“This gentle giant of the doggy world.”That was one description of the Irish wolfhound. Have you ever met one? It is true that there are no wolves in Ireland now. But there used to be. There were also boars and gigantic elk. It is said that the last wolf in Ireland was killed about two hundred years ago. Before that, wolfhounds were renowned for hunting wolves as well as other large animals.
There is a more recent story about one wolfhound that was sent to the Rocky Mountains, in the United States. In 1892, as the story goes, he “killed forty wolves single-handed during one winter.” Don’t worry, though. Wolfhounds do not hunt or kill people!
ACCORDING to some historians, the wolfhound may have been well established in Ireland by 500 B.C.E. The Celts later used wolfhounds for more than just hunting. Legend and history say that the dogs also went into battle with Irish kings and warriors.
The reputation of the wolfhound as a very special breed of dog spread all around the world. Wolfhounds were even taken to Rome to be shown in the arena. Records about a Roman consul by the name of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus tell us that he wrote a letter in 393 C.E. thanking his brother for sending seven Irish wolfhounds to Rome.
It seems that the dogs really excited the Romans. “All Rome viewed them with wonder,” Symmachus wrote, “and fancied they must have been brought hither in iron cages.”
Maybe the dogs’ great size gave people the idea that they had to be transported in iron cages. Males stand about 34 inches [86 cm] at the shoulder, but some are much larger. The tallest wolfhound on record was almost 40 inches [was over 100 cm] to the shoulder. Females are usually an inch or two smaller than males.
Being tall can put extra food within easy reach. Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott warned one of his friends to be careful at dinnertime. Otherwise, his wolfhound, who was “about six feet [2 m] long from the tip of the nose to the tail,” would “eat off his plate without being at the trouble to put a paw on table or chair.”
These hounds start life fairly small—weighing only about one and a half pounds [0.7 kg] at birth—but they grow quickly. One adoring owner said that as puppies they are “fascinating little creatures” but that they change “with amazing rapidity from roly-poly bundles to lanky, soft beings consisting mostly of long legs.”
They do not bark a lot. They are more the strong, silent type. But when they do bark, it is a memorable sound. People tell of a man who on hearing a wolfhound bark said that it was “the deepest-toned and most melancholy bark [he had] ever heard.”
The Irish wolfhound has been described as “fierce-looking, with piercing eyes, shaggy brows, and rough dark-grey coats”—the sort of dog you might, on first sight, want to avoid. But it has also been said that they are “so kind a child could play with them.” As one knowledgeable owner said, they are, in fact, “exuberantly affectionate.” And they are not only gray in color. Some have white, wheaten, red, or black coats.
Famous Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith lavished praise on them. “The great Irish wolfdog,” he said, “is extremely beautiful and majestic . . . , the greatest of the dog kind to be seen in the world.” He was obviously impressed by their rugged good looks, including the brows, eyelashes, and whiskers that give them what has been called “the true Irish expression.”
Why, then, did they almost die out as a breed? One reason was their popularity. Admirers considered them to be the sort of valuable present that they could send to important people like monarchs. So they were “sought after and sent abroad to all quarters of the world.” As a result, they were scattered in small numbers everywhere. Besides that, once their usefulness as wolf hunters ended, they were neglected as a species in Ireland.
In 1839, one wolfhound lover recorded the sad situation this way: “It must be a subject of regret that this noble race of dogs is fast dying away, and will in the course of a few years inevitably become extinct unless some extraordinary exertions are made.” There were so few around that it was not uncommon for people to claim that the wolfhound they owned was “the last of their race.” But they survived.
They were saved by the “extraordinary exertions” of people like George A. Graham. In 1862 he saw their plight. He gathered as many of the remaining wolfhounds as he could find. By carefully breeding them, he provided the foundation needed to restore them to where they are today. Without him, said one historian in 1893, “this canine relic of a mighty race might even now be extinct.”
One of their admirers, a respected breeder of Irish wolfhounds, Phyllis Gardner, wrote: “Nothing is certain in this world, but, barring catastrophes, it seems as though this noble race has been drawn away from the brink of extinction, and is still on the rising grade of popularity.”
BY AWAKE 1999 ! CORRESPONDENT IN IRELAND, published by JW