Emerald Isle

The Man-Wolves of Ossory

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters

The moon callers who walked the forests of old Ireland, The Man-Wolves of Ossory

Ancient Ireland was said by some to have been plagued by a particularly large and fierce breed of wolf, and men would sometimes go to war with them, or call them to war alongside heroes and champions! They would even make so bold as to attack villages and towns, and a great pack of them assailed Coleraine in the year 1650.

To battle these fierce wolves of great cunning and speed were bred the Irish wolfhounds, a mighty breed of dog which can grow to the height of a man's shoulders. But older stories yet claim that wolfhounds weren't bred to hunt wolves at all, but a darker sort of beast which was part wolf and part man!

The ancient book written by Irish monks, Cóir Anmann or the Fitness of Names recounted the spoken histories of the druids and bards who remembered the lines of kings, and spoke of a prince called Laignech Fàelad, whose brother Feardach was the first king of Ossory, or Osraí.

His children and all the people of his tribe could from that day forward change themselves into wolfen form and raid the herds and homes of their enemies, going a'wolfing as it was known, devouring cattle and people with equal lust. It is for this reason that the wolfshead became the banner of Ossory of old.

And when an Ossorian lived as a wolf their human body lay still and cold at home as if though dead. When they were about to change into a wolf strict orders were given to friends not to touch or move the human body for if it was moved to a place where the returning spirit could not find it then the person was doomed to remain in wolf form for the rest of their life.

An even older legend recounts how three werewolf women came forth from a cave once a year during the harvest feast to slaughter sheep and other livestock, and who were finally lured to their doom by music, and massacred.

So seriously were these stories taken that they even came to the attention of the Vatican, and received the seal of Pope Urban III, perhaps the first ever tale of the werewolf recorded in Christendom!

For it was in 1182 that a priest by the name of Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, royal clerk to the British King was making his way from the north in Ulster down into Meath, as he was exploring the country and writing it all down in his Topographia Hibernica.

He stopped to rest for the night, and after darkness had wrapped itself about the world and the fire was burning down to embers, what should he hear but a gruff, throaty voice echoing out of the darkness, asking him to walk into the forest.

Well he would not and he was terrified out of his wits with it, but after he calmed down a bit he convinced the speaker to step forward into the light and be seen, and what should emerge but a mighty wolf of yellow fang and grey fur.

This wolf told Giraldus that he was an accursed son of the tribe of Ossory, who had been damned to send forth two of their number every seven years in the form of a wolf by Saint Natalis of Kilkenny, son of Aengus Mac Natfree king of Munster, six hundred years before! As wolves they would stay and live for seven years, until they returned home to be replaced by another couple.

Well when Giraldus heard this he was greatly troubled, for having read the writings of Natalis he knew him to be a strict and unbending man of God who would brook no deviation from his own interpretations of God's law. And of course being long dead, the curse could never be lifted.

The wolf who didn't give his name told the priest that his wife had been wounded by hunters, and was in her death throes not far off, and since they were both Catholics they'd like if he'd come and hear her last confession.

And so he went – after some persuasion – to a nearby cave and found a she-wolf, who spoke in turn, and gave her confession and received the viaticum before passing away. And when she did, she turned back into an old woman, to the astonishment of Giraldus.

Before he wrote to his Bishop and thence to the Pope, Giraldus reflected on the words of Saint Augustine, who also spoke of shapeshifters -

We agree, then, with Augustine, that neither demons nor wicked men can either create or really change their natures ; but those whom God has created can, to outward appearance, by his permission, become transformed, so that they appear to be what they are not; the senses of men being deceived and laid asleep by a strange allusion, so that things are not seen as they really exist, but are strangely drawn by the power of some phantom or magical incantation to rest their eyes on unreal and fictitious forms.

Although no wolf has walked the dark forests and remote hills of Ireland for many a long year, at least that we know of, still you can travel to where Ossory once stood, marked on the map below.

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