The Irish Wolfhound

By Mr. Edward C. Ash
The Practical Dog Book, 1930

This remarkable dog, the Irish Wolfhound, is a breed produced by the skilful breeding of Great Dane and Deerhound. I doubt if any other breed has had so much false claim and entirely imaginary history attached to it. The Irish Wolfhound has no relationship to Ireland, nor has it even, as far as it is possible to discover, the appearance of the Irish dog. All evidence suggests that the historical Irish dog was a large, heavily built, smooth Greyhound, somewhat similar in appearance to the Great Dane.

Certainly, Ireland was noted for its Greyhounds. Historical references to the breed are not uncommon. In 1335, Reginald, a huntsman in Edward III.'s employ, was sent to Ireland with a staff of boys to bring some of the dogs to England. In 1545, four Greyhounds were sent from Ireland to England by order of the government, and Henry VIII. was reported in danger of being disappointed, because Irish dogs promised to him by a Spanish nobleman had not been sent. In 1571, Campion informs us that wolves were to be found in Ireland, and to hunt them Greyhounds were used (bigger of bone and limb than a colt), and that the Greyhounds and the men were of great stature. In 1658 we have further reference to dogs in Ireland used to hunt the wolves, but this time the word 'Greyhound' is not used, but it is stated that they were 'commonly named Wolfdogs.' In 1732 we learn that such dogs were numerous in Ireland, and that they were of the make of a Greyhound.

Thirty years later the breed is reported by Harris to be rare, and he suggests that so often had they be sent as presents to monarchs that few had been left in the country (!) In 1774, Goldsmith, after giving the story that his mother had been saved by an 'Irish Wolfhound' by the name of Bran from a ravenous wolf (she happened to meet in the road), adds that he had seen about a dozen of these dogs. He gives the following information:

They were large dogs, as tall as yearling calves, and were built very much like the 'Great Dane'. They were whit in colour, and their skins were thinner than the skins of dogs generally!

By 1790 very few of the Irish Wolfdog breed were to be found in Ireland, for on good authority it was reported that only eight such dogs existed, and that these eight were in one kennel - that of Lord Altamount. An illustration of one of Lord Altamount's dogs, made in 1794, shows a very large smooth-haired white dog, which might be considered a cross between a Slowhound and a Greyhound. Bewick, that same year, mentions the breed to be rare, and adds that the French naturalist, Buffon, considered the 'Great Dane' to be a variety of 'Irish Greyhound'. In 1792 Gmelin mentions the Irish Greyhound in his work as 'canis cursorius hibernicus', nearly as large as a Mastiff, having an arched body, and a narrow, projecting snout.

We now get to 1803, when Taplin writes of their extreme rarity, and that he is doubtful if, even in the remotest parts of Ireland, any of the pure breed would be found. He writes that the name 'Irish Greyhound' had, because of disuse, been 'buried in oblivion', and that the dogs of the breed that might yet remain were known as 'Danes', and that 'Danes' Irish Wolfhounds were very similar to each other, and were, doubtlessly, of the same race!

Perhaps the next reference of any importance is from Thomas Bell's 'Natural History', in which we read that the breed of Irish Wolfhound or Irish Greyhound was no longer to be found pure in Ireland. I have given this evidence somewhat in detail, because it constantly refers to 'Great Danes', or to the 'Greyhound', and on one or more occasion to the smooth skin. Never once do we find a reference to a rough coat, and I think, even without the additional evidence with which I deal later, everything points to a smooth-skinned 'Great Dane' being the type of Irish Wolfhound in the earlier times.

In a 'Natural History' of 1815 we find the Irish Wolfhound entered in a class of dogs with short, pendant ears, long legs, and bodies 'which comprehend'. It is described as an 'Irish Greyhound, a variety once very frequent in Ireland, and used in pursuing the wolf'.

It was not until the year 1841 that the story of the Irish Wolfhound started anew. Indeed, we might say that in that year commenced the history of the present breed. For it was that year that in the 'Irish Penny Magazine' appeared an article by a Mr. H.G. Richardson on the Irish Wolfhound. On the top of the page is an illustration of two large dogs, one reclining, both covered with untidy open coats and soft curly hair. In the article, Richardson suggests that the breed then existed. But he informs us that he is unable to distinguish any difference between the Irish dog and the Scottish dog, nor between the Irish and the Welsh dog, except that Irish dogs were thicker, and not so high on the leg! He informs us that the old breed of Irish dogs had been most assiduously kept in existence by 'constantly crossing the old pure breed' with the 'Scottish and Welsh dogs', thus reminding us of the story of the never wearing-out bat, that had had two or more new handles at various times and one or two new blades! He informs us also that another pure strain was kept by a Mr. Rowan, 'the breeder of Great Danes'. It is evident that he was anxious to recover the old breed. He has found history, imaginary story; he had the weak, unsupportable, unsubstantial claims; only one thing was wanted - the dog! But to find the pure old breed was by no means easy, for it no longer existed.

