The history of the Irish Wolfhound is the history of the dogs of Ireland, for while these great hounds have indeed made history, history in her turn, has made the Irish Wolfhound.
The beginnings of Irish Wolfhounds can be traced back as early as 273B.C. through ancient woodcuts and writings. Dominant traits that made them legendary ~ their loyalty, and prowess as hunters ~ still remain with them today, more than 2,000 years later.
Ownership of these great hounds was highly restricted. They were sent as highly coveted gifts to emperors, kings, nobility and poets; their chains and collars were often of precious metals and stones. They were held in such high esteem that when disputes arose over them, not only individual combats but full scale wars often occurred.
By the year 391 A.D., the breed was known in Rome, when the first authentic mention of it was written by the Roman Consul Quintus Aurelius, who had received seven of them as a gift which "all Rome viewed with wonder."
In the 13th century, LLewelyn, Prince of North Wales, had a palace in Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, his faithful hound, who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn’s return, the truant hound, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The Prince, alarmed, hastened to find his infant son, and found the bed empty, the bedclothes and floor splattered with blood.
The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound’s side, believing the hound had killed his beloved son. The Wolfhound’s dying call was answered by the child’s cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his son, unharmed. But nearby the child, lay the bodies of several wolves, slain by Gelert. The Prince, his heart filled with remorse and shame, is said never to have smiled again.
During the 3rd or 4th century, the famed Irish poet Ossian celebrated the mighty mythical warrior and huntsman, Finn, son of Cumall. Finn was chief of the High King Cormac, commander of the armies and master of the hounds; 300 adults and 200 puppies. According to legend, Finn’s favorite hound, Conbec, could head off and bring back any stag in Ireland to Finn’s main pack. It was said that “no hound but Conbec did ever sleep in the one bed with Finn.” It was at Traig Chonbicce, that Finn’s rival, Goll, drowned Conbec.
Comparisons were constantly being drawn between these great hounds and their masters. In 1594 Camden informs us in his Brittania that in Ireland animals are smaller than in England, except men and those hunting dogs called "Irish Greyhounds." Fynes Moryson, in his account of the Rebellion under Shane O'Neill, mentions the cattle as little and only men and the "Irish Greyhounds" as of great stature. In Dineley's 1681 publication,Tour of Ireland, he also states that "all the breed of the country except women and greyhounds are less than the breed of England."
That same Rebellion is mentioned in connection with Irish Wolfhounds in a letter from Sir Walter Sentleger to Walsyngham, in which Sentleger asks Walsyngham for three brace of "Irish Greyounds," saying that the Rebellion had worn out the breed of them.
In his 1770 Animated Nature, Oliver Goldsmith wrote: “The last variety and most wonderful of all that I shall mention is the great Irish Wolfdog, that may be considered as the first of the canine species. ..bred up to the houses of the great.. he is extremely beautiful and majestic in appearance, being the greatest of the dog kind to be seen in the world ...they are now almost worn away and only very rarely to be met with.”
Hunting and fighting filled the life of the early Irish, and master and hound alike excelled in both hunting and on the field of battle. So it was not unusal that Irish Wolfhounds were so highly prized for their hunting prowess, particularly in pursuit of the now extinct gigantic Irish elk (which stood about 6 feet tall ~ at the shoulders), and the wolf. Historically they were referred to as "Irish Greyhounds,", "the Greyhounds of Ireland," "the Great Hounds of Ireland," and "Big Dogs of Ireland." Between the disappearance from Ireland of the Irish Elk and the wolf, along with the excessive exportation of the dwindling ranks of Wolfhounds, that the breed almost became extinct by the 17th century.
But history repeats itself, and seventeen centuries after Finn Mac Cumaill's immortal Bran, another dog of the same name and race had a meeting with destiny to revive the breed and bring fame and glory to new generations of Irish Wolfhounds.
We owe the preservation of the breed to Scottish Deerhound breeder, Capt. George Augustus Graham, (1833-1909), a Scottish officer in the British army who collected the last remaining specimens ~ among them Bran ~ and over a period of 23 years began a breeding program which through judicious outcrosses reestablished the Irish Wolfhound. Graham collected over 300 pedigrees of Irish Wolfhounds which he then published. It was under his supervision that the first breed standard was set forth. To meet these exacting requirements is what every reputable breeder strives to attain.
...a firm stand must be made against awarding prizes to hounds that are not absolutely sound, as the breed is essentially a galloping one and meant for rough as well as fast work, and therefore coat, soundness of limb, and freedom of action, must be insisted on. Girth is also most essential, as without it, the necessary lung and heart action is impossible...It therefore behoves all Judges of this breed to see that the unsound hound never receives a place in any class, it being much better to make no award than to give a prize to a hound that may be largely used for perpetuating cripples." G.A.Graham
Of all the animals cherished in Ireland, dogs are the most revered. Of these, only the Irish Wolfhound appears as a symbol throughout the land ~ on every jar of Tullamore Dew Whiskey, on every piece of Belleek porcelain, at one time the sixpence held the likeness of International Champion Finbarr and in 1983 Ireland commemorated it’s enduring love for them by issuing a postage stamp featuring the Irish Wolfhound.
One of the more poignant uses of the Wolfhound as an Irish symbol and maybe the most famous in America, is the statue in the Gettysburg National Battlefield in Pennsylvania. Sculpted by W. R. O’Donovan in memory of the fallen soldiers of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York infantry ~ the Irish Brigade. A stone effigy of an Irish Wolfhound in mournful respect, laying at the base of a Celtic cross.
Hunting both by sight and chase is what he was historically bred and used for; the length of leg and back, depth of chest, the very power of his limbs and body give ready testimony to the heritage and needs of the Irish Wolfhound. Yet, beneath this large, rough~coated dog with the loving eyes, there beats the gentlest of hearts. As he lies beside a fire in a modern home, gallops in a meadow or along a beach, it is easy to imagine him as the prominent figure he once was in feudal life in the Middle ages.
As a companion, he is unexcelled, but he is most certainly NOT the dog for everyone as his requirements are, to say the least, considerable. An Irish Wolfhound needs the best food to support his rapid growth, more than average exercise ~ when his bones are strong enough to carry his weight (an Irish Wolfhound, at 11 weeks can gain an average of 1 to 2 pounds per day!), too much exercise at a young age can severly harm this hound ~ and the most responsible of owners. Like most giant breeds, they are not as long~lived as smaller dogs. If you live in an apartment, look into a smaller breed. Wolfhounds require a lot of room to grow, play and exercise. Because of his great size and the amount of exercise essential to his well~being, the Irish Wolfhound is not a dog to be acquired lightly and without a lot of very serious forethought.
Today, these mighty dogs of ancient emperors and kings are seen in
show rings, and are competing for coursing, obedience and agility titles
around the world; playing in fields and with children, walking beside the
owners they love.
Mrs. William S. Pfarrer,
8855 U.S. Route 40,
New Carlisle, OH 45344
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