of the Irish wolf-hound.

That the breed is one of great antiquity in this country is evident, for so early as the latter end of the fourth century we find Symmachus, a Roman consul, writing to his brother Flavinus, to thank him for a present he made him of some dogs, which he calls Canes Scotici, and which were shown at the Circensian games, to the great astonishment of the people, who could not believe it possible to bring them to Rome otherwise than in iron cages. Some commentators have suggested that the dogs referred to by Symmachus were English mastiffs, [Cf. Lepsius, Epist. ad Belg. Cent. i. p.144; Burton, Itinerary Anton, p. 220] but that this is a mistake has been shown by Harris, who, in his edition of Sir James Ware's 'Antiquities of Ireland', has pointed out that for some time before Symmachus lived, and for many centuries after, Ireland was well known by the name of 'Scotia', and that the appellation Canes Scotici, while wholly inapplicable to English mastiffs, was quite appropriate to Irish greyhounds. Moreover, the dogs upon which the highest value was always set in former times were those which were of use for the chase of wild animals, and we know from various sources that wolf-dogs were held in such high esteem as to be considered worthy the acceptance of monarchs, and were frequently sent abroad as presents to foreign potentates. In some instances lands were held by the service of providing the king with a certain number of these dogs. Thus is Edward the First's time, one William de Reynes held land at Boyton in the parish of Finchingfield, Essex, by the serjeanty of keeping for the king five wolf-dogs (Canes luporarius). [Blount, 'Ancient Tenures,' pp.235, 236 (ed. 1815).]

Campion, whose 'History of Ireland' was published in 1570, especially refers to the chase of the wolf there with wolf-hounds. 'The Irish,' he says, 'are not without wolves, or greyhounds to hunt them; bigger of bone and limme than a colt.' Sir James Ware, too, in his 'Antiquities of Ireland' (1658), speaks of 'those hounds, which, from their hunting of wolves, are commonly called "wolf-dogs", being creatures of great strength and size and of a fine shape.' Many of our kings used to send direct to Ireland for wolf-dogs; and illustrious visitor to the English court used to petition the kind to exert his influence in procuring for them some of these animals of which they had heard so much. Thus, in a privy seal from King Henry VIII to the Lord Deputy and Council of Ireland, his Majesty takes notice of the suit of the Duke of Albuquerque, of Spain (a member of the Privy Council), on behalf of the Marquis Desarrya and his son, 'that it might please his Majesty to grant to the said Marquis and his son, and the longer liver of them yearly, out of Ireland two goshawks and four greyhounds,' and commands the deputy for the time being to order the delivery of the hawks and hounds and to charge the cost to the Treasury.

In November 1562, as we learn from the State Papers relating to Ireland, the Irish chieftain, Shane O'Neill, forwarded to Queen Elizabeth, through Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, a present of two horses, two hawks, and two Irish wolf-dogs; and in 1585 Sir John Perrott, who was Lord Deputy of Ireland from January 1584 to July 1588, sent to Sir Francis Walsingham, then Secretary of State in London, 'a brace of good wolf-dogs, one black, the other white'. Later still in 1608, we find that Irish wolf-hounds were sent from Ireland by Captain Esmond of Duncannon to Gilbert, Earl of Shrewsbury. When Sir Thomas Rowe was Ambassador at the Court of the Great Mogul in the year 1615, that Emperor desired him to send for some Irish greyhounds as the most welcome present he could make him.

Thus it appears that these dogs were considered very valuable, and were highly thought of by those who received them as presents; but some years later, when, owing to the great increase in the number of wolves in some parts of Ireland, their services were more than ever required to keep down these ferocious animals, a law was passed to prohibit their exportation.