He falls back on the Scottish Deerhound. He writes that when Scotland was peopled from Ireland, 'he feels sure' that the Irish would take their Irish Wolfhounds with them! Ancient folklore was sought and revived, and the animal hero, whatever it might be, was stated to have been an Irish Wolfhound.

In 1862 Captain Graham returned from India and entered the field. He had kept rough Greyhounds in India, and he set to rebuild the Irish Wolfhound, and in order to do so kept the Scottish Deerhound. He was an indefatigable worker. I think at first he felt that the breed existed, and that some of the cross-bred dogs of Ireland would yet show sufficient trace of the ancient breed to act as a basis on which the old breed might be built afresh. He sent a sketch of the ideal dog to a friend.

Through his instrumentality, in 1879 a class for the breed was arranged at Dublin for 'The Nearest Approach to the Old Irish Original Wolfhound', a class which he, Captain Graham, had agreed to judge. The results were disappointing. None of the old breed were there. The dogs exhibited differed widely and did not show the type that Captain Graham had expected. He gave the first prize to what he stated was a Deerhound of unusual size, named Brian, which, he reported, 'wanted nothing more than bone and substance to be our ideal of an Irish Wolfhound'. In this way, it was decided what was actually required: A Deerhound with more bone and substance!

In 1885 the club was formed. The hard working, enthusiastic Captain Graham was its first president; indeed, he was responsible for its inauguration. The claims of 'the ancient breed' were laughed at. The illustrations of the true breed did not give a favourable impression. 'The Field' criticised the claims and illustrations, and Captain Graham replied in a letter, which is, to my mind, a very important one. He wrote that the members of the Irish Wolfhound Club *hoped* to produce a dog that 'shall have the stature and power of the Great Dane, combined with the looks and beauty of the Deerhound.' Could anything be plainer? To make such a type was the object of the breeders - and Captain Graham lived long enough to see it fully accomplished.

When, about 1889, Mr. Vero asked him to write the article on the breed for Cassell's first Book of the Dog, it was an opportunity to give the evidence he had as to the type of the breed, even if he could not claim any direct lineage with the famed Irish dog. In this article Captain Graham gives his evidence as to type. He stated that the breed 'as they were producing it' was actually the type of the ancient Irish breed. He gives as a substantiation of this statement the following: In a work, 'Antiquities of Ireland', of 1630, the frontpiece showed Diana with two dogs 'bearing a very strong resemblance' to the Irish Wolfhound of to-day.

I discovered the work Captain Graham alluded to, and opened the cover of the book with no little feeling of suppressed excitement. Diana is strolling along, and by her side are, indeed, two dogs held on leads. But Captain Graham had been misinformed. The dogs are two smooth-skinned and normal-sized Greyhounds, just such Greyhounds that may be seen at Sefton, Altcar, or at one or other of the racing tracks.

A short time afterwards a book was discovered in the library of the British Museum that contained illustrations of dogs. In it I found an illustration of a smooth-skinned, heavily-built Greyhound, with the muzzle somewhat like a Great Dane. Across the top were the words 'An Irish Greyhound'. The book was printed in 1665! - that is to say, at the very time when the Irish Greyhound or Wolfdog (as it was named) was the important dog of Ireland.

But two matters need explanation. In 1617 or 1618 an uninvited guest arrived at the Earl of Mar's hunting party, by name 'The King's Majestie's Water Pot', as he described himself. He informs us that he saw there a hundred couple of 'strong Irish Greyhounds', which were let free upon the deer as they were driven out of the wood. The journalistic tact that allows the happy description, published lists of wedding presents to read 'silver' instead of 'silver-plated', may account for it. He could do no better than describe his host's hundred couple of dogs as 'Irish Greyhounds'.

The second matter that necessitates explanation is the illustration in Taplin's work of 1803. Reinagle's illustration shows a dog which is of the present-day type of Irish Wolfhound. It is marked 'Irish Greyhound'! Yet Taplin, in the text, stated that he doubted if any of the old breed, as a pure breed, existed! Reinagle, therefore, had not seen an Irish Wolfhound!

