The Irish Wolfhound
Updated: May 10, 2020
The Irish Wolfhound, known as Cú Faoil in Irish (pronounced Koo-Fil), is the tallest breed of dog in the world. Originally, it was used in battle to pull enemy warriors from horse-back or chariot, and also for hunting wolves, after which it is named, wild boar, deer and some stories even say, the Giant Irish Elk.
It is a sight hound, which means it hunts by speed and sight rather than scent, as the bloodhound does. It is said that the Irish Wolfhound is the only dog fast enough to catch a wolf, and strong enough to kill it.
Apart from its great size, it has a distinctive shaggy rough coat, most commonly grey, but also brindle, red, black, white or wheaten. Its build is much like that of a greyhound, with a broad, deep chest, long lean powerful limbs, and a long neck with head held high, essential for its role as a sight hound.
When standing on its hind legs, it can reach over 7ft tall. It is said to be intelligent, easy-going and quiet-natured, and extremely loyal. Sadly, however, this gentle giant has a short life-span, averaging only 6-8 years.
Hunting wolves in ancient Ireland with the Cú Faoil. Wikimedia Commons.
The Cú Faoil has a long history, believed to have been brought to Ireland around 7000BC. When the Celts attacked Delphi in C3rd BC, survivors told fearful stories of the great hounds which fought alongside their masters.
Julius Caesar wrote of them in his account of the Gallic Wars. The Roman citizen Flavianus gifted seven of the hounds to his brother, the Roman Consul Symmachus, to fight bears and lions in the Games of AD391, and later wrote of them in a letter, ‘All Rome viewed them with wonder.”
In his History of Ireland, published in 1571, Edmund Campion describes the hounds used to hunt the wolves of Dublin and the Wicklow Mountains as ‘bigger of bone and limb than a colt’ (for those who don’t know, a colt is a young horse, sort of the teenager of the equine world).
So many of the hounds had been exported overseas to meet the demand of foreign nobles and royalty, that stocks in Ireland became seriously depleted, and Oliver Cromwell published a declaration in April 1652 to ensure sufficient numbers be maintained in Ireland to cope with the wolf population.
The last wolf in Ireland was said to have been killed in Co Carlow in 1786 by a pack of wolfhounds belonging to a Mr. Watson of Ballydarton. Whilst the wolf posed a serious problem to the safety of livestock, it’s shocking to think they could have been so wantonly hunted into extinction.
With the demise of the wolf, the need for the wolfhound itself decreased, and the breed was only revived in the mid 1800’s by Captain George Augustus, when he cross-bred the few remaining descendants with Deerhounds, Great Danes and mastiffs.
According to ancient Brehon law, ownership of the Cú Faoil was governed by status. Only the nobility were permitted to own the hounds; the Fili, a classification of bard and poet, was limited to the possession of only two hounds, for example. Contrast this with the legendary hero of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall, who famously loved the Irish Wolfhound; he was said to have owned in excess of five hundred!
There are many stories of the Irish Wolfhound in mythology. The most famous hounds are, without doubt, Fionn’s two favourites, Bran and Sceolán. They were brother and sister, of human descent, their poor mother, Tuirrean, (Fionn’s aunt) having been turned into a hound whilst she was pregnant by jealous Uchtdealb, woman of the Sidhe, and lover of Tuirrean’s husband.
They were said to have been so tall, that their heads reached chest height to a man. Bran was described as ‘ferocious, white-breasted, sleek-haunched, with fiery deep black eyes that swim in sockets of blood’. Sceolán was slightly smaller, ‘small-headed, with the eyes of a dragon, claws of a wolf, vigour of a lion, and the venom of a serpent’. They feature as prominently in the exploits of the Fianna as do the warriors themselves.
Equally well known, is the story of Cú Chulain. As the boy Setanta, Cú Chulain is set upon by Chulain’s favourite hound, and kills him by smashing his head against a rock. Chulain is distraught by the loss of his favourite hound, and Setanta offers to serve for a year in the hound’s place as faithful companion, guard, and hunter. He is known forever after as Cú Chulain, ‘the hound of Chulain’, and goes on to become one of Ireland’s most best-loved heroes.
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