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The Irish Wolfhound - A Brief History
As time went on, the Celts were driven back into Brittany and the British Isles. Their gentle giants went with them. Ownership of these great hounds was highly restricted. They were sent as much-coveted gifts to emperors, kings, nobility and poets and their chains and collars were often of precious metals and stones.
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 mans wit and will bark at thine enemies but never at thy friends. And he will see by each mans 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)
They were held in such high esteem that when disputes arose over them, not only individual combats but full scale wars often occurred.
During the 3rd or 4th century, the famed Irish poet Ossian celebrated the mighty mythical warrior and huntsman, Finn, son of Cumall. Finn was chief of the High King Cormac, commander of the armies and master of the hounds - 300 adults and 200 puppies. According to legend, Finns favorite hound, Conbec, could head off and bring back any stag in Ireland to Finns main pack. It was said that no hound but Conbec did ever sleep in the one bed with Finn.
The ancient Irish word for hound is "cu". In those days, it was common for warriors and even kings to place the preface "Cu" in front of their names, the implication being that they were as worthy of respect as a cu. A well-known Irish epic is the legend of CuChulainn (koo-hoo-lin), perhaps the most famous of the old Irish heroes.
As the story goes, he came to the castle of a King, but his entrance was barred by a huge hound. He battled with the dog for a day and a night before he was finally able to kill it. Then, in typically Irish fashion, he was filled with remorse that he had been forced to slay so fine and noble a beast. To make it up to the King, he resolved to act as the King's hound for a year and a day, and so he came to be known as CuChulainn, "Hound of Cullain".
Another story involving the Irish Wolfhound took place in the 13th century. LLewelyn, Prince of North Wales, had a palace in Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, his faithful hound, who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyns return, the hound was stained and smeared with blood; joyfully, he sprang to meet his master. Alarmed, the Prince, hastened to check on his infant son. The cradle was empty and the bedclothes and floor were splattered with blood.
The frantic father plunged his sword into the hounds side, believing the hound had killed his beloved son. The Wolfhounds dying call was answered by the childs cry. Llewelyn searched and discovered his son, unharmed. But nearby the child, lay the bodies of several wolves, slain by Gelert. It's said that the the Prince was so consumed by remorse and shame, he never smiled again.
Hunting and fighting filled the life of the early Irish, and master and hound alike excelled in both hunting and on the field of battle. So it was not unusual that Irish Wolfhounds were so highly prized for their hunting prowess, particularly in pursuit of the wolf and the now extinct gigantic Irish elk, which stood about 6 feet tall at the shoulders. Historically they were referred to as "Irish Greyhounds," "the Greyhounds of Ireland," "the Great Hounds of Ireland," and "Big Dogs of Ireland." They were so popular that many of them were exported and by the 17th century, the breed was almost extinct. In fact, a directive was issued in 1652, banning the transportation, i.e. exportation, of Irish Wolfhounds from Ireland.
Writes Oliver Goldsmith in his 1770 Animated Nature, 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.
We owe the preservation of the breed to Scottish Deerhound breeder, Capt. George Augustus Graham, (1833-1909), a Scottish officer in the British army who collected the last remaining specimens and over a period of 23 years began a breeding program which re-established the Irish Wolfhound. Graham collected over 300 pedigrees which he then published. It was under his supervision that the first breed standard was set forth.
Today, of all the animals cherished in Ireland, dogs appear to be the most revered and of these, only the Irish Wolfhound appears as a symbol, at one time or another, on everything from jars of Tulamore Dew whiskey to every piece of Belleek Pottery. The Irish sixpence once featured the likeness of the international show champion - Finbarr. And, in 1983, Ireland commemorated her enduring love and homage for the breed she claims as her own, by issuing a postage stamp which featured the Irish Wolfhound.
There are hundreds of islands around the Irish coast. Achill is the biggest, the Arans the most romantic; Skellig Michael the most dramatic and Tory the most menacing - at least in legend. The Blaskets offer the most fertile ground for literature and Clare island is the most meticulously studied. But, whichever island you may visit, you can be sure each of them has its own superlative. For example, Little Skellig off St. Finian's Bay in Co. Kerry, is known for its gigantic colony of white seabirds called gannets.
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March 4, 2011
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