The Hound of the Irish


There is a beautiful vast park land, called the Phoenix Park close to where I live. On the occasions when I walk there, which thankfully are many, it never fails to amaze me how many people, with canine companions, also avail of this lovely environment. For canine and walker it’s a win-win relationship. Canine needs exercise; so does human and so, a symbiotic relationship, blossoms. However, there is so much more to the human/canine relationship, than simply the mutual need for exercise. There has to be, because a survey in 2006 discovered amazingly, that there were 640,620 dogs in Ireland.

During one of my recent walks, I got to thinking about the extraordinary special relationship which has evolved over millennia, between canines and humans and the incredible broad family of canine types, which their chosen close contact with humans, has since spawned. I am delighted of course, to be aware of the fact, that one particular breed of canine, both literally and metaphorically, towers over the rest. I am of course referring to the Irish Wolf Hound which when standing on its hind paws, can reach to seven feet tall; without question, likely, the tallest dog in the world. Although the above photo is of a white Wolf Hound, commonly, this shaggy coated breed, would present in a grey colour.

In both real history and in Irish mythology, the Irish Wolf Hound distinguishes itself as a truly extraordinary and capable breed. Amazingly, as with all other canine types, the Irish Wolf Hound’s ancestors are, in fact, Wolves. Wolves roamed freely in the Irish forests, from as far back as 34000 BC. However, Wolf Hounds were not actually bread in Ireland before 3 BC.

In ancient Ireland, as humans settled and began to farm animals, marauding Wolves mainly predating on livestock, became a major problem for the settlers. Hungry Wolves, in hunting packs, were found to be clever, tenacious, fearless and vicious predators which did not differentiate, between live stock and settler. Society therefore concluded, that something significant had to be done, to defend against the menace and threat to their very survival, which the Wolf had become.

It is believed, that the canine ancestor of the species we know today as the Irish Wolf Hound was brought to Ireland circa 7000 BC. It was not until 3 BC however, that the breed seems to have been cultivated as a formidable companion, for the nobility. It was trained for use as a war dog in battle; a sight hound in hunting and a guard dog. Wolf Hounds became valued gifts, given by Irish nobility, to their foreign counterparts. Such was the reputation of these fine beasts, that they merited mention within the writings of no less a personage than, one Julius Caesar.

Under Brehon Law, only nobility could own Wolf Hounds. Legend has it that Fionn Mac Cumhall was the proud owner of no less than 500 hounds. His two favourite hounds being named: Bran and Sceolan. The Gaelic for Wolf Hound is: Cu Faoil.

Elk, wild Boar and Deer were regularly hunted in ancient Ireland and the magnificent canine, later to be known as the Wolf Hound, would have assisted greatly in such hunts. However, its formidable reputation was to be built mainly on it’s unsurpassed prowess in hunting Wolves. During such hunts, Wolf Hounds would typically have been used in pairs; although sometimes, in a small group of up to five. The Wolf Hound was the only dog fast enough to catch a Wolfe and strong enough, to kill its quarry. Other dog species were intimidated by the scent of a Wolf. The Wold Hound however, had been carefully bread not to fear such a scent. Because of its excellent eye sigh, the Wolf Hound (a sight hound), vastly surpassed other canines. Other dogs relied mainly upon their sense of smell, to guide them in tracking. The Wolf however, was renowned for leaving very poor scent markers. In 1571, Wolf Hounds were recorded as being used, in the hunting of Wolves, in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains.

By 1584, the Wolf problem in Ireland was so severe, that legislation was enacted to attempt to address it. Bounties were placed upon Wolves. The amounts varied, depending upon whether the kill presented, was male, female or cub. The magnitude of the Wolfe problem in Ireland was apparently so impacting, that during the Cromwellian occupation, Oliver Cromwell put a blanket ban on Wolf Hounds being given outside of Ireland, as a gifts.

In Ireland, the last Wolfe was reported as having been killed in Carlow, in 1786. Following the elimination of Wolves in both Britain and Ireland, the Wolf Hound breed began to fall into decline. Despite such decline and in testimony to the versatility of the breed, there are a number of recorded instances, where Irish Wold Hounds, have been trained very successfully, in sheep herding. In the 1800s, one Captain George Augustus, set about the challenge of reviving the breed, which thankfully by virtue of his actions, is still around, for us to treasure and enjoy today.

Sadly, despite it’s formidably impressive physique, the Irish Wolf Hound has but a short life span of between just six to eight years. As with many other dog breeds, our Irish Wolf Hound, seem to possess particular systemic physiological weakness e.g heart and bone related issues, which unfortunately typically contribute, to its early passing.

In celebration of this wonderful breed, the Hound of the Irish, it would be nice if there was an annual Irish Wolf Hound Festival. What better venue, for such a festival, than Dublin’s magnificent Phoenix Park? After all, the park is already a much-loved, canine walkers paradise.

At the beginning of this article I intimated that there has to be much more to the human/canine relationship, than simply the mutual need for exercise. Of course, every dog owner will tell you there is. Each dog owner enjoys their own unique relationship with their canine companion. Such relationships are truly exemplified in the life of an amazing Irish Wolfe Hound by the name of: Bally Shannon.

Here is a moving excerpt, from some stories about heroic Wolf Hounds:

“An Irish knight or officer had his Wolf Hound with him at the Battle of Aughrim, and together they slew many enemy. But at last the master himself was killed. He was stripped and left on the battle field to be devoured by wolves. But his faithful dog never left him. He remained at his side day and night, feeding on other dead bodies on the battlefield, but allowing neither man nor beast to come near his master’s corpse until nothing was left of it but a pile of whitening bones. Then he was forced to go farther away in search for food, but from July till January he never failed to return to the bones of his master every night. One evening some soldiers came across the battlefield, and one of them approached the Wolf Hound to see what manner of beast he might be. The dog, thinking his master’s remains were about to be disturbed, attached the soldier, who called loudly for help. The others came running up and shot the faithful dog through the heart.”

To read the balance of the above story and the full story of Bally Shannon, here is the link – Bally Shannon

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About dubmantalks

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