In 1641 and 1652 wolves were particularly troublesome in Ireland; and int he latter year the following Order in Council was issued by Cromwell, prohibiting the exportation of wolf-dogs:-

Forasmuch as we are credibly informed that Wolves doe much increase and destroy many cattle in several partes of this Dominion, and that some of the enemie's party, who have laid down armes, and have liberty to go beyond sea, and others, do attempt to carry away several such great dogges as are commonly called Wolfe dogges, whereby the breed of them which are useful for destroying of wolves, would (if not prevented) speedily decay. These are therefore to prohibit all persons whatsoever from exporting any of the said Dogges out of this Dominion; and searchers and other officers of the Customs, in the several partes and creekes of this Dominion, are hereby strictly required to seize and make stopp of all such dogges, and deliver them either to the common huntsman, appointed for the precinct where they are seized upon, or to the governor of the said precinct. — Dated at Kilkenny, April 27 1652.

The following year another Order in Council was made, which ran as follows:-

 For the better destroying of wolfes which of late years have much increased in most parts of this nation, it is ordered that the Commanders-in-chiefe and Commissioners of the Revenue in the several precincts doe consider of, use, and execute all good wayes and meanes how the wolfes in the counties and places within the respective precincts may be taken and destroyed; and to emply such person or persons, and to appoint such daies and tymes for hunting the wolfe, as they shall adjudge necessary. And it is further ordered that all such person or persons as shall take, kill, or destroy any wolfes, and shall bring forth the head of the wolfe before the said Commanders of the Revenue, shall receive the sums following, viz., for every bitch wolfe, six pounds; for every dog wolfe, five pounds; for every cubb which preyeth for himself, forty shillings; for every suckling cubb, ten shillings. And no wolfe after the last September until the 10th January be accounted a young wolfe, and the Commisioners of the Revenue shall cause the same to be equallie assessed within their precincts.
— Dublin, June 29, 1653.

When, through these and other coercive measures, wolves at length became exterminated in Ireland, there was no longer any inducement to preserve the breed of wolf-hounds, and this noble race of dogs, in many parts of the country, was suffered to die out. It was thought, indeed, at one time to have become quite extinct; but there is reason to believe that, owing to the preservation of a few in scattered localities, the breed has never been entirely lost.

The learned antiquary, Dr. Pegge, writing in 1792 ('Archæologia', vol. x., p.160) states that he had seen some. 'There was one,' he says, 'at Lambeth Palace, and another at Wentworth House, and if the breed be not now quite worn out, perhaps it may be found in Ireland or Scotland.'

Sir Walter Scott had two, both very large animals, which were presented to him by Glengarry and Cluny Macpherson. Writing of these 'wolf-hounds', he observed, 'There is no occupation for them, as there is only one wolf near, and that is confined to a menagerie!' He was offered a fine Irish wolf-hound by Miss Edgeworth, who owned some of this breed, but, having the others, he declined it.

In the third volume of the 'Linnæan Society's Transactions' is a paper by Mr. Aylmer Burke Lambert, in which he describes and figures a dog in the possession of Lord Altamount, son of the Marquis of Sligo, as the old Irish wolf-hound.

In the opinion of Richardson, however, than whom no one was better qualified to form an opinion, this was not a wolf-dog at all, but 'a middling-sized, and apparently not very well-bred specimen of a comparatively common breed of dog, called the Great Dane. Had this been the Irish wolf-dog,' he adds, 'it were absurd to speak of its scarciity, far less of its extinction.'

Richardson, being an enthusiast on the subject, and not content with merely writing, himself 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 gigantic size, to which the strains now in existence can be distinctly traced. A gentleman of position and means in Ireland, deceased some nine or ten years, possessed a kennel of these dogs, on the breeding of which he expended both time and fortune freely, and though not considered quite equal to the original type, they were very fine animals. Captain Graham, of Rednock, Dursley, Gloucestershire, to whom reference has been already made, has laboured for the last fifteen years to restore the breed, and has, most vexatiously, lost several valuable dogs just as he was approaching the standard at which he aimed. Latterly, however, his efforts have been rewarded, and he has succeeded in producing some grand dogs of the ancient type. Would that others could be induced to follow his example!

In these days, when so much interest is manifested in producing and preserving pure strains of various breeds, and kennel shows are in such favour throughout the country, neither means nor inclination should be wanting to effect so praiseworthy a result as the complete resuscitation of this noble, ancient, and purely national dog.

J.E. Harting

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July 23rd, 2005