Emerald Isle

Irish Wolfhounds

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

Who hunts the hunters

The majestic Irish wolfhound, known as the Cú Faoil in Irish, famed in history and mythology, is one of the largest and strongest dog breeds in the world. It is certainly is one of the tallest, reaching over seven feet in height when standing on its hind legs!

As it was known in ancient times, the great Irish hound was held in such high regard that by ancient Brehon law only kings, chieftains and nobles were allowed to own them, or a poet could have two. If a dog was stolen, it might be cause for a battle or even a war, and they wore chains and collars of gold and silver, often being given to notables as valuable gifts.

They were used to protect property and livestock from thieves and predators, and if brought to battle would pull warriors down from chariots or horseback! Their ferocity in war was notorious, and the war-chief of the High King and leader of the Fianna, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, owned more than five hundred of them, three hundred adults who fought alongside his men as well as two hundred puppies.

As it was written in the legends, Fionn’s favourite hound, whose name was Conbec, could head off and bring back any elk in Ireland to Fionn’s feasts. It was said that “no hound but Conbec did ever sleep in the one bed with Finn.”

There was no beast they would not hunt, from wild boar to stag to giant Irish elk and even to wolves. It was said that Irish Wolfhounds were the only dogs fast enough to run down a wolf and strong enough to kill it afterwards, tracking mostly by sight and speed. And rumours persist that they hunted more than wolves, warriors and wild beasts in the dark and gloomy forests of ancient Ireland... they hunted creatures akin to wolves and men both!

The Cú Faoil originally came to Ireland about nine thousand years ago. When Celtic tribes attacked and laid waste to Delphi in the third century BC, horrified survivors spoke in hushed tones of the great hounds that had fought alongside their masters.

Julius Caesar wrote of them in his book, “Gallic Wars”, and the Consul Symmachus received seven of them as a gift from his brother at the end of the fourth century, which "all Rome viewed with wonder”.

Cú Chulainn got his name when he slew a mighty guard dog watching a smith's house and swore to take the dog's place until a replacement could be found. At that time it wasn't unusual for a king or hero to place the word cú, meaning “hound”, before his name, to show they were worth respecting.

Two of the most famous hounds in Irish mythology were Bran and Sceolán, among Fionn's favourites. Legends tell that they were originally human but their mother Tuirrean was turned into a hound by their father's jealous fairy lover.

They were so tall that their heads reached the height of a man's chest. Bran was described as “ferocious, white-breasted, sleek-haunched, with fiery deep black eyes that swim in sockets of blood”. Sceolán wasn't quite as large, being “small-headed, with the eyes of a dragon, claws of a wolf, vigour of a lion, and the venom of a serpent”.  Their adventures are told alongside those of the Fianna themselves, and with as much honour.

I will give thee a dog which I got in Ireland. He is huge of limb, and for a follower equal to an able man. Moreover, he hath a man’s wit and will bark at thine enemies but never at thy friends. And he will see by each man’s face whether he be ill or well disposed to thee. And he will lay down his life for thee.

From "The Icelandic Saga of Nial”

Their lithe bodies and slender heads were depicted in many places in Irish knotwork and decorative design, always ending in infinite interlacing convolutions. They featured on the coats of arms of early Irish kings, and remain strongly linked to the old Irish royal lines.

As to the enemy for which they were named – wolves were very common in old Ireland, stalking through the thick and almost impenetrable darkling forests and across misty moors. One of the reasons ring forts were built was to protect livestock from their depredations, and Brehon law insisted that they must be hunted. So many were they that the town of Coleraine was attacked by a giant pack of hungry wolves in the hard winter of 1650!

Travellers were attacked by packs of wolves near Lisburn and Drogheda around the same time, and some began to refer to Ireland as "Wolfland". As late as a century afterwards there were tales of marauding packs of wolves in Wexford and close to Cork.

Although they were considered to be evil creatures, wolves also formed an important part of early medicine, which involved eating a dish of wolf meat to prevent a person seeing phantoms, and sleeping with a wolf’s head under the pillow to prevent nightmares.