It is possible that Reinagle drew the Scottish Deerhound, but Taplin, being none too scrupulous on such matters, having written nothing on Scottish dogs, but a little on Irish dogs, thought it expedient to change the title on the illustration.

But in the story of the Irish Wolfhound, the name of Hogan must always be connected. First of all, the Reverend gentleman made a prodigious research, and, secondly, apparently claimed, whenever he found the word dog, that it was the Irish Wolfhound. It was he that gave the oft repeated statement that Irish Wolfhounds were mentioned in very early Irish times, in that literature (the authenticity of which is doubted) which deals with Irish heroes. We read, for example, on Fraich receiving a present from his aunt of seven dogs, adorned with chains of silver, and a golden apple hung between them; of 300 hounds, so cunning that they were able to hunt a mythical wild boar. The Reverend Hogan claimed these dogs as Irish Wolfhounds! But his claims did not end there. He gave a list of kennel owners of Irish Wolfhounds. It starts with the name Aurelius Symnachus, and Mr. Richardson is, I believe, in the list, and certainly Captain Graham! Aurelius Symnachus, as a dog breeder and the owner of Irish Wolfhounds, in that list is one of the most astonishing things of such a nature that I have ever seen!

In 391 a.d. Symnachus, Roman Consul, is reported to have sent dogs to fight in the Amphitheatre in Rome! The Rev. Hogan had probably read Harris' work of 1764. Harris stated that although it was generally supposed that the dogs sent to Rome were Mastiffs (the dogs awed the people, who thought they must have come in cages), so they must have been Irish Wolfhounds, for such dogs 'must', he writes, 'have been finer dogs than the Mastiffs'.

But to return to the history of the breed. We find Captain Graham bringing out a dog named Brian, and he must have thought of that first show at Dublin, when he so anxiously had hoped to find the missing type. Brian was not a very large dog, for he stood only 30 inches at the shoulder. But his more noted Irish Wolfhound was Sheelah. She became a champion, but illustrations show her to have the appearance of a poor and badly bred Deerhound. But Captain Graham was more fortunate later, for he brought out Dermot Astore, and sold him in 1896. Dermot Astore was a very important dog in pedigrees.

These early exhibits were of an indifferent stamp, and it was not before O'Leary made his appearance (a dog bred by Mr. Crisp, of Playford Hall in Suffolk, the well-known breeder of Suffolk Punch horses) that a really good dog was seen. O'Leary was not only a good dog, but he was the sire of Killcullen. O'Leary and Killcullen may be said to have been the start of the famous breed.

The breed was yet uneven. There were many strange looking dogs, varying in type from the Greyhound to the Mastiff, exhibited in Irish Wolfhound classes, but it was evident that the breed was improving, and the number of misfits becoming less. It was about that time that an Irish fancier, who had heard so much of the famous breed, arrived in London. Passing through Covent Garden, he saw a puppy which was for sale. The dealer said he would take a sixpence for it. The Irishman, thinking that 6d. for a dog, whatever it might be, was cheap, bought it. The puppy grew up to be an Irish Wolfhound of a very good type. Later, the Irish owner refused £ 30 for the dog, and won many prizes with it.

In 1897 a Mr. F.M. Birtill sent to the Gloucester show a young dog named Wargrave, and put the selling price in the catalogue to be £ 25. The dog was recognised as one of the best Irish Wolfhounds yet seen, and was hurriedly claimed by many breeders. The dog was sold by public auction and made £47 5s. Wargrave was later the sire of Artara, one of the very best Irish Wolfhound bitches that has ever been seen. She was practically unbeatable. Wargrave was also the sire of Wolf Tone, one of the most important sires in the making of the breed.

In 1902 Captain Graham (who was still the president of the Club), and two other judges, were allotted the task of choosing an Irish Wolfhound to be presented to the Irish Guards in the name of the Irish Wolfhound Club. It is ironical, perhaps, that whilst Irish Setters and Irish Terriers are so distinctly Irish, the Irish Wolfhound which, as we have seen, has nothing much of Ireland about it except its name, should be the mascot of the Irish guards! Yet it well deserves the honour, for, as I have already stated, a more remarkable dog would be difficult to imagine.

Captain Graham was president of the Irish Wolfhound Club until 1908.


(c) 2007
Last Update: 13 Jan 2007