The History of the Irish Wolfhound

Irish Wolfhound

The Irish Wolfhound is an emblem of Irish culture and native Irish fauna. It is, on average, the biggest dog breed in the world, with males standing at roughly 32-34 inches at the shoulder, which makes them bigger than Great Danes and the like. Their enormous stature and hunting prowess made them popular across Eurasia, where they were given as gifts or used to hunt large prey, including  wolves. This is how they earned the name of “Wolfhounds”. They are also known as Irish Great Hounds or the Big Dogs of Ireland. Despite their success and ancient origins, the dogs faced extinction in their native land. Thankfully, this majestic breed survived to modern times, and their legendary heritage lives on. 

 

Irish Wolfhounds: Origins and Popularity

 

The first recorded trace of the Irish Great Hound goes back to 391 AD in Ancient Rome. There are even earlier traces of their passage in Ancient Greece, where they were allegedly used by the Celts in 273 BC during the sacking of Delphi. However, this breed is not only ancient, it was extremely popular, both in Ireland and abroad. They were used as war dogs and to hunt big game. One Irish king, Cormac mac Airt, is said to have had 300 war hounds, as well as 200 puppies. They were used by native Scottish tribes to combat the Roman legions which invaded Britain, and to hunt on large scales. 

The dogs also occupy a central place in Irish mythology, such as in the myth of Cuchulainn (or Cù Chulainn). In the myth, a boy called Sétanta killed the ferocious guard hound of Culann the smith. After Sétanta’s impressive feat, the boy offered to replace Culann’s hound and guard his house until a new puppy could be raised. He became known as Cù Chulainn or the Hound of Culann. The Wolfhound breed is also part of the story of Gellert, the Faithful Hound. Gellert, the dog of a Welsh king named Llywelyn, was said to have protected the king’s son from a wolf while the king was away. When Llewelyn came back, he saw his dog covered in blood and the cradle turned upside down. He thus killed his dog, thinking that Gellert had killed his son. Only after killing his loyal companion and hearing his baby’s cries did Llewelyn realise his mistake and notice the wolf’s carcass next to the cradle. 

 

Near-Extinction 

 

Thanks to their hunting skills and size, the Irish Hounds were used extensively in medieval Europe to hunt big game and wolves. They were even gifted to monarchs as far as Persia during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, where they were acclaimed for their bravery and ferocity. 

However, the success of the Irish Great Hounds almost proved fatal to the breed. The boars, elk, and wolves which the dogs would help hunt progressively disappeared in Ireland and Europe due to overhunting. As a result of this and the extensive exportation of Irish Wolfhounds, they pretty much disappeared from Ireland. Thankfully, conservation efforts helped save the breed. As they came to be seen as a symbol of Irish culture during the time of the Gaelic revival, protecting the Irish Wolfhound became an integral part of the preservation of Irish culture. In fact, one of those Great Hounds figures on the Brian Boru Harp. This harp, currently exhibited in Trinity College Dublin, dates back to the 15th century and has long been represented as a symbol of Irish culture and heritage.

 

 

The Irish Wolfhound Today 

 

As a result of a population bottleneck, there has been some outcrossed breeding of purebred Irish Wolfhounds with other dog breeds, such as the Scottish Deerhound (which is descended from the Irish Wolfhound) and the Great Dane. Allegedly, this has resulted in the breed being tamer than its historical depictions – some scholars have even argued that rather than being revived, a new Irish Wolfhound breed has been manufactured. Technical definitions aside, dogs from this breed still make for great pets. It is a terrible guard dog due to its gentle nature, but is still an excellent hunter. It primarily uses sight to hunt and can be a threat to smaller household animals. Otherwise, it is a loyal and amazing family companion, being a “gentle giant” according to DogTime. Their size should indeed be taken into account by anyone interested in welcoming one into their home, as they need both space and exercise. 

 

Although the Irish Wolfhound can trace its heritage back to the earliest days of the Celtic Emerald Isle, it has evolved over the millennia. From being a fierce wolf-hunter able to bring down prey as big as boar and deer, it is now a lovely family pet (despite its uncertain genetic origins). It certainly represents great pride for Ireland and, to this day, is still an important symbol of the island’s past. 

 

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Felix Vanden Borre

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