But many kingdoms of old had wolves without the need for wolfhounds – was there something deeper and darker yet abroad in the twilight of ancient Ireland?

The medieval script Cóir Anmann or “The Fitness of Names” contains mysterious tracts which speak of a shapeshifting Lord by the name of Laignech Fáelad, like the old Sidhe skinchangers, from whom sprung a line and clan of werewolves who hunted throughout the Kingdom of Osraí in the east and south of Ireland.

He would go a'wolfing, changing himself into the shape of a wolf to slaughter the herds and sometimes the families of his rivals, using ancient secrets passed down to the Gaelic peoples from those who came before, and who left their marks in the caves of continental Europe, shadowy cults that ruled the wilderness when the world was covered in ice.

A poem written in the thirteenth century about the Wonders of Ireland speaks of these fearful traditions...

De hominibus qui se vertunt in lupos

Sunt homines quidam Scottorum gentis habentes
Miram naturam majoram ab origine ductam,
Qua cito quando volunt ipsos se vertere possunt
Nequiter in formas lacerantum dente luporum,
Unde videntur oves occidere saepe gementes;
Sed cum clamor eos hominum seu cursus eorum
Fustibus aut armis terret, fugiendo recurrunt.
Cum tamen hoc faciunt sua corpora vera relinquunt,
Atque suis mandant ne quisquam moverit illa;
Si sic eveniat, nec ad illa redire valebunt.
Si quid eos laedat, penetrent si vulnera quaeque,
Vere in corporibus semper cernuntur eorum.
Sic caro cruda haerens in veri corporis ore,
Cernitur a sociis, quod nos miramur et omnes.

Which as translated by Professor Montague Summers in 1933, meant

There are certain men of the Celtic race who have a marvellous power which comes to them from their forebears.

For by an evil craft they can at will change themselves into the shape of wolves with sharp tearing teeth, and often thus transformed will they fall upon poor defenceless sheep, but when folk armed with clubs and weapons run to attack them shouting lustily then do they flee and scour away apace.

Now when they are minded to transform themselves they leave their own bodies, straitly charging their friends neither to move or touch them at all, however lightly, for if this be done never will they be able to return to their human shape again.

If whilst they are wolves anyone hurts or wounds them, then upon their own bodies the exact wound or mark can plainly be seen. And with much amaze have they been espied in human form with gobbets of raw bleeding flesh champed in their jaws.

The fourteenth century Book of Ballymote also speaks of “the descendants of the wolf” in Osraí, a clan who had the power to change themselves into strange beasts and hunt people by the carious light of the moon.

The Gaelic belief in werewolves may also be connected to the strange practices of the Fianna, who spent much of their time in the wilderness as roaming warrior bands on the fringes of society, living close to the world of the spirits. The donning of wolf-skins and masks could well have been part of a ritual transformation before they went into battle, calling themselves wolf-warriors or luchthonn, which meant “wolf skins”.

Against such dread creatures, most people would probably feel safer with a giant wolfhound at their side!

Although the last of the Irish wolves died out in 1786 at the teeth of a pack of wolfhounds, rumours still persist of strange doglike beasts crossing country roads late at night and howling in the most remote corners of Ireland. In 2012 some hikers in County Fermanagh reported a sighting of nothing less than prehistoric dire wolves in their rambling – stocky wolves with wide heads and short ears!

With the ending of the time of the wolf in Ireland, the need for wolfhounds also decreased and they almost followed their wild cousins into extinction. We owe their survival to the Scottish Deerhound breeder, Captain George Augustus Graham, who collected over three hundred pedigrees which he then published and bred.

Oliver Goldsmith wrote at the end of the eighteenth century, “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.”

Today the Irish wolfhound is one of the most cherished symbols of Ireland, representing Irish culture and tradition in a way that few others do, and you can meet a couple of live Irish wolfhounds at Bunratty castle on the map below!

